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The day I conducted the Vienna Philharmonic

jens bonnke The Globe and Mail

Admit it. We all do it. Bounce a pair of socks off the laundry room wall and catch the rebound to win the Super Bowl. Or pick up a mop handle and wail into it like we're Bruno Mars at the Grammy Awards.

We all have our little fantasies we act out when nobody's looking. Mine is conducting. I grab a long pencil, scroll through iTunes for some classical barnburner and turn the volume up. And I'm off, using my make-believe baton to give my make-believe orchestra a real workout.

I have always loved classical music and been frustrated by my inability to play an instrument of any sort.

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There are fantasy camps where, for a price, sports fans can hang around with and play catch with their heroes. And there are karaoke bars where you can get up on stage and be Faith Hill or Michael Bublé. But as far as I know there are no symphony orchestras where you can grab a baton and have more than 100 musicians produce perfect Beethoven.

Then I went to Vienna. It was at Christmastime, a long-planned holiday to experience the festive spirit in the city of music and romance.

Just before we left I came across a note in one of our guidebooks about the Haus der Musik, a museum in Vienna devoted to classical music. And there, on the list of attractions, was an invitation to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic.

What? How?

I raced to the computer and found the Haus der Musik website. Yes, it said, you can conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. Sort of. It's actually some kind of computerized setup that lets you put a virtual version of the Philharmonic through its paces.

That was all I needed.

We arrived in snowy Vienna in early December. We went to the opera, attended mass with the Vienna Boys' Choir, sampled torte at Hotel Sacher, drank mulled wine at the Christmas Markets, toured the Hofburg Palace, visited Mozart's grave.

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But always, in the back of my mind, was the Haus der Musik.

My chance finally came on a crisp Wednesday morning when my wife said she wanted to do some Christmas shopping. While she hit the stores around the Stephansplatz, I hurried through the backstreets looking for the museum.

"Slow day?" I asked the woman at the admission window. Without responding she gave me my ticket.

Turned out the place was all but deserted. Perfect.

On the main floor were various batons and tuxedos worn by the likes of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, plus original programs and sheet music from great symphonies and operas. Fascinating, but I was in a hurry.

The second floor was a meandering series of interactive sound experiments, all of which I ignored.

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On the third floor were rooms devoted to great composers who had made their homes in Vienna at one time or another: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss.

It was as I left the Strauss room that I heard it. The Radetzky March, Johann Strauss Sr.'s stirring tribute to the Austrian field marshal Joseph Radetzky. It's the quintessential chestnut, the foot-stomping finale to the annual Vienna New Year's concert.

But at the tempo this march was being conducted, the war would be over by the time the army got to the battlefield.

I poked my head into a dimly lit room and saw a young man standing on a podium. In his hand was a baton, and on a huge screen in front of him sat the members of the Vienna Philharmonic. They were dragging their way through the piece like they'd been drugged.

The only other person in the room was the young man's girlfriend, who gazed longingly at him as he moved the baton like he was stirring thick tar.

When he finished I heard an angry voice shouting something in German. It did not sound polite.

The young couple quickly left, and I was alone. I entered the room, stepped to the podium and picked up the baton, which turned out to be a laser pointer.

To my right was a panel on which were listed four short classical pieces. All I had to do was press a button and I'd be off. I chose the Radetzky March.

The orchestra members, who'd been slumped in their seats, suddenly snapped to attention. I aimed my baton at the screen, and we were off.

My pace was brisk and demanding. This army was marching fast enough to launch a surprise attack. It was as rousing a performance of the Radetzky as I could have wished to deliver.

I loved it, and the orchestra seemed to as well. Exhilarated, I headed for the exit. On the way out I met a museum staff member who asked me what I thought. I told her I'd had a ball.

"Did they yell at you?" she asked.

I had no idea what she was talking about.

Oh, she said, if the orchestra doesn't like your tempo they will shout that you are the worst conductor they have ever had. She suggested I go back and try again, just for fun.

No thanks, I said. I had conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, and apparently I'd done a half-decent job.

Why spoil a perfect moment?

Paul Harrington lives in Toronto.

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