When he takes the podium for the New Year’s Concert 2021 with the Vienna Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti emphasizes that he and the orchestra will present the traditional event “as a message not only of music, but also of hope, la speranza.”  As usual, the annual concert will be performed at Vienna’s historic Musikverein, but this year, without an audience, due to the pandemic. “We need to have hope. The Musikverein without music would be like a grave,” Muti said. “It’s so important in this hall to send this message of peace, of hope.”

The music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Muti spoke at an online press conference Dec. 29 at the Musikverein, along with Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic; Stephan Pauly, director of the Musikverein, and Alexander Wrabetz, director general of ORF, Österreichischer Rundfunk, the Austrian broadcaster that has presented this concert annually since 1959. Regarded as the largest annual worldwide event in classical music, the concert reaches millions via radio, television and online outlets in more than 90 countries. This year will mark Muti’s sixth time as maestro of the New Year’s event, which he previously led in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2018.

As part of its “Great Performances” series, PBS will broadcast the concert, titled “From Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration 2021” nationally on Jan. 1 — in Chicago, at 8 p.m. over WTTW-Channel 11, with a repeat Jan. 6 at 1:30 a.m. Beginning on Jan. 2, the concert will be streamed on pbs.org/gperf and the PBS Video app. In addition, the concert will be broadcast locally on WFMT-FM (98.7 and wfmt.com) on Jan. 1 at 10 a.m. (Please reconfirm times with your local listings.)

British actor Hugh Bonneville returns as host for the fourth time. He will emcee the concert remotely from England’s Goodwood House, the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and Gordon.

At the Musikverein, Riccardo Muti leads the Vienna Philharmonic in a rehearsal for their New Year’s Concert 2021, which will broadcast worldwide. | Photo: ©Dieter Nagl/Vienna Philharmonic

Since 1971, Muti has maintained a close relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, appearing so far with the ensemble 550 times. The bond between the maestro and the orchestra was cemented when Muti received an honorary membership in 2011. “This Golden Hall [the Musikverein’s main auditorium] is truly one of your artistic homes,” said Pauly of Muti’s history with the venue. “You are part of the heart of this institution.”

Reflecting on the catastrophic toll that the pandemic has taken on the arts world, Pauly added, “The whole community of classical music has been thrown into an unforeseen crisis. That’s why we’re so grateful that the New Year’s Concert will proceed.” Pauly hopes it’s a portent that “live music will return in near future.”

Though he has continued to lead concerts occasionally in his native Italy during the pandemic, Muti also addressed the crushing impact of the public-health crisis. “We never thought we would be in a situation like this,” he said. Muti compared the empty halls worldwide to scenes from “a horror movie, with cities completely empty. … But we cannot abandon music, theater, culture, even in a pandemic.”

Later in the press conference, the mood turned lighter. When asked about the difference between his New Year’s Concert debut in 1993 and now, Muti quipped: “I was younger.” But for a conductor, the annual performance is “one of the most difficult of assignments,” he said. “People think it is easy. No, it needs a good pilot.”

An engraving of Franz von Suppé, circa 1881. | Photo: Wikimedia

Muti stressed the challenge of a non-Viennese such as himself leading the orchestra in this distinctly Viennese repertoire. “I thought I could only do damage, but the musicians helped me, the concert took place and then I could relax,” he said of his first New Year’s Concert in 1993. “No one can say it’s ever easy, having to play before millions of people. It’s difficult for the orchestra and the conductor. People think this is a walk in the park. But it’s not.”

This year’s concert begins with a work not previously performed by the Vienna Philharmonic: the third-act march from Franz von Suppè’s operetta Fatinitza. Born in the Kingdom of Dalmatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of Croatia, Suppè went to study in Padua and also visited Milan, where he met Italian operatic masters Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi. Though he spent most of his creative life in Vienna, “Suppè once declared that he felt half-Italian,” Muti said. “His works are full of musical elements of the Italian operatic world, but also have a melodic part that’s typically Austrian. His music is an example of two nations always together in friendship.

“It is a good sign that musicians have united Europe more so than politicians,” Muti said. “Music is an element that unifies us, and so Suppè is an expression of both countries.” He praised the composer as an example of “something of Vienna I have absorbed” during his nearly 50-year experience in the city. “I’m grateful for what Austria has given to us.”

The program for the 2021 New Year’s Concert:

Franz von Suppè, Fatinitza* (march)
Johann Strauss II, Schallwellen* (Sound Waves), Op. 148 (waltz)
Johann Strauss II, Niko-Polka, Op. 228
Josef Strauss, Ohne Sorgen (Without a Care), Op. 271 (fast polka)
Carl Zeller, Grubenlichter* (Davy Lamps) (waltz)
Carl Millöcker, In Saus und Braus* (Living It Up) (galop)
Franz von Suppè, Overture to Dichter und Bauer (Poet and Peasant)
Karl Komzák, Bad’ner Mad’ln* (Girls of Baden), Op. 257 (waltz)
Josef Strauss, Margherita,* Op. 244 (polka)
Johann Strauss I, Venetianer Galopp* (Venetian Galop), Op. 74
Johann Strauss II, Frühlings stimmen (Voices of Spring), Op. 410 (waltz)
Johann Strauss II, Im Krapfenwald’l (In Krapf’s Woods), Op. 336 (polka française)
Johann Strauss II, Neue Melodien Quadrille (New Melodies Quadrille), Op. 254
Johann Strauss II, Kaiserwalzer (Emperor Waltz), Op. 437
Johann Strauss II, Stürmisch in Lieb’ und Tanz* (Tempestuous in Love and Dance), Op. 393 (fast polka)

*Debut performance by the Vienna Philharmonic

TOP: Riccardo Muti (right) and Daniel Froschauer, chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, at the virtual press conference for the New Year’s Concert 2021.| Photo: © Dieter Nagl/Vienna Philharmonic