Conducting an orchestra with Avalon Waterways

Until recently, the majority of river cruise shore excursions were confined to walking and bus tours; however enjoyable they might be, there are plenty of passengers looking to do something different. Avalon Waterways is among the lines raising the bar (in this case baton) with a series of unique experiences. We were the first to try conducting an orchestra in Vienna.

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What It Is

Vienna echoes to the strains of Schubert, members of the Strauss dynasty and Mozart; who were born or lived in the city at various times. Classical concerts are one of the city's most popular attractions, with performances almost every night of the week. While river cruise lines have sometimes brought passengers to concerts, Avalon Waterways' passengers will soon be able to go a step further and conduct an orchestra. The line is introducing the optional activity as part of its Active Discovery program, being featured on eight Danube sailings in 2017.

During the excursion, budding Leonard Bernsteins are taken to one of the city's famous concert halls and introduced to the art of conducting before taking to the stage and leading an orchestra through a series of waltzes and polkas.

Our Experience

The Palais Eschenbach set the scene for our afternoon with 10 musicians from the Vienna Supreme Concert Orchestra. Inaugurated by Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria in 1872, and situated in the heart of Vienna, the building's grand halls are now used for concerts and balls.

We arrived as conductor Michael Zehetner ran through final rehearsals for the evening concert. It was the middle of the afternoon and the musicians were already smartly dressed in evening clothes, which added to the sense of occasion -- and an increased flutter from the butterflies in my stomach. What had I let myself in for?

Michael conducts prestigious orchestras throughout Europe, including the Polish-Baltic Philharmonic, Haydn-Orchestra Trento and BM Duna Symphony Orchestra Budapest. I was reluctant to let on that my last hands-on encounter with a musical instrument was playing the recorder at school.

Michael Zehetner leading a rehearsal

I needn't have worried. Once he got the feel for the musical experience (or rather lack of it) in our group of four, he quelled our nerves by running through a series of breathing exercises, explaining that conductors always inhale before giving the cue for the first note. Giving a practical demonstration, he ran through the 3/4 timing of a waltz (counted as 1, 2, 3) and the 2/4 beat (1, 2) of a polka, two of the most recognizable forms of music associated with Vienna.

Suitably equipped with a wooden baton, I took his place onstage, with aim of conducting the "Reve de Printemps" waltz by Johann Strauss. I took the prerequisite deep breath as instructed and raised the baton tentatively. It was an incredible experience as the orchestra launched into the opening bars and the beautiful music filled the hall.

"Make good eye contact," said Michael, as I stared steadfastly ahead at the piano. He then stepped in to provide some tips on how to accentuate certain sections of the music. Second time around, I tried to look at each member of the orchestra, and was rewarded by a warm, if amused grin, from the percussionist and encouraging looks from the other players. 

The rest of the group took their turn, and Michael alternated the music that, naturally, included "The Blue Danube."

Next time up, I chose the cheerful Jockey Polka, by Josef Strauss, and with increased confidence and plenty of tips from Michael, practiced sections of the music before running the whole way through. There's no doubt the musicians were very forgiving, but they did follow my inept instructions as I began to sense when things were going too fast or starting to slow down. Fortunately, it wasn't like Vienna's House of Music, an interactive sound museum we'd visited the previous day. Here you can conduct a virtual orchestra and if you go wrong too many times, the musicians put down their instruments and walk off stage!

Having ignored her first time around, I remembered the etiquette of shaking hands with the "concertmaster," the player to the left of the conductor. I left the stage to a round of applause and grinning from ear to ear. The same evening we attended the orchestra's "Musical Romance in Vienna" concert and I felt my right finger tapping to the beat.

I returned home with my baton as a souvenir. Each time I hear a waltz or polka strike up on the radio or TV, I'm tempted to do a spot of "air conducting" and hit the high notes once more.

Michael Zehetner guides a guest conductor

Worth a Try?

Without a doubt! Being an enthusiast rather than an expert as far as classical music is concerned, I would never have dreamed I'd ever get the chance to conduct a professional orchestra, let alone one in the musical capital of Vienna. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience whether you're very musically minded, or simply curious to find out what it's like to stand in front of an orchestra rather than sit in the audience.

Things to Note

The 90-minute sessions costs €42 per person and includes transportation. To make the most of the experience, it's well worth staying on to watch the orchestra's evening concert, priced at €72 per person, where the program will most likely include several of the pieces you conducted.

Don't worry if you're not a musical maestro, as the accent is firmly on learning in a fun (albeit impressive) environment. (Members of our group too nervous to sign up because of their lack of musical knowledge wished they had when they saw -- and heard -- our photographic evidence). If you feel intimidated doing something individually, rather than as part of a group, then this probably isn't the activity for you. For those that do want their share of the limelight, don't forget to bring along a camera and get a fellow participant to take photos, in particular a video clip, of your performance. Encore!