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Benjamin Epstein

Breath of Past, Wind of Future at Viennese Ball

April 29, 1986|Benjamin Epstein

"I don't think tonight's the time to announce our Pops series," said Pacific Symphony director Keith Clark, "so I won't tell you about Sarah Vaughan or Mel Torme, Shirley Jones, Dave Brubeck or Michel Legrand. . . ."

Clark's coy comment, the music and dances of Poland and a Swiss piano teacher from Bulgaria all added to an intriguing Saturday night at the Viennese Ball.

Much was authentically Viennese at the symphony's annual dinner-dance, including ball chairman Waltraut Jechart and the star of the evening, soprano Birgit Sarata.

The event attracted more than 350 to the Newport Beach Marriott, Jechart said; $40,000 was raised.

As to Clark's allusion to a fall pop schedule, he later declined to confirm for The Times any concert dates. But his cheerful offhand way of letting the news out was in keeping with the evening's tone.

If in years past there had been some underlying tensions at the affair, this year the mood was emphatically up . The reasons have more than a little to do with the Orange County Performing Arts Center, scheduled to open Sept. 29. Florence Schumacher, who serves on both the Pacific Symphony and Center boards, explained:

"Everybody's relaxed this year," Schumacher said. "The (Orange County Philharmonic Society) or whatever, everybody knows they've got their niche. They know they're going to perform. Now they can just go out and sell tickets."

"And people are buying tickets," added Schumacher's husband, Ed.

Indeed, according to Pacific Symphony founder Marcy Mulville, the orchestra has added a second performance for each of its eight concerts at the Center in order to accommodate ticket demands. "We've already sold 4,600 (series subscriptions)," Mulville said. "The Center only holds 3,000."

After cocktails in the Atrium, the evening formally began with a performance of the Polonaise, a processional dance originating in Poland, by symphony supporters.

"Probably the first and last time you'll see it," ventured ball committee president Peggy Cotton. By way of accompaniment, the pianist from Murray Korda's Monseigneur String Orchestra took a stab at Chopin's famous Polonaise in A.

"I could go for a disco right now," commented Madeleine Zuckerman.

Cotton just returned from a month in Vienna.

"We won the free trip to Vienna at last year's ball and finally ended up taking it," Cotton explained. "I'm full of Viennese spirit."

Jechart welcomed the guests-- "Guten Abend, meine Damen und Herren" --and introduced Clark, who waxed poetic about springtime in Vienna, where he lived for seven years.

Clark recalled Ferris wheels, the empress' summer palace and flowers growing on the hillsides, then he mixed metaphors in an effort to draw parallels to his orchestra: "It's as if our orchestra were winter wheat that struggled to be born. As it grew in the cold of winter, it gained strength. Now, after a long winter, seven years of building, it's blossoming forth as those flowers on the hills of Vienna."

Clark also drew parallels from history.

"Great music and great composers have always thrived and flourished with the support of glittering aristocracy," he said. "Bach had his Margrave of Brandenburg, Beethoven his Count Waldstein, Wagner his crazy King Ludwig . . . and we have you. . . ."

The glitterati settled in to one of the best-prepared dinners at the Newport Beach Marriott in memory. Included were oxtail soup en croute , roast rack of veal with morels and a Viennese torte.

For their entertainment, Bulgarian Nikolai Popov from Bern performed the Minuet in G by Paderewski and the Fantaisie-Impromptu of Chopin, both reticently. "The pianist seemed to be . . . shy," noted Austrian Consul General Nikolaus Scherk. Robert Popov arranged for his cousin Nikolai's performance.

Soprano Birgit Sarata, who replaced ailing Renate Holm, could not have been more opposite.

Rosy-cheeked and robust, blond, smiling and animated--a breath of Vienna spring--she was perfectly suited to the literature she performed, which included selections from operettas by Lehar and Stolz.

According to Sarata, this is her second Viennese Ball this month.

"I have made also a ball at Tunis," she confided later in her thick Austrian accent. "Tunis! The first time an opera ball there, 23 ministers of culture, and I was the star. But only for dinner and drinking, not for charity."

Rose Smedegaard said she and her husband, Norm, wouldn't enter the waltz contest that crowned the evening. Norm, who is rather tall, explained: "By the time the signal gets (from up here to) down there, it's too late," he said.

"He can tango, though," said Rose. "Don't ask me why--there's always a little mystery to people."

Rose Smedegaard unconsciously referred to the contest as "the Vietnamese competition," but she wasn't the only one who couldn't keep her countries straight.

"I keep saying, 'It's Viennese, Viennese!' " said Karen Hardin, laughing. "But my husband keeps right on calling it the Vietnamese Ball."

Joyce and Don Olson won the waltz contest for the third time.

Meanwhile, guests tried to figure out who the woman was sitting on a chair on stage the entire evening. "She must be the ball chair- woman," Len Zuckerman quipped. (Reports are that she eventually sang a song with the orchestra.)

Charles and Carolyn Paap found distinctive yard-high vases for the centerpieces. "No fires!" said Charles Paap proudly. (Last year, votive candles in Paap's centerpieces had to be snuffed by local firefighters.)

"Aristocracy" at the event included Pacific Symphony board chairman Ray Ikola, board president Michael Gilano and Center board chairman William Lund.

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