by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
*I recently co-produced the Gala Dinner Entertainment at the Hofburg Palace, Vienna with a dear friend and client in the Finance and Insurance sector. Here’s an account of the evening from the perspective of a fictitious programme qualifier, Bob Newman.
A kind of homecoming
It was 5:05pm and his wife of 30 years was still in the bathroom. Bob knew better than to knock or call and contended himself by flicking through the pinky – brown pages of the FT that had been delivered to their room that morning. They were to be transferred to the function at 5:30pm and he needed 5 minutes in there himself so he listened attentively for signs that she might be about to come out.
These extra lengthy rituals were always a feature of corporate functions when other wives and girlfriends were in attendance. She was a bit nervous, he knew, the heightened formality of the affair always impacting mysteriously on Janine’s otherwise strong self-confidence.
He took the invitation card from his inside pocket again. “Vienna – City of Music, City of Dreams”. During their 30 years together they’d visited many places. Privileged, yes, but the result of hard graft. It had taken Bob 10 years to built up the businesses but after that, year after year, he qualified for the trip. 19 of them, he figured.
They’d been to Australia, China, all over Europe, Argentina as well as to amazing resorts in the US and Canada. So many incredible places, so many treasured memories. This one was special, however, for it was a kind of homecoming. This was back to the place of his mother’s birth, his mother who had passed three years previously leaving him with a vague reminiscence of one long childhood trip across the Atlantic and a deep, abiding passion for lyrical music.
How does Reed do it?
Janine finally emerged and looked amazing although he could see that hesitant anxiety still in her eyes. He quickly shaved and tidied away the used bathroom towels, placing the wet ones in the bathtub and folding the dry ones carefully. This need for order and routine was greater than his sense of time so, in the end, they had to rush downstairs to make the 5:30pm transfer. It was only when they were in the van that he got to reach out to her and rest a silent hand on her arm, a simple gesture of reassurance as they headed for the Hofburg Palace.
They rode with the Pierces from Des Monies, an older couple in their early 60s and one of the two qualifying couples who had been to Vienna when TransContinental was last in Austria, back in 1991. Don Pierce’s amiable chatter dispelled the tension and soon speculation was high about the entertainment:
I don’t know how Reed does it, Don intoned, year after year he just keeps raising the bar. But we had our night at the Opera in Italy in April last year so I don’t know what that leaves him with.
Bob and Janine walked with the Pierces towards the entrance, glad to have another couple to walk in with. On the steps of the venue they were greeted by a costumed actor, in full Restoration dress, all extravagant gesturing and camp high-jinks. They posed for prom shots on the staircase and then made their way upwards to where drinks were served, their route marked out by smiling ballerinas in stunning white costumes.
The Pierces joined them at their high top table and they chatted easily as the room filled up. A classical trio was playing and every so often Bob found himself drifting out of the conversation, transported away by a familiar musical phrase, once from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and once from Gluck’s stunning “Che faró senza Euridice?” They were pieces his mother especially loved.
Janine was settled now, nerves well soothed by the felicitous combination of Don Pierce’s expansive geniality and the liberating properties of a robust Cabernet Sauvignon. The Brown’s from Wisconsin, first timers at the Convention, joined their table and speculation commenced again about what the entertainment might be.
The setting here is entertainment enough for me, Janine declared confidently. TransContinental has privatized the Hofburg Palace just for us and we’re being entertained in regal style in rooms that have hosted Emperors and Kings.
There was a sudden flurry of travel staff around the room as Don looked knowingly at Bob. Dinner was about to be called. Their cocktail table was next the main door to the Ceremonial Hall so they were in a prime position to witness the big reveal. The costumed actor from earlier moved through the crowd curtseying extravagantly, followed by the ensemble of beautiful ballerinas each one now escorted by a handsome male partner. “Dinner is served” he announced with aplomb and flung open the doors as a lone trumpeter, framed in the light pool of a follow-spot, played a strident fanfare.
The Ceremonial Hall with its signature sparkling chandeliers was washed in a warm, burnt orange light. Round tables were arranged in clusters of 4 around a cruciform corridor, all set inside the magnificent Corinthian columns that defined the perimeter of the room. The trumpet fanfare yielded to the full orchestra as the waltzing couples twirled and turned and pirouetted their way up the central corridor eventually settling into a full choreography in front of the platform where the awards would take place.
Janine took Bob’s arm as they followed the rest of the guests into the Hall where, according to the guide on the Hofburg Palace tour the Browns took the previous day, Napolean asked for the hand of Marie Louise, the daughter of Emperor Franz II/I.
The tables were set with rich linens and decorated with elegant floral centrepieces. Service at dinner was impeccable, as perfectly choreographed as the dance routine they’d just witnessed. Conversation flowed freely – as did the wine – and any residual awkwardness evaporated as that magical corporate collegiality descended upon the table raising the tone a decibel or two, and inspiring Josh Brown, the newbie, to tell a joke.
So what were Neil Armstrong’s first words when he walked on the moon?
he asked the party, his voice a little louder than it should have been. Bob could see Annabel, Josh’s wife, visibly wince and wondered was she silently kicking him under the table? He knew from Janine’s demeanor that she was onto it too and delighted in their shared secret moment. Don gave the standard reply
One small step for man, one giant step for mankind
and Josh, triumphantly, announced that, in fact, Armstrong’s first words were
Go for it Mrs Kowalski!
He was in the midst of a rather long winded explanation when Reed took to the stage again.
Entertainment will commence in 10 minutes, he said. Thereafter restrooms will be locked and any guest who leaves their seat will end up in the show.
Josh was obliged to abandon the joke as Reed’s announcement gave rise to a kind of free for all with folks leaving their seats and chatting with colleagues at other tables en route to their pre-entertainment rest stop. Bob watched as the orchestra took position – 3 violins, 1 viola, cello, bass, flute, piano. Certainly sufficient to fill this extraordinary space with glorious sound, he thought.
Reed was on the microphone again – 1 minute to go now – as the final stragglers hurried to their seats. The Hall dipped briefly into darkness and a hushed, expectant silence descended. The MC was on stage picked out by a follow spot:
Mein dammen und herren, medames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen … welcome to Vienna, City of Music, City of Dreams.
The evening commenced with a pleasant Wiener Lied selection with Baritone and Soprano, featuring a cute boys’ choir on Wien, Wien, nur du allein as well as the full dance ensemble. It all sounded truly magnificent and when he looked around Bob realised the entire room was filled with music and movement.
Just like it was built to be, he thought to himself.
The MC then invited guests to take flight with him from Austria’s capital Vienna back to Salzburg, home to Mozart and … The Sound of Music. There followed a crowd pleasing selection from the Hollywood musical with a stirring version of Edelweiss performed duet-style by soprano and baritone. It was back then to Mozart and three wonderful pieces from The Magic Flute including the epic aria by the Queen of the Night which required a virtuoso performance from the very capable soprano.
The MC and performers worked the aisles between the tables and gave every guest an up close and personal experience. The MC’s commentary, too, was really helpful for anyone, unlike Bob, whose childhood wasn’t dominated by Mozart and Strauss. His explanations were beautifully presented and expertly served with lots of high camp tongue-in-cheek on the side. Mozart gave way to Strauss – the world’s first pop artist according to the MC – as soprano and baritone presented the Wiener Blut which lead to the expansive finale a specially choreographed performance of The Blue Danube Waltz. It brought to Bob’s mind Keats’ memorable couplet:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty
That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.
The MC called all the performers back for a curtain call to a sustained ovation from the very appreciate audience. The Pierces and the Browns clapped loudly next to Janine as Bob allowed himself get lost in this special moment. So many memories and emotions collided within him like counterpoints in a musical score. He thought of his beloved mother, born and raised in Austria, musically gifted but forced to leave it all behind when she emigrated to the US. He thought of Janine and their 30 years together and how hard they worked to put their kids through college. And he thought, with deep pride, at this achievement, being amongst the TransWorld top qualifiers immersed in such a extraordinary, privileged experience of art and culture in Vienna, city of music, city of dreams.
While all characters in this story are fictitious, the event they attended is real. It was the Gala Dinner of the Annual Convention of a Finance and Insurance client of SoolNua and it did take place at the Ceremonial Hall of the Hofburg Palace. SoolNua worked with the client Paul Eder to create a unique event. They were assisted locally by Michael Mullner and the wonderful team at BueroWien. Paul was also assisted for other programme elements by the excellent SEI Incentives of Dallas and their local partner in Vienna, Colombus Travel.
Photography by the uber-talented Andrew Scofield.
The cast, assembled by BueroWien was:
Master of Ceremony
Albert Alel Kessler
Michael Havlicek & Claudia Göbl
Ballet of Wiener Staats Volksoper
Boys Choir (Mozartknabenchores)
The Sound of Music
Maria VonTrapp | Manuela Gamper (Vereinigte Bühnen Wien)
Baron von Trapp | Gerald Reiter (Vereinigte Bühnen Wien)
The Magic Flute | Die Zauberflöte
Papageno | Michael Havlicek (Wiener Volksoper)
Papagena | Claudia Göbl (Wiener Volksoper)
Queen of the Night | Alicia O’Neil (Wiener Volksoper)
Michael Havlicek & Claudia Göbl
The Blue Danube Waltz
Ballet of Wiener Staats Volksoper
1st Violin/ Conductor Stanislava Svirac