Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yvonne Melisande the Model

Just back from hearing Klangforum Wien perform music by Christian Fennesz to accompany the silent film documenting (and often fictionalizing) the hand-to-mouth yet joyful life of an Inuit family, shot in the 1920's---Nanook of the North. Wailing guitars, 2 violins, cello, contrabass, extravagant setup, which mostly served to enhance the film, especially when the music became more transparent. You can find any number of film clips from Nanook on YouTube, but beware, the soundtracks are often deplorable. The striking photos resulting from Yvonne's invitation to model her hairdresser's artistry have nothing to do with the performance but they arrived a few hours ago and I wanted to share them, sofort. Enjoy!


One end of Traungasse, the street I live on, leads to Schwarzenburgplatz, where one of the most dramatic monuments I’ve encountered resides, the Russian Liberation Monument (Befreiungsdenkmal). Erected by the Soviets in 1945, its heroically presented Soviet soldier, with his weapon pointed to the heavens and already practically in the clouds, is counterbalanced by the names of the fallen Soviet soldiers inscribed in the thick ochre marble below. Evidently this unknown soldier is also known locally as ‘the unknown plunderer.' The Austrian writer Rainer Metzger, in his book Der Tod bei der Arbeit (a title not very conducive to translation---Death with the Work doesn't quite convey) writes that the monument represents an 'aesthetic of violence.’ Fresh wreaths often embellish it, their ribbons inscribed in Cryllic. Also in Cryllic, etched into the upper part of the colonnade encircling the soldier: "Eternal mercy for the heros of the Red Army, fallen in the fight against the German fascist bandits, and who fought for the freedom and independence of the peoples of Europe." A few feet away, a refreshing fountain sprays thousands of droplets of water up and out into the atmosphere, a cool embrace, even from afar. At first I assumed the fountain was part of the monument, but learned that the Hochstrahlbrunnen (high jet fountain) was built in 1873 by Anton Gabrielli, in celebration of Vienna’s first long-distance water supply from the Schneeberg. It also serves to soften the harsh effect of its neighbor.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Erinnern / Remembering / Souvenir / Ricordare / ПОМНИТЬ

To balance work, the most significant event of the day was a foray a few blocks away to the British Bookshop with Yvonne, who commuted an hour back to the apartment to retrieve a fresh book to read...since she devoured The Secret Life of Bees in two days flat. Our haul, several on sale, yea!: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood; Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen; The Zahir, by Paul Coelho; Medea in Performance 1500-2000, by Edith Hall; Romantic Affinities – Portraits from an Age 1780-1830, by Rupert Christiansen; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, by Gabriel Brownstein; and then the ultimate finds priced at 1 Euro: Rain, by Brian Cathcart; Austria Blue Guide; and a long-time interest of mine, Good Vibes – Feng Shui, by Rosalyn Dexter. There are also discoveries to be made in the museum bookstore sale bins, like the large and beautifully printed volume of essays and photographs, a kind of memorial + textbook published ten years ago in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Mauthausen concentration camp, available in a Museum Quartier bookstore for 3 Euros. There were at least a dozen of these books marked down to practically nothing. The essays are in five languages, matching those of the book’s title: Erinnern / Remembering / Souvenir / Ricordare / ПОМНИТЬ. Mauthausen, located in Austria, was categorized as a “Level Three Camp”--- the most brutal. Of the 200,000 who were interned in the camp during its seven years, more than half (105,000) died there. In his essay, Hans Marsalek describes how works of art, which were forbidden, strengthened the will of the prisoners to survive. He summarizes: “Art can transfigure truth; it can also rouse, cry out, mobilize and remind.”

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Marathon Mann

Nursing a cold in a nearby restaurant last night after the concert (the Indian proprietor made a luscious chai for me), I picked up Der Standard, the principal newspaper in Vienna, and read that the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Marathon would be held today, roads blocked, buses and trams stopped, city in suspended animation. Anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 runners were expected, from around 100 nations. The last marathon I participated in (meaning with enthusiasm from the sidelines) was just outside our house in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I caught the final hour of today's historic event, as the runners circled the Ring to loudspeakers blaring Strauss waltzes, Goethe overseeing the last stretch as he reclined from his first-class seat in the trees.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Concert of Wunderwerke

Dr. Christian Meyer, Director of the Arnold Schönberg Center, with his wife, Dr. Susana Zapke, at the post-concert reception.

Tonight the second of two stellar concerts took place in the concert hall of the Arnold Schönberg Center, presented by the Ensemble Wiener Collage. Spanning eight centuries, from Guillaume de Machaut to Sidney Corbett (whose arresting Knochentänze, for viola and accordion, was premiered this evening), nearly half of the pieces were written by composers in their 40's. As befitting the venue, the program began with three of Schönberg’s Five Piano Pieces, and closed with Webern’s Quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone and piano. Taking a clue from the unusual and compelling instrumentation employed by Webern (whose Quartet was praised by Alban Berg, at the 1931 premiere, as a ‘Wunderwerk,’ and the one composition in the world that was 100% original), the remaining works on the program were largely written for atypical instrumental combinations: Isable Mundry’s Spiegel Bilder for clarinet and accordion; Alexander Stankovski’s Linien for alto flute and trombone; Simeon Pironkoff’s Zyklus Sujets – Epilogue, for clarinet, trombone, cello and piano; Machaut’s Biauté paree de valour, arranged for accordion by Alfred Melichar; Sofia Gubaidulina’s Et Expecto for accordion; and René Starr’s Gemini A1 for violin and flute, and Gemini A7 for violin and saxophone. These latter two works were brief, intense, and rhythmically complex, yet the accelerating ‘spiral structure,’ with the instruments seeming to engage in a drag race, remained transparent. Alfred Melichar, a well-known interpreter of contemporary music written for the accordion, captured the harsh, thick sonorities of Gubaidulina’s solo work with passion and attention to the extreme dynamic contrasts, reflective of her tendency to oppose light and dark. Finally, the fractured components of Pironkoff’s Epilogue from the Zyklus Sujets were infused with a dry humor---one could almost hear the ghost of Erik Satie. Four strands of material unfolded simultaneously---faux Bach, played on a cello tuned in microtones against the piano; muted glissandos sweeping around on the trombone; chords repeated twice on the piano in a wide array of tempi and dymanics and register (these are what brought Satie to mind); and the clarinet, in his own world. I wanted to hear more, and in fact there are three earlier sections, written for trio, of this complex work. This evening's concert was the final event of two days devoted to the topic of music and number, with symposia, lectures, and panel discussions.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tis the Season for Morchella

The Arnold Schönberg Center is hosting a symposium today and tomorrow, “Musik und Zahl” (Music and Number), with lectures, panel discussions, and evening concerts. Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing the Ensemble Wiener Collage perform works by Cage, Frescobaldi, Berg, Ligeti, and Zimmermann. Intercommunicazione, for cello and piano, by Bernd Alois Zimmerman, was a tour-de-force of a piece with unrelenting intensity, even when the intensity wasn’t apparent. Roland Schueler, the cellist, played this dark and difficult work with ferocious precision, and the pianist, Johannes Marian, let the crashing chords fly with violent finesse. Zimmermann’s music was like a roomful of Rothko canvases unleashed into space.

So what do morels have to do with numbers and music? A serendipitous confluence: having attended a concert tonight starting off with John Cage’s work, Two, and having had exactly one conversation with Cage in my life that had nothing to do with anything except mushrooms, and having been seduced into buying (instead of finding, much more exciting than hunting for Easter Eggs), sautéing, and consuming a few exquisite Viennese morels, I assume that if you've gotten this far you probably know that John Cage was a mushroom expert and aficionado---and in fact, a founder of the New York Mycological Association. I'd like to share an irresistible anecdote, appearing in an article, "Sounds and Mushrooms," penned by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times, November 22, 1981: "A woman once asked John Cage, ''Have you an explanation of the symbolism involved in the death of the Buddha by eating a mushroom?'' Mr. Cage thought: ''Mushrooms grow most vigorously in the fall, the period of destruction, and the function of many of them is to bring about the final decay of rotting material. In fact, as I read somewhere, the world would be an impassible heap of old rubbish were it not for mushrooms and their capacity to get rid of it. So I wrote to the lady in Philadephia. I said, 'The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish. The Buddha died a natural death.' ''

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Au Natural in Stadtpark

Walking through one of the nearby parks earlier this month, I happened upon this clever sculpture of a girl hugging a tree...a playful side of the Viennese not often revealed. The just barely warm sunshine today made it difficult to stay indoors, so I treated myself to a walk past the Lower Belvedere, perusing the volumes on Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele in the gift store. I'm saving a visit to the gardens and the grand interiors of Belvedere to share with Yvonne when she's around one weekend. On the way out of the complex, I discovered the Lower Belvedere cafe, sequestered up a flight of concrete stairs...with two English language newspapers, no smoking, and prompt service...oh, joy...and close to our apartment---yet another temptation just down the street.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dr. Harry Schranz

Funeral services for Herr Dr. Harry Schranz, beloved father of Yvonne’s friend Julia (from her host family) were held this afternoon. I debated with myself about posting the photo of the flowers and casket in the cemetery chapel. Yet the ceremony was so moving, and it was such a privilege to witness this intimate and powerful tribute, that I wanted those of you reading the posts to see something of the intense outpouring of love, affection, and admiration for this great man. Following the eulogy, we walked to the graveside, where a sudden rain shower obscured the priest’s words. Here, the traditional Austrian ‘ceremonial blessing of the earth,’ was observed. One by one, dozens of friends and family filed past, stopping to pay a last homage, tossing a flower onto the casket, then scattering a spoonful of soil over the flowers. The closing event, a celebration of High Mass, took place in the Kirche “Zur Heiligsten Dreifaltigkei” (Church of the Holiest Trinity, also known as “Wotrubakirche” after the architect, Fritz Wotruba). Harry and Christine, his widow, were married in this same church 17 years ago. Photos of the church, with its most unorthodox, striking architecture, can be viewed here. Photos of Dr. Schranz as founder and director of TrendCom Consulting can be seen here (in the black and white photo, Harry is on the left). May his soul be in peace forevermore.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

To the Blue Carp

On my way to purchase mailing envelopes yesterday morning, the dewy air was freshened by shopkeepers hosing down the pavement in front of their businesses on Annagasse---a narrow lane reminiscent of what Vienna looked like in the 18th Century. Looking up, always a good thing to do in Vienna, I saw Zum Blauen Karpfen, a former hotel, rebuilt in 1814, with striking reliefs by Josef Klieber. A noted architectural sculptor of the first half of the 19th century, he had many commissions from the Austrian, Bohemian and Hungarian aristocracy.

I’ve not written much about the substance of my work in these daily updates, perhaps because the four projects that loom before me are all works-in-progress. But the news of actual performance dates this summer in Los Angeles, for SUCKTION (a theatrical song cycle I’m writing for the group soNu) means that the whip is snapping like crazy now. The other compositions – my opera, CRESCENT CITY (with the writer Douglas Kearney, also true of SUCKTION), BREATHTAILS, for string quartet and shakuhachi, to texts by Charles Bernstein, and THE SILENT STEPPE CANTATA, for orchestra and chorus in Kazakhstan, are simmering along.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ramping up for Siegfried

Why not name him Bruno---a Czech gargoyle from the gothic St. James Church of Brno. I’ve always loved these leering, nightmarish creatures of stone---especially the ones perched high in the air, as they’ve seen it all.
Today we had the most exquisitely balmy spring weather in Vienna, but I elected to spend two hours in a concert hall, thinking that I would see a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried at the Staatsoper, advertised as a matinee. Now I know why tickets could be had for as little as 1.5 Euros---this was no ‘performance’ matinee, but an intense and at times jovial panel discussion, with Sven-Eric Bechtolf (director) and Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), focusing on the upcoming production of Siegfried. Their topics ranged from ‘what Hitler could have learned from Wagner’ to the deep and seamless connections between drama, lyrics, and music in this—and indeed all—of Wagner’s operas. The discussion was amplified and embellished by selections from the opera performed by two singers, and with film clips...sadly, none from "What's Opera, Doc?" with Elmer Fudd's Siegfried in hot pursuit of Bugs Bunny, in drag as Brünnhilde.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Schönberg from All Angles

The Arnold Schönberg Center, situated in the Palais Fanto for just over ten years, is literally a curved ball stone’s throw from where I live. Yesterday I was able to make a first proper visit. Upon entering the Center, one first encounters Schönberg’s actual working studio, replicated behind glass. But not everything is off limits. In another room, a number of his personal items (or facsimiles thereof) are displayed, laid out on tables and available for handling and examining, such as his idiosyncratic chess invention – coalition chess. He had a dry sense of humor that cuts right through the grainy archival recordings, continuously playing next to a comfortable sitting area with books, devoted to his works, readily available for perusal. One of the highlights of the Center is a small screening room with the Staatsoper performance of Schönberg’s opera, Moses und Aron, projected on a large screen. The score, projected as well and adjacent to the performance video, corresponds to the videotaped excerpts, with new pages appearing automatically. The entire Center, devoted to Schönberg's works, is a model of how such a brilliant and historic figure can be presented to the public using an array of media.

Friday, April 18, 2008

St. Wenceslas, a Czech celebrity

Called back to Vienna unexpectedly on Thursday, I saw little of the sights in Olomouc, a preserved gem in Moravia. Before the train departed, Vit drove me to St. Wenceslas Cathedral, extensively reconstructed in the late 19th century in the neo-Gothic style, but originating in 1107. Named after the martyr Vaclavor (Wenceslas), a saintly monarch from the tenth century, the cathedral sits atop a hill and sports the tallest spire in the Czech Republic. Brno has its own Church of St. Wenceslas, and the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague houses the St. Wenceslas Chapel.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Gracious Czech Friends

On Wednesday, I led a practicum for students at Palacky University, concentrating on graphic notation and methods of improvisation. Refreshments were later shared with my energetic and thoughtful hosts---the composer Vit Zouhar, musicologist Gabriela Coufalova, and conductor Jaromir Synek (known as Mirek). They told me that a tank had been housed in the very restaurant (connected to the university) as late as the early 90's. The history of this region is endlessly complex, convoluted, and often tragic. There is a fascinating film festival taking place this week, the Academia Film Olomouc, focusing on documentary and scientific films. The one I saw tonight, “Forgotten Transports to Byelorussia,” packed with an attentive student audience, was a collection of testimonies and footage from survivors of obscure concentration camps in Latvia, Byelorussia, Estonia and Eastern Poland. There are a number of films on this theme throughout the festival.

Palacky University in Olomouc

Tuesday was filled with lectures---on music and surrealism at Janacek Academy, for the student composers, and, after being driven to Palacky University, the same lecture there, for the musicology students. Swerving from Boulez’s Structures 1a to the Rev. Fred Lane in his rendition of The Man with the Fold-Back Ears, part of my surrealism lecture, I followed up with a third lecture, on my music, for the music education students. Palacky University, located in Olomouc and more than 400 years old, is the second oldest university in the Czech Republic. The Music Education Department, part of the Arts Centre of Palacky University, is housed in a huge, strikingly beautiful Baroque building, along with other arts disciplines. A former Jesuit monastery, it was renovated about five years ago with great attention to detail. The photo was taken in one of the long winding hallways.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Trombones and Translation at the Janacek Academy

Today began with guest teaching a morning class on the interpretation of notation at the Janacek Academy. Since the first two students came in hauling their trombones, I elected at the last minute to show them slides of Monique Buzzarte's custom-built interface that we used for the piece I wrote for her, The Left Side of Time, and then to demonstrate some of the notational solutions for that piece. Later I gave a seminar for composition faculty and student composers, concerning my attitude toward composition, and then analyzing Transfiguration, my work for soprano, flute, harp, and percussion. My excellent translator, Jareck, even tackled the intertextual commentaries woven into the Djuna Barnes poem that forms the centerpiece of the composition. The reward this evening: frothy glasses of Czech beer shared with Jaroslav Stastny-Pokorny (not in photo), Marketa Dvorakova, and the Dean of the Music School, Ivo Medek. Na zdravi!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Brno or Bust

Actually it was a mellow train ride of ninety minutes across the border. To offset the McDonalds and KFC infringing on the main square, here is the neo-gothic Petrov Cathedral (Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul), taken from the eleventh floor of my room at the Continental Hotel. Tomorrow I visit classes, lecture, and meet with students at the Janacek Academy...with a well-stocked brain after a genuine Czech meal of the local steamed sand (a fish, just in case you were beginning to wonder).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Scavenging at the Musikverein

An afternoon of glory, thanks to a last-minute ticket procured for the standing-room only section, in the Great Hall of the most beloved concert hall in the world, Vienna’s Musikverein. With its incomparable acoustics and stunning beauty, this home base for the Vienna Philharmonic was the location of many historic and important events---the world premieres of Brahms’ Second and Third Symphonies, Bruckners’ Second, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky. Mahler conducted in this hall, Brahms sat in the left balcony. Today, the Vienna Philharmonic (a controversial orchestra, due to decades of excluding women from being hired full-time; I counted two in the string section today, so things must be improving) performed Béla Bartók’s last composition, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, op. posth., with Tobias Lea as soloist and Riccardo Muti conducting. Bartok left sketches but died of leukemia before he could complete the work. Reconstructed from his notes, eventually in more than one version, the concerto embodies much of his life’s work as an ethnomusicologist and as a composer. Broad strokes of material related to his Concerto for Orchestra were woven into the orchestra. The strings were sublime; soloist and the winds encountered a few bumps with intonation in the first few minutes, but quickly found their sweet spot.

As I will depart for Brno tomorrow to give a few lectures in the Czech Republic, I left the hall at intermission, foregoing the second work on the program, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2. But to savor the Bartok was splendid---not sure I'd want to hear Bruckner afterwards anyway.

For anyone coming to Vienna, tickets to concerts such as this one can be extremely difficult to find. The trick: arrive at the hall thirty minutes before the concert begins. You’ll likely see a few people standing outside, holding tickets they’d like to sell that otherwise won’t be used, in this case ranging from 5 Euros for standing room, to 60 Euros or more. The drill is to walk up to the ticket seller and inspect the price and the seat location. Only rarely will the seller accept an offer considerably less than the price on the ticket---that depends on the demand, your timing, and the seller’s mood. If you end up with a SRO ticket, you’re allowed into the hall before anyone else (VIP treatment for the standing room audience!). People make a beeline for the railing, where the best viewing spots are, saving their places by tying a scarf lengthwise on the rail, or draping a coat over it, and then heading to one of the adjoining rooms to partake of refreshments. I lucked out and quickly grabbed a spot near the middle, between two people who had given one another a little breathing space. As they say, name it and claim it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

They're at it AGAIN!

Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo-Theme for Violincello and Orchestra, op.33, brims with manic passages that show off his wilder side. Ripping through the fiendish cadenza-like sections and playing the calmer sections with utter lyrical grace, the Argentinian cellist, Sol Gabatta, mesmerized the audience with her transcendent artistry. I had scored a seat in row 7, thanks to someone’s ill wife (and his last name was Mahler, and yes, he's a musician). The other happy occurrence of the concert was to witness conductor Susanna Mälkki’s first appearance in Vienna, leading the Vienna Symphony (Wiener Symphoniker)---first, Symphony No. 3 by Jean Sibelius, followed by the Tchaikovsky. (The theme of the middle movement in the Sibelius is reminiscent of “Dance of the Reed-Flutes" in The Nutcracker---clever programming.) Mälkki has a tight, economical technique, highlighted in the last work on the program, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, performed with the Wiener Singakademie. Charles Downey wrote about Mälkki’s 2006 appointment as the new director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain on his blog, Ionarts. Her pristine technique must have appealed to Pierre Boulez, who passed the baton on to her.

The boys wrestling with (attacking?) the mermaid were discovered on a late afternoon exploratory stroll through the Belvedere Gardens...a coil of aggression amid a peaceful, sedate pool with gravel walkways and benches for sunning.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Shimmering Onions

Starting out on a series of mundane errands late this afternoon (although ‘mundane’ is a misnomer when walking anywhere in Vienna), to purchase blank CDs and covers, and make a couple of phone calls, I simply couldn’t return to the apartment afterwards, with today's deliciously balmy weather. Deciding to explore a part of my neighborhood that I wasn’t familiar with, I discovered a series of embassies (Nigeria, Britain, Ireland), a new park, and, peeking over the rooftops as I rounded one corner, gleaming gold fairytale onion domes. This initially hallucinatory vision beckoned me to come hither. And when I did, encountering its glorious fantastical full façade, it turned out to be THE Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Vienna, the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. I had the even greater fortune to happen upon it while a small and extremely proficient mixed choir was rehearsing in a room in the back of the cathedral, in full frontal eastern-tinged voice, doors open, harmonies wafting out into the street and turning it golden too. Wish I’d had the recorder with me to upload a clip of the singing. Instead, here's a photo of those magnificent magical domes.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Attack of the Recorder

Is it an organ pipe? A recorder? Angélica Castelló, the performer, tells me its a mixture of both – a super-sub-bass German recorder. She plays this magnificent contraption with focused nuance, and performing on Tuesday evening with the ever delightful guitarist Burkhard Stangl, also with Robert Piotrowicz playing electric guitar / analog electronics and Anna Zaradny playing alto sax. Their collective improvisations were powerfully intense, emotional and dreamy, drone-like but endlessly, kaleidoscopically shifting. The performing space, Amann Studios, run by a really nice guy, Christoph Amann, was an intimate recording booth with three rows of seats, filled with an audience of rapt listeners. Amann Studios is in fact two studios, with state of the art equipment as well as a few antique recording devices still in use. A wonderful discovery, as were the antique stores along the funky Neustiftgasse.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dreaming of a Yoga Mat

The intermittent search finally ended. There are no easy ways to find yoga mats to buy in Vienna, and the towel I've been using on the wooden floor was a drastic last measure. An angel led me on a walk to a serendipitous encounter, a sign for the Sivananda Yoga Center, pointing the way through a courtyard, up a funky elevator, and into the friendly shop. Behold, an array of colorful yoga mats, including saffron-colored biologic ones that decompose. Now I have a way to balance indulgences, and will be embellishing my asanas with the powerful, overtone-laden throat singing of my friend Gary Hassay (soon to be released for public consumption). I share with you my new teal-colored mat relaxing and ready for action, on the beautiful wood floors in the apartment here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Jon Rose as a Drunken Sailor

For the encore of the assorted musicians assembled to perform with him yesterday evening at Porgy & Bess, the inimitable Jon Rose turned what had been a respectful, ambient-oriented, meditative semi-large group improvisation into a noise fest. Slamming the back of his violin into the monitor to generate feedback (at which point I retreated from the second row to the back row), he launched into a rowdy and spontaneous rendition Ye Olde English Sea Shanty, “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor,” with gusto and perfect intonation---he was far from drunk!

After many years of corresponding via email and post, I finally met the Slovakian journalist, philosopher of art, sound artist, and producer---might as well say Renaissance Man---Jozef Cseres. We convened for a late morning face-to-face at the Café Prückel, both sleep-deprived, where he he handed me two relatively rare recordings. “The Genetic Tendency in Violin Music,” on his own esoteric label, HEyeRMEarS, has Jon Rose playing the Ten-String Double Violin of Dr. Johannes Rosenberg. This endeavor is one where it’s impossible to ascertain where the truth ends and fantasy begins---a mind game with Siamese twins. The second recording, of works by Evgeny Irshai, a Russian composer now living in the Slovak Republic, is saturated with music that, to my ears, carries the essence of Russia (he trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory), modified by a wicked sense of humor that transports one to an entirely separate reality.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Rape of Lucretia

The renowned contemporary music ensemble based in Vienna, Klangforum Wien, along with eight singers, gave a spectacular concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s first chamber opera at the Wiener Konzerthaus tonight. In The Rape of Lucretia, Britten’s skilled, economical orchestration elicits a vast spectrum of colors, ranging from the most intimate sonorities from the strings and harp, to a full-fledged fusillade when necessary---like the suicide of Lucretia, who is overcome with shame.

The opera functions as a parable, a reflection that mankind invariably destroys virtue and beauty. The opera Britten had a knack for selecting gifted librettists. Ronald Duncan based his libretto, in verse form, on the play, “Le viol de Lucrèce” by André Obey. Here are some quotes of lines that I found especially striking:
“Home is what man leaves to seek. What is home but women?”

“Oh Christ heal our blindness which we mistake for sight,
And show us your day for ours is endless night.”

“So will my pretty vase enclose
The sun’s extravagance
which is the rose.”

Friday, April 4, 2008

Rudolf Steiner / "Die Loa"

Tonight I had the privilege of hearing the Rudolf Steiner-Schule Wien-Mauer spring concert, with orchestra and enormous chorus, at the school on the outskirts of Vienna that Yvonne attends as an exchange student. An up-and-coming specialist on the altblockflöte (aka recorder), Matthias Knopp, took center stage in Telemann’s Concerto in C Major, for recorder, string quartet, and basso continuo. Joseph Haydn’s Te Deum, written for the first Nicolaus Esterházy, was sung with great spirit by the sonorous choir of students, friends, alums, and teachers.

Yvonne is a tenth-grader at Highland Hall, a Steiner school in Northridge, CA. In America, Steiner schools are more commonly known as Waldorf schools. There are many such schools in the world, principally in Germany, Austria, and the U.S., grounded in the anthroposophic research and beliefs of the Austrian esoteric philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (that's him in the photograph). Todd Oppenheimer wrote about the unique blend of traditional and progressive methods used in these schools in The Atlantic:Schooling the Imagination.”

Another serendipitous discovery last night, at a gallery featuring the work of the Salzburg-based artist Eva Kaiser, was her intensely energetic painting entitled ‘Die Loa.’ My opera-in-progress, Crescent City, (one of the projects I’m working on while living in Vienna), is populated by several loa (gods of the Voodoo pantheon), who inhabit the bodies of regular folk at the bequest of Marie Laveau. It’s not every day that you run across another artist in another discipline and another country who even knows about the loa. It was my favorite painting in the gallery. Alas, doesn’t exist on the artist's website.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pink Hydrangeas on the Ring

Nothing like hydrangeas to make a slightly homesick Southerner pause during an energy walk along the Ringstrasse, to admire the clarity of the reflected light from the more unusual pink variety, just after the sudden afternoon shower (escaped by ducking into the mom and pop-style Café Sinfonia to partake of their luscious warm apfelstrudel). Luigi Nono's introspective string quartet, "Fragmente---Stille, An Diotima," has been my exquisite musical treat today, on a newly acquired WDR recording, performed by the Arditti String Quartet. There are some fifty fragments of Friedrich Hölderlin's poems festooning the notes of his score, meant for the performers only - a technique I first encountered with Erik Satie's piano works, and later observed in original manuscripts of Charles Mingus at theLibrary of Congress, where the inscriptions were personal messages to his players.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Laundromats and Schönberg

My thoughtful artist-landlord installed a washing machine in the apartment prior to our arrival. However, due to various complications I wasn’t able to use it until now, three weeks after moving in. I’ve been searching everywhere for a Waschsalon (laundromat), on the internet, in the streets, in the yellow pages; imploring people if they knew of one. Evidently even the good citizens of Vienna find it difficult to locate laundromats. Low and behold, on a stroll last night, in perfectly delicious cool weather, I decided not to return to my apartment after sampling the galleries in the inner city, but to walk right past it in a quest to discover what the opposite direction might turn up. (I’m usually headed toward the alte Stadt (the old inner city). Lo and behold, practically around the corner, a veritable army of washing machines, a dry cleaning operation, and an offer to do it all for you if you can’t be bothered to do it yourself. But the little home washing machine makes all manner of rough, gruff sounds, with the clothes magically emerging in a nearly dry state. So I asked myself, what would John Cage do? (My guess: his own).

In the same way, before locating it on the map, I unexpectedly encountered the Arnold Schönberg Center---one of the top ten places on my list. Lisztstraße (sorry, couldn't resist) intersects with my street, Traungasse. Out for a walk last week, I simply had to walk on this street named after Liszt, and suddenly there was the striking building, the Palais Fanto (housing the Schönberg Center), a disorienting reminder of New York's Flatiron Building. In her immensely engaging book, The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir, Marjorie Perloff writes about the Palais Fanto in Vienna, with gripping stories detailing its history---and her own, originating in Vienna and later in the U.S.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Banned in Vienna

As if there weren’t enough delectable distractions everywhere, The Metrokino, a few minutes from my apartment, has been screening historic Austrian films. I’ve seen two rarities that were shown in English: Dishonored, with Marlene Dietrich (I’ll return to this one in a subsequent post), and Jew Süss, banned in Vienna when it was released in 1934. Based on the novel of the same name, by Lion Feuchtwanger, it stars the actor Conrad Veidt (in photo; also find him fifteen years earlier in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the part of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the Finance Minister serving the Catholic Duke, Karl Alexander von Wüttemberg---a despotic drunkard. When the Duke meets Naomi, the beloved fifteen-year old daughter of Süß, he attempts to molest her. She escapes momentarily, only to plunge to her death from the rooftop in her haste to get away. Süß, now a broken man, schemes to cause the downfall of his former sponsor. He betrays the Duke’s planned coup d'etat, but before the Duke could have him arrested, the Duke dies of a sudden fit---a stroke or heart attack. Although Süß discovered that he was an illegitimate child and was not Jewish after all, he was noble-minded and responsible to his people. In the end, he was hung (for 'carnal relations' with a non-Jewish woman), and went to his death as a hero and a martyr.

I had read that this film was intended as a satire of the Nazis and their racism. In fact it gives the unsettling appearance, especially in the first thirty minutes, of an early Mel Brooks film, with the stark lighting (a la Young Frankenstein), the silences between the spoken lines, and various eccentricities of the characters. Both the book and the film were condemnations of anti-Semitism. As for the ban, some Viennese periodicals wrote of the film’s “offense to the entire Christian faith” as well as “blasphemy,” and requested the authorities to forbid the screening of the film. In response, the Vice-Chancellor, Starhemberg, actually issued a prohibition. The British, who made the film, were unable to convince the Austrians to abolish this resolution. The Germans considered the Austrian reaction to be exemplary.