The Gaza conflict cast a shadow over the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's concert, as Israeli-Argentinian conductor Daniel Barenboim Thursday urged Israel to excercise caution after six days of punishing airstrikes.
While recognizing Israel's legitimate right to self-defence, Barenboim -- who also holds honourary Palestinian citizenship -- questioned in a statement whether the Jewish state should "punish all Palestinians" for the actions of the militant group Hamas.
And as he offered his New Year's greetings at the magnificent Musikverein hall, the 66-year-old conductor expressed hope that 2009 would be a "year of peace in the world and of human justice in the Middle East."
The concert marked Barenboim's debut conducting the traditional January 1 concert that featured another first: a piece by Austrian composer Josef Haydn -- Symphony No. 45, or the "Farewell Symphony" -- launching a series of ceremonies marking the 200th anniversary of the composer's death.
Barenboim's appearance here follows in the steps of fellow stars Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa and Lorin Maazel, all of whom were selected by the orchestra's musicians, who have managed the Philharmonic since its creation in 1842.
In all, 16 pieces were to be performed: mostly works by Johann Strauss junior and senior, except for Josef Strauss's "Music of the Spheres" and Josef Hellmesberger's "Valse espagnole."
Not on the programme but no less expected were the encores "The Blue Danube" and the "Radetzky March," which traditionally close the concert.
As Israel pursued its offensive on Hamas-run Gaza, Barendoim said in a statement that Jews, more than anyone else, should know that killing innocent humans was inhuman and inacceptable -- in obvious reference to the Holocaust.
He also confirmed an upcoming European and Middle Eastern tour of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gathering young Israeli and Palestinian musicians to promote peace. Starting January 10, the tour will include Qatar, Moscow and Vienna, finishing on the 18th at Milan's La Scala opera house.
The New Year's concert included pre-recorded short films to accompany the music for the television broadcast, which were choreographed by star dancer and Berlin Opera artistic director Vladimir Malakhov.
First performed on December 31, 1939 and held every year since, the concert was to be broadcast on television in 71 countries around the world, from Albania to Australia and Trinidad and Tobago to the United States.