Vienna philharmonic heard around the world

The Vienna Philharmonic rung in 2017 with its famed New Year's Concert on Sunday under the baton of the orchestra's youngest-ever conductor, charismatic Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel.

Vienna philharmonic heard around the world
Gustavo Dudamel. Photo: ORF

The 35-year-old, who currently leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic, follows in the footsteps of giants such as Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta.

“An incredible honour to lead this year's New Year's Concert,” Dudamel tweeted hours before the glittering event, broadcast live in more than 90 countries and watched by millions of people.

The annual “Neujahrskonzert” held inside the Great Hall of the exalted Musikverein in Vienna is largely dedicated to the 19th-century Strauss composer family.

The 2017 programme twirled through waltzes, polkas and marches before ending with the legendary Radetzky March by the elder Johann Strauss.

The finale also featured the much-loved Blue Danube by his son Johann Strauss, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary next month.

But every edition also has some variety and this year's non-Strauss pieces included Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor.

At one point, the lighthearted event saw a group of young ballet dancers burst into the gilded hall and pirouette their way through the seated public.

The orchestra meanwhile was dressed by fashion super star Vivian Westwood and her Austrian-born husband Andreas Kronthaler.

At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour show, a visibly elated Dudamel received a standing ovation, including from Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz who was among the many personalities in attendance.

“(Conducting the Blue Danube) means now I can die in peace,” the maestro had euphorically told a press conference in Vienna on Thursday.

Shortly after Sunday's performance, the Vienna Philharmonic announced that a familiar face will return to the stage for the next edition — Italian great Riccardo Muti who will conduct the concert on January 1, 2018 for the fifth time.

The event started life on December 31, 1939, under the Nazis but in the subsequent years these dark beginnings were forgotten and it gradually became a regular highlight in the classical music calendar.

In the 1980s after the 25-concert reign of Austrian Willi Boskovsky and six-times American successor Lorin Maazel — who died this year — it was decided to have a different conductor each year.

Due to extremely high demand, tickets for the concert are drawn by lottery at the beginning of each year.

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‘Mahleresque’: Austrian orchestra performs AI-written symphony

Can artificial intelligence turn out symphonies to match one of the greats of classical music?

'Mahleresque': Austrian orchestra performs AI-written symphony
Photo: DPA

That was the question posed by one unusual orchestra performance in the Austrian city of Linz on Friday, in which Gustav Mahler's unfinished Symphony No.10 was played — immediately followed by six minutes of “Mahleresque” music written by software. 

The project's creator says that the two are clearly distinguishable but not everyone in the audience agreed.

“I couldn't really feel the difference… I believe it was really well done,” Maria Jose Sanchez Varela, 34, a science and philosophy researcher from Mexico, told AFP.

The performance was part of Linz's Ars Electronica Festival, which aims to highlight connections between science, art and technology.

The brains behind the pioneering performance was AI researcher and composer Ali Nikrang, who works at the Ars Electronica Futurelab research centre affiliated with the festival. He used the open-source AI software MuseNet to write the music.

“It all sounds like music, there are emotions, but someone who really knows Mahler will notice immediately that it is not Mahler,” Nikrang told AFP, admitting Mahler's typical “harmonic expressions” were not quite there yet.

He said AI learned from “data from the past, from data left to us by Mahler” so it may be able to create an exact copy of Mahler, but it still could not come up with a “concept” or overall theme for the music the way the classical composer himself did.

But Nikrang says that AI has nevertheless made great strides. Working with the first 10 notes of Mahler's Symphony No. 10, the software gave him four suggested segments, out of which he chose one, following which it continued giving him four more segments and so on.

In all, Nikrang evaluated a few dozen pieces before choosing what spectators heard on Friday.

“All the suggestions were quite good… That is not obvious with AI, at least given the state of the technology five months ago” Nikrang said, adding that MuseNet had enabled a jump in quality. Christine Schoepf, the Ars Electronica festival's co-director, said that back when she took part in the very first edition 40 years ago, “of course we couldn't have guessed what would happen with AI”.

“The fact it would progress in such quick steps wasn't foreseeable,” she said. –

Lacking 'emotional depth'

Experts say the project highlights interesting questions.

“This is of course really exciting,” said Aljoscha Burchardt of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).

“One wonders whether the machines are so smart that they can accomplish great music, or whether the music wasn't such a great accomplishment after all?,” Burchardt asks.

“Maybe the pieces followed a graspable logic that in the past only very good composers knew, and now a machine can do it. That's the question,” he told AFP.

With computers churning out work at a speed composers cannot compete with, prices could drop, but on the other hand — just as in other fields where “hand-made” commands more prestige — artists who write their music without software could be able to charge a premium, Burchardt said. Machines also still needed humans to guide them, Austrian music expert Christian Scheib said.

“Even with highly-complex AI, it depends on the artistic quality and skills of the respective composer,” he told AFP. And of course, AI isn't yet able to explain its projects to journalists either.

As Nikrang predicted, some spectators noticed when AI took over the composition in Friday night's performance.

One of them, Manuela Klaut, said: “I somehow thought suddenly: 'Ah, it is getting a bit more arbitrary' or something like that'.” But she admitted that it was hard to pinpoint what exactly changed, and the overall performance was still “great”.

“I felt slightly that the emotional depth that you have in a Mahler composition was missing, maybe also the melancholy,” the 39-year-old from Germany told AFP.