Except for the closing credits of It’s a Wonderful Life, you don’t hear the old drinking song Auld Lang Syne much anymore, even at New Year’s. Most of the national televised celebrations drown it out, but there was a time when people really knew this song, understood its message of loss and conviviality, and sand it with gusto.
In one of those odd twists of cultural fate, concertgoers are now more familiar with the Viennese tradition, thanks to decades of Willi Boskovsky broadcasts on PBS. Viennese New Year’s concerts by the Strauss Symphony Orchestra are scheduled in West Palm Beach (Friday) and Miami (Saturday) and each of them will focus on the traditions of the annual Austrian concerts: lots and lots of Johann Strauss II, and for the finale, the Blue Danube Waltz and the Radetzky March of Johann Strauss I, a catchy little number that celebrates the Austrian commander who was a hero of one or another of the many battles of the war-torn year of 1848.
Everyone claps along, just as they always have, and it’s just as odd as people getting excited about the 1812 Overture, and hearing the cannon fire as the Imperial Russian anthem flattens the French anthem and by implication, the armies of Napoleon.
But people really enjoy it, and it’s fun partly because it’s a foreign tradition. There’s something exciting about seeing something exotic and formal, and the tunes, to be honest, are always very attractive, no matter how many times you’ve heard them.
Still, if we wanted a New Year’s classical concert that was more homegrown, more in tune with the life of South Florida, what would be on the program? In the first place, I think you’d have to have the New World Symphony give the concert (the Miami SO would be good, too, though they’re already doing their own Viennese-themed concert this year, on Jan. 17 at the Knight Concert Hall).
You’d need music that was attractive, evocative of local life and mostly dance-like, if you could do it. I think one given would be the Cuban Overture of George Gershwin, written at a time when Cuba was more like a U.S. possession, and full of high spirits, colorful percussion and driving rhythm. Sure, it’s tourist music, but it’s also a lot of fun and weirdly neglected by American orchestras.
Frederick Delius’ Florida Suite would have to find its way onto the program somehow, too, or at least parts of it. This, too, is tourist music, from an Englishman who worked an orange grove in the 1880s near what is now Palatka. It’s lovely music, Wagnerian though it is, but authentically inspired by Florida life.
As most of the Viennese concert is dances of one kind or another, we need some good dances to while away the time while we sip our champagne and wait for the big moment. I think the 19th-century New Orleans-born pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk is good for this, and here we could hear several of his dances evoking life in Cuba (Ojos Criollos), Puerto Rico and other places, and the American South (The Banjo). It doesn’t strike very deep, but it’s charming, often delightful music, and would set a festive musical table.
We could also hear some music from more contemporary composers, like one or two of the faster Urban Dances of Richard Danielpour, who grew up in Palm Beach County, or Celebration, an orchestral opener by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who’s from Miami. That’s a lot of music already, but it all has some Florida overtones, and that’s what we’re looking for.
Any ideas about what other kinds of music we could offer on a Florida-style New Year’s concert? List them below.