Montreal’s Vienna Ball in honour of Gustav Mahler

The 52nd Austrian Ball took place in Montreal this week honouring the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.The Austrian Ball of Montreal for just over half a century has celebrated the splendor of the Viennese ball tradition during a magical evening with wonderful waltzes, elegant atmosphere, and charming debutantes, while raising funds for worthy causes. Each year the city’s preeminent social gathering of Montreal’s upper crust, is also a charity event which celebrates a different aspect of Austria’s rich and varied cultural history is chosen as the theme of the ball.This year, the ball was dedicated to Gustav Mahler, the Czech born, Austrian composer-conductor whose pioneering orchestral techniques influenced and revolutionised 20th century music. Music lovers worldwide are celebrating him over a two year period: 2010 would mark his 150th birthday, 2011 the 100th anniversary of his death.Mrs. Elizabeth Wirth, a past president of the Montreal Ball’s organising committee, said the ball began with only Austrians attending (or those of Austrian heritage and background who immigrated to Canada). She added: “It later became one of the main social events of the Montreal ball season.”The event then opened to a much larger segment of society. And indeed, an elegant and eclectic mix of Montreal’s social circles (ranging from the corporate world to academia) and nearly all the professions were represented at this year’s ball.The original Viennese Balls were first held in the Austrian capital’s aristocratic palaces. At the time these social gatherings were rather sedate affairs. Guests danced minuets, gavottes, polonaises and other such dances which involved very little or hardly any body contact. With the advent of the waltz , it however brought to Vienna and thereafter to the rest of the world a new style of ballroom dancing which was at first considered “exceedingly immoral”.In 1787, Johann Count Fekete described these types of dances as “…wild and and immoral”. He added: “The women behaved in Bacchanalian manner [somewhat debauched], and all innocence-fled from the place.” And the Duke of Devonshire declared unequivocally: “I would never marry a woman who dances the waltz!”Luckily for today’s debutantes and their dancing partners such strict social conventions have changed. In fact, fun and the potential for budding romance is an essential part of a Viennese Ball these days. The one held in Montreal was, of course, no exception.Throughout the nineteenth century, such balls became the order of the day at Fashing (Carnival) time for all levels of society. Everyone from the gentry, bourgeoisie, all the way through to professional guilds and associations of all kinds (waiters, chimney sweeps, pastry chefs, hat-makers, detectives, flower girls even chamber maids etc.) organised such balls around carnival season. There were also balls exclusively reserved for jurists, lawyers, engineers, and of course later on firemen. One of the liveliest and merriest of all Viennese balls was, “The laundry Maids’ Ball”.  The ball in Canada this week a world away took place at the Hotel Marriott Château Champlain under the distinguished patronage of the Austrian Ambassador to Canada, Werner Brandstetter ( who regretfully was unable to attend) and the Austrian Consul General in Montreal, Ulrike Billard. The Guest of Honor was the great Canadian humanitarian, Lieutenant-General and Senator, the Honorable Roméo Dallaire. Cultural officials from Vienna and Montreal City Halls also attended, as well as members of Vienna’s Press Service which supports Viennese balls worldwide.For me, it was quite a sight to watch the Canadian general outfitted in full formal attire and military medals (including the order of Canada cross), waltz with Madame Ulrike Billard, on the dance floor. This scene was almost like a flashback, or as if it took place during to the splendid days of the Austro-Hungarian empire; or those times associated with the imperial court of Franz Joseph. At my table there were two lovely ladies who were apparently regulars at these functions. The both told me their reasons for coming to this event. “It’s a wonderful, glamorous, night out.. and I just think it’s a wonderful spectacle,” Micaela tells me. ” I enjoy the ball, as many people come here. There’s a new mix each time,” says Suzanne who has been steadfastly true to the ball, or in attendance for many years.The head table guests Ball President Harold Scheer and Mrs. Ewa Dorynek-Scheer,President of the Austrian Society of Montreal Peter Hill and Mrs. Evelyn Schindler-Hill, Vienna Municipal Counsellor responsible for Culture and representative of the Mayor of Vienna, Mr. Ernst Woller and Madame Monika Erb, Madame Helen Fotopulos, Member of the Executive Committee of the City of Montreal, responsible for Culture, Heritage, Design and Status of Women and Mr. Nicholas Voiekoff.They all entered, in a procession manner, the ballroom to the tune of Johann Strauss Sr.’s “Radetzky March” and the opening waltz had guests dancing to Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Blue Danube Waltz”. The 16 debutantes in identical white gowns and glittering coronets were officially presented that extraordinary evening. Graduate students of McGill’s Schulich School of Music sang the national anthems of both Canada and Austria, and a variety of Mahler [i]Lieder [/i]( from his song cycle) were interpreted by Armine Kassabian ( mezzo-soprano) and Philippe Sly (baryton-basse) both from Opera Mcgill and accompanied on piano by Maria Fuller, also from Mcgill University. The Joseph Greenstone Orchestra, alternated with the Peter Freeman Band, played music for traditional and modern ballroom dancing which mixed the tunes of George and Ira Gershwin with Bossa Nova classics.The Grand door Prize at the event was two plane tickets to the beautiful city of Vienna (won by happenstance by a charming young couple sitting at my table), courtesy of Vacances Transat. A silent auction was opened throughout the evening offered exciting prizes, from helicopter skiing, resort stays, art, dinners, spas, to great trips and even beer for a year. Guests also tried their luck at the Casino in the Salle Viger; the “Heuriger” wine tavern (a typical Austrian social venue, much like a beer-garden) was open from midnight to 3.30am, and served Austrian goulash soup, sausages, beer and wine. At this cozy place, live Viennese music and songs was played. All proceeds from the Ball went to deserving causes related to youth initiatives. The primary beneficiary is SOS Children’s Villages, founded in 1949 by an Austrian doctor to help children who lost family and home in the war. Today, SOS is one of the world’s largest child welfare organizations which provides long-term, family-based care to orphaned children in over 130 countries. This year, the Ball made an extra effort to raise funds for the relief efforts of the SOS Children’s Villages in cholera plagued Haiti. The Ball also targeted funds for the General Roméo Dallaire Foundation which helps vulnerable children in Canada and Rwanda.The Schulich School of Music of McGill University was also an important recipient in the form of scholarships for the study of music in Vienna. Leave out ViolencE – L.O.V.E, the leading youth violence prevention organization in Canada is also a beneficiary. Other recipients: the DSQ German Language Schools offering German courses for all ages, and several local cultural and educational institutions.And of course there was a grateful thanks to the Ball Committee that organised it all, notably Ball President Harold Scheer, Austrian Society President Peter Hill, (Silent Auction); past President Elizabeth Wirth and Sieglinde Schuler (Program); Helga Scheer (Treasurer) and Ewa Dorynek-Scheer (Decorations), Anita Hold and Monica Schirdewahn (Tickets), Birgit Erdan and Mo Klinkert (Debutantes) with Astri Prugger (Designer of debutante gowns); Ulrike Billard (Gifts), Ada Colomb (Patrons’ Committee), Elisabeth Canisius and Udo Stundner (Publicity), Manfred Pungartnik and Tony Hold with Stefan Poell (Heuriger), and Karl and Chad Pungartnik (Casino).