On a whirlwind cultural odyssey—from New York to London, Geneva, and Vienna—Paula Deitz turns from armchair traveler to a spectator of holiday traditions she has loved from afar
At home in New York, my husband and I always celebrated the Christmas holidays with music. He would make a list of recordings for each day during the holiday week. On Christmas Eve, we would settle down in our living room. Then, as if from a far corner of heaven, the angelic voice of a chorister would sound in the opening hymn of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols by the King’s College Chapel Choir in Cambridge. "Once in royal David’s city/Stood a lowly cattle shed..." As the music from the CD swelled with the descant of the boys’ voices, I wished I could go there someday and listen in the chapel itself.
A week later, my husband would lead me in a waltz around his study to the music of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual concert to bring in the New Year. Just before the music crescendoed into Johann Strauss’s "Blue Danube," the conductor, Willi Boskovsky, would offer New Year’s wishes, and again I would think of being there. As with most fantasies, the fulfillment of mine came as a surprise. On the Christmas Eve following my husband’s death, as I listened to a live broadcast of the King’s College Chapel Choir, I resolved that next year I would trade in my living room for theaters abroad—to join the audience at the public performances of those tradition-steeped programs on which we had built our private rituals.
I arrived in London the day before Christmas Eve to catch Patrick Stewart’s one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Luckily, I had given myself some extra time to get to the Albery Theatre. On the way through Chelsea streets decorated with puffs of blue light, I stopped by Somerset House, the great 18th-century pile, to watch skaters circling its immense courtyard turned ice rink, which was lit only by torches. The walk put me into the world of the play.
By nine the next morning, I was in line outside King’s College Chapel in Cambridge (an hour’s train ride from London). Already the queue of town and gown was reaching its maximum, but waiting was pleasant on that sunny day beside winter-flowering cherry trees dotting green lawns.
The tradition of choral singing at King’s College began with its founding in 1441 by Henry VI. The king stipulated that there be a choir of 16 boys, and there are 16 to this day, now bolstered by 14 choral scholars, attending the college. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was introduced to the college in 1918, after the Armistice, by a liturgically innovative dean.
My seat in the sanctuary was between the choir stalls and the altar with its Rubens masterpiece, The Adoration of the Magi. During the organ preludes, by the daylight that remained I studied the vaulting and the brilliant colors of the 16th-century Flemish stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the New and Old Testaments. A short period of quiet was broken by an unseen boy soprano singing the processional hymn, "Once in Royal David’s City." The volume of the choir, who entered dressed in white surplices over red cassocks, grew steadily as children and students moved through the candlelit chapel into their places in the stalls. The lessons proceeded all the way from the story of Adam and Eve to the mystery of the Incarnation, interspersed with ancient and modern carols.
At the conclusion, the chapel resounded with "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," with voices in descant rising seemingly to the full height of the 90-foot vault. I had anticipated the majesty of this ceremony, but not its spiritual reverberations.
From London I flew to Paris, spent Christmas with friends, then left for Geneva and the next event on my tour: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, staged by Benjamin Millepied. Attending George Balanchine’s classic staging at the New York City Ballet had been a family tradition, but I was keen to see this new version by Millepied, a principal dancer at NYCB and an up-and-coming choreographer.
Millepied had developed the production in collaboration with the noted Parisian children’s book author and illustrator Paul Cox, who designed the sets and costumes—and joined the crew: at each performance, Cox draws in a childish hand on a backstage computer to create the illustrated titles, which appear in real time as projections on the white stage curtain. When the curtain rises, the dancers arrive on skis—it is Switzerland, after all—for the Christmas party scene. The set’s yellow house is in the ideal form that almost every child draws—square, with a red roof and chimney, four-over-four windows, and blocky furniture. In this vision of the ballet, the Nutcracker becomes a frog who rallies the military defense against the mouse invasion before turning into a prince. Drosselmeyer, the toymaker, is a guiding force throughout and directs Clara and the prince to the enchanted kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
In Act II, the house is turned upside down, and Clara and the prince descend into a dreamlike, mirror-image world to find the perfect place for watching the spectacle to come: on the ceiling, amid piles of sweets. Millepied and Cox stress the tale’s sense of odyssey. The couple turn a globe to signal each national dance—Spanish, Russian, Chinese. The ballet is built upon fantasy, yet within that framework Millepied has created a version that seems more relevant and up-to-date than Balanchine’s nostalgic telling. Clara’s parents are young and overtly in love in their pas de deux in the first act, and at the end of the second, the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier reflects the love that Clara, on the cusp of maturity, discovers with her prince as they go off into the world.
When I arrived in Vienna there were deep drifts of snow along the Ringstrasse, the boulevard that defines the city’s historic and cultural center. Since 1939, when the Vienna Philharmonic first introduced a special concert of Johann Strauss’s music, the city has become a landmark for ushering in the New Year. The concert is performed three times: the mornings of December 30 (which I attended) and January 1, and the evening of December 31. The shoebox-shaped Golden Hall of the Musikverein is a gilded extravaganza, with 12 crystal chandeliers, and its acoustics are legendary. I had a seat onstage, directly behind the violins, with a straight-on view of conductor Mariss Jansons. There was a visceral quality to the music-making—the physical pull of bows across strings—and an almost inhuman perfection.
Although the program varies from year to year, its conclusion is always the same: as the strains of the "Blue Danube" begin, the audience breaks into applause; the music gracefully halts, and the conductor stops to offer New Year’s greetings. Then he and the orchestra again strike up the waltz, with a give-and-take that endows this evergreen with an exuberance that is unmistakably Viennese. I felt exhilaration—the pulse of the waltz?—but something deeper, too, as if I had arrived where I belonged.
Paula Deitz, editor of the Hudson Review, writes frequently on music and art.
WHERE TO STAY
NUMBER ELEVEN CADOGAN GARDENS
11 Cadogan Gardens; 44-20/7730-3426; www.number-eleven.co.uk; doubles from $521.
3 Rue Kléberg; 41-22/732-1530; www.hoteldalleves.ch; doubles from $232.
HOTEL SACHER WIEN
4 Philharmonikerstrasse; 800/223-6800; www.sacher.com; doubles from $464.
WHAT TO DO
New York City
GEORGE BALANCHINE’s THE NUTCRACKER
Lincoln Center; 212/870-5570; www.nycballet.com; through December 30.
SOMERSET HOUSE ICE RINK
The Strand, London; 44-20/7845-4600; www.somerset-house.org.uk; open through January 28.
KING’S COLLEGE CHAPEL FESTIVAL OF NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS
The public lines up early on December 24; those arriving before 9:30 a.m. generally gain admission. The doors open at 1:30 p.m.; the service begins at 3 p.m. The program is broadcast live on the BBC World Service and American Public Radio. King’s College, Cambridge; 44-12/2333- 1100; www.kings.cam.ac.uk
The Nutcracker, staged by Benjamin Millepied, will be performed again May 12–16, by the Ballet du Grand Théâtre. Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, 2 Places des Volontaires; to book, call 41-22/418-3000 or log on to www.geneveopera.ch.
VIENNA PHILHARMONIC NEW YEAR’S CONCERT
Tickets are awarded by lottery a year in advance. Requests for the 2007–2008 event will be taken this January 2–23 on the Philharmonic’s Web site. Musikverein, 12 Bösendorferstrasse; 43-1/505-6525; www.wienerphilharmoniker.at.