A closer look at the Vienna Philharmonic and the New Year’s Concert, its most important event of the year

A curious thing, tradition. On the first day of the year in Vienna – provided you don’t sleep all day after the excesses of the previous eve – you turn on the TV at 11:15 and watch the live broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic playing the New Year’s Concert. Even the average citizen who would never dream of going to a classical music concert does. One might say with confidence that few Viennese have never seen it. And for the city’s foremost orchestra, it is the most important event of the year.

It has a discrete glamour, something quite Viennese in itself. This certainly radiates from the setting – the golden Großer Saal (Great Hall) of the Musikverein. But it is also thanks to the exclusivity of the tickets, the prominence of (some of) the audience, the renown of the orchestra and the charm of the music. In addition, it is Austria’s marketing event of the year: Broadcast in 90 countries across the globe, it has an estimated 50 million viewers.

The program is lightweight, a sort of “orchestral top of the pops” – waltzes, polkas, marches, quadrilles. It’s the music that was behind the dancing rage at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, and then marked Vienna’s love affair with the operetta through the rest of that century: works by the Strauß dynasty (Johann Sr. and his sons) and their popular contemporaries – Lanner, Lehar, Suppé, Stolz, Ziehrer.

Vienna Philharmonic
The Großer Saal of the Musikverein is noted for its glowing gold interior and superior acoustics. // © Milenko Badzic/First Look/picturedesk.com

Elysian Halls

For nearly four decades, only three different conductors led the famous concert. In 1987, the Vienna Philharmonic chose a new approach: a different international conducting legend every year. This in turn spawned a new tradition – announcing next year’s conductor at the end of the concert, catering to star appeal and adding another level of glam.

The star of 2017 will be Gustavo Dudamel, the 35-year-old Venezuelan power conductor. With flying black curls and super-smile energy, he will be the youngest conductor ever to lead the concert.

The Großer Saal is a legend in itself. In spite of massive amounts of gold, subtly contrasted with muted cinnabar, the hall does not glitter; it glows. Its 32 gilded caryatides, standing silently on either side of the hall, have listened in gorgeous neoclassical, bare-breasted femininity to nearly 150 years of music.

The sound of the hall, loved by audience and musician alike, has been used as a point of reference in countless studies on acoustics. For over 40 years, the late MIT professor Leo Beranek analyzed and rated great concert venues around the world. Invariably, the Großer Saal topped the list. Its shoebox shape – narrow and rectangular with a flat floor and high, flat ceiling – gives music power, depth and brilliance. As the conductor Bruno Walter said of the Großer Saal: “I had not realized sound could be so beautiful.”

Vienna Philharmonic
As Austrian as Apfelstrudel, the Neujahrskonzert is a cherished tradition for locals, who watch it to ring in the new year. // © Milenko Badzic/First Look/picturedesk.com

A year in the making

“As soon as the last note of the New Year’s Concert fades away,” says Florian Wieninger, one of the orchestra’s two archivists, “work for the next concert gets started.” First the pieces are chosen by the new conductor and the Philharmonic’s Chairman, currently first violinist Andreas Großbauer.

While recurring standards are always included, some new and unusual works also have to be in the program of about two dozen pieces. There are lots of places to find them, says Wieninger: in lists of composers’ works, or even “obscure recordings on YouTube.”

“For us archivists, the New Year’s Concert requires the most intensive work,” he explains. “For rare pieces, often no printed parts exist.” So the research begins: going to libraries, looking for first editions, for manuscripts, for long-lost leaves of melodies. Then “zizerlweise,” a bit at a time, new arrangements are written, scores produced, orchestra parts coordinated. It’s a year’s work.

The beginnings of Vienna’s New Year’s Day tradition were not particularly auspicious: The first such concert was in 1939, the year after Austria’s “Anschluss” with Germany, amidst the early stages of what was becoming the Holocaust and World War II. It was designed to raise funds and increase the morale of soldiers on the front.

Long forgotten or ignored, these Nazi origins were brought back to light and made public a few years ago. It failed to sully today’s beloved event. If truth be told, one might also question the Radetzky March, the concert’s traditional final encore, which was written to commemorate a bloody Austrian battle victory in 1848. But it remains untouchable – the audience would feel cheated if they didn’t have that last chance to clap along.

The Select Few

The only way to buy a ticket is through an online lottery on the Vienna Philharmonic website – you can register for the 2018 concert sweepstakes between Jan 2 to Feb 28.

Good luck! With an average of 200,000 requests every year, odds are slim of winning the chance to buy one of the 900 tickets ranging from €35 to €1090. About 700 additional seats are reserved for special guests. The only guaranteed seat is for the President of Austria, who usually treats an illustrious dignitary. Last year,  it was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

For the fortunate ticket holders, it is a splendid affair. Apparel isn’t prescribed; it is only requested you don’t wear sneakers. But cameras are rolling and the lights are bright: It might be good to look your best.

The program for this year is still a well-kept secret. Wieninger knows, but he’s not telling. We will just have to follow tradition and tune in on TV.

New Year’s Concert live broadcast (updated for 2018):

Jan 1, 11:15
(ORF 2 & Radio Ö1)
TV repeat broadcasts:

Jan 1, 20:15 (ORF III)
and Jan 6, 10:00 (ORF II), and 20:15 (3SAT)