Julie Andrews in Austria: hardly an unfamiliar sight, both in movie history and now on New Year’s Day.
The Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winner filmed one of her most famous roles in that country, Maria in the 1965 screen classic “The Sound of Music.” Along with her elegant and cultured image, that made her a natural to succeed the late Walter Cronkite as host of PBS’ traditional “Great Performances” broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic’s holiday concert, and she’ll fill that role for the fourth time when “From Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration 2013” airs at 8 tonight.
“I love doing it,” the ever-gracious Andrews says of the special staged at the internationally renowned Musikverein. “The PBS people are very nice, they do this with class and style, and we do something different every year. It’s always a learning curve for me, going to new places and finding out about them. And of course, the music is lovely.”
The program’s soundtrack always includes a generous dose of compositions by the Strauss family, conducted this time by Franz Welser-Most, current musical director of the Vienna State Opera. On the bill are such all-time favorites as “The Blue Danube Waltz” and “The Radetzky March,” along with such other varied selections as “Music of Spheres,” “Where the Lemon Trees Bloom” and “Runners Quick Polka.”
“It’s always a surprise,” Andrews notes of each year’s musical menu, “and I’m amazed at how much. There are the Strausses, then there will be Haydn or somebody else whose anniversary it is, or something by Mozart will be put in.
“But Strauss? Oh, my. When I was very, very young and in vaudeville, I would belt out those numbers and do all the coverage lyrically. If you want to go online and have one hoot of a laugh, I think my doing “The Blue Danube” at age 15 is there. It’s just out of the stratosphere, and I’m surprised these days that I ever managed it.” (Hear it for yourself on YouTube.)
Since assuming the hosting duties of the New Year’s Day concert, Andrews has been absent only once – in 2011, when she was mourning the death of her husband, filmmaker Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther,” “Victor/Victoria”). “They sweetly understood,” she recalls, “and they very kindly asked me back the year after.”
For the first day of 2013, the event will give Andrews an extra job: interviewer, since she’ll talk with Welser-Most about the 200th anniversaries of the births of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, obviously music legends in their own right ... and, making their inclusion in the program appropriate, both favorites of Johann Strauss.
“I hope [the special’s producers] will guide me toward what they hope to get answered,” Andrews says. “I could probably blather on, but it’s better if I know what they’d like to elicit from the maestro. The actual concert is beamed throughout the world, but America has its own version of this wonderful postcard of Vienna and everything about it.”
The stately Musikverein surely is one of those things, and Andrews calls the venue “quite wondrous, this huge and immaculate place. And with some of the castles and churches and museums, it’s quite something to go into them and see things like the stone that was used and the beauty of how people must have lived in those days.
“There was one day,” Andrews adds, “when I was, in fact, standing on the balcony of the Great Palace looking out over the huge square of Vienna. And they told me, ‘You’re standing exactly where Hitler stood when he came into Vienna.’ I honestly got chills throughout my body, to be standing on the same stones and looking at the same scene he must have. It was quite something.”
Indeed, Andrews considers a real bonus of the yearly concert to be “learning about history while I’m doing it. I’m fascinated with the various emperors and how, between them all, they tied up Europe in one way or another.”
Andrews’ latest trip to Vienna puts the coda on a very active period for the veteran talent who earned her Academy Award in the title role of Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”
While spending the last weeks of 2012 promoting her latest children’s book – the series-ending “Little Bo in London,” co-written with daughter Emma Walton Hamilton – Andrews directed a play at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, “The Great American Mousical,” a work in progress based on another of her books with Hamilton. Plus, she performed in a benefit for the L.A. Philharmonic, on whose board of directors she now serves.
Still, New Year’s Day has very particular meaning for Andrews, thanks to a tradition she’s pleased to carry on from Cronkite. “I adored him,” she says, “and I was thrilled when they thought I might be a worthy successor. And I hope I’m doing him proud.”