Vienna from a new angle

Times Staff Writer

YOU can't escape classical music here. Its history hits you almost from the moment you step out of the City Air Terminal: the bust of Bruckner at the lovely Stadtpark and, around the corner from there, a full-size gold statue of Johann Strauss, the waltz king. In the city center, the Staatsoper, the city's famed opera house that gives Vienna its geographical and cultural bearings.

It is the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and their work has created a pervasive cultural soundtrack in a city whose historic splendor and beauty are second only to Paris among European capitals.

But the old is giving way to the new. Vienna is on the verge of becoming a modern, multicultural city. After decades of postwar cultural conservatism and a recent spell of political extremism, Vienna is trying to steady its bearings as a 21st century city, a crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe, an intersection between past and present.

A former Nazi psychiatric hospital is now an avant-garde performance venue, and the headquarters of the Wiener Mozartjahr 2006, Vienna's celebration of the beloved composer's 250th birthday in February, stands, symbolically, in a plaza between the Staatsoper and Starbucks.

I came to Vienna last month not in search of Mozart but his spirit, for the vibrant creativity, his quest for new forms of expression and a better, more equitable society that were the real Mozart. That spirit is the challenge for a new generation of artists, administrators, entrepreneurs and politicians who recognize that the essence of the Viennese art, science and thought is a revolutionary allegiance to modernity.

Moreover, Vienna no longer owns any of the famous composers buried here. First-rate Mozart performances are just as readily heard in Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, New York's Carnegie Hall or Tokyo's Suntory Hall as in Vienna's glittery Musikverein. The San Francisco Symphony regularly out-Mahlers the Vienna Philharmonic. And few nights at the Vienna State Opera, where routine is the rule, are worth the hundreds of euros a ticket costs.

*

The Mozart trail

VISUALLY, Vienna has changed little since my first visit 35 years ago, when I explored the city by seeking as many Beethoven residences as I could find in a short stay. (There are dozens because he moved constantly.) But the faintly sinister atmosphere that still hung over parts of the city has vanished.

Today, the Mozart trail is more popular and well mapped, if less comprehensive. Vienna is easy to negotiate, and you are far less likely to overhear racial slurs or find the offensive graffiti that I regularly encountered on my Beethoven trek.

Most of Vienna's attractions are within walking distance of the center. The Ringstrasse circles the inner city. Trolleys, buses and subways operate on the honor system and are simple. A week's pass is a bargain (about $16) and lets you ride anything. The city is tidy, safe, efficient and hospitable.

Gone too is the palpable atmosphere of anti-Semitism that made the serene Judenplatz a magnet for neo-Nazi nonsense. Now in its center is Rachel Whiteread's understated "Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust." Designed as a library turned inside out, it commemorates the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945.

Whiteread's tasteful memorial, which recalls horrors without blemishing a pristine, historic square, encompasses the new Vienna dilemma: The city recognizes that it must remember its long-repressed complicity in World War II. Yet it dare not forget what it has too long remembered, namely its tradition, which can be smugly suffocating.

Working through this dilemma is giving Vienna incredible artistic vibrancy. Mahler famously called tradition sloppiness. But Viennese tradition weighs a ton and is difficult to overcome. There is, for instance, Wrenkh, a trendy vegetarian restaurant, near expensive shops, that attempts a radical reinvention of the Viennese kitchen.

Organic produce is featured and portions are, in violation of Austrian custom, small and heart-healthy. But although nothing comes mit schlag, nothing is straightforward either. The dishes tend toward fussy, and service remains as condescending as in the most exclusive coffee houses.

The MuseumsQuartier is probably Vienna's most successful attempt at updating a major arts center. The sprawling complex is a conglomeration of cultural institutions, Baroque and modern, large and small. On one side is the Leopold Museum, which houses an important collection of 20th century Austrian art, including a floor devoted to the arrestingly erotic and angst-ridden work of Egon Schiele. On the other side is MUMOK, Vienna's museum of modern art, where, angled onto the edge of the roof, is a small, upturned house. This is part of an exhibition by the subtly subversive Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm, whose pillowy people and cars proved a delight for the many families who brought their children on a Sunday afternoon.

The MuseumsQuartier scene may now be a bigger attraction than its art. In winter, sheds are set up to sell a potent punch. DJs spin records. Trendy boutiques and funky electronic shops pepper the grounds. Video addicts are serviced. All ages and classes mingle.

Making music equally equitable is, of course, a more daunting task. Music is Vienna's religion. And the holiest ground is the exquisitely gilded Musikverein, widely considered the world's greatest concert hall.

It's an exclusive, uptight place, if not quite as foreboding as it once was. The core audience, and particularly that for the Vienna Philharmonic concerts, is a well-dressed, well-mannered, well-off class seemingly content with the fact that the orchestra remains nearly all male. The gender barriers supposedly came down several years ago, but so far, a harpist is the only woman who has been able or willing to withstand the probation period.

My sole evening at the Musikverein on this trip was for one of the hall's odder events, put together by Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini, with the assistance of the superb Hagen Quartet. In the first half, there were bits of Mozart, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and the 80-year-old Hungarian miniaturist, Gyorgy Kurtag. After intermission, Pollini played, with sustained magnificence, Chopin's Preludes.

It was clearly a Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin crowd, which turned icily glum in the overheated hall whenever the 20th century dared enter these sacred premises. But I took heart in the standees in the back -- enthusiastic, casually dressed students and tourists appreciative of the specialness of the evening. And one can always take refuge in the small squares of Sacher torte and rich espresso served at intermission, a miraculous, if temporary, sugar-and-caffeine cure for all manner of grumpiness.

The most exciting time to be in Vienna is autumn and spring. In the fall, the city hosts Wien Modern, a wide-ranging monthlong festival of modern music. Spring ushers in the Wiener Festwochen, a spectacular festival of performing arts that includes venturesome music, theater and opera. Both are sponsored by the city, as is the Vienna State Opera. No other city opens its coffers to the arts to this extent.

The downside is that everything in the arts in Vienna is political. Artistic management posts are political appointments. But right now things look promising. As hard as it is for an American to believe, Heinz Fischer (the Social Democrat who beat out the ultra-right Freedom party in the 2004 presidential election) has a subscription to Klangforum Wien, Vienna's excellent new music group. Marino Formenti, the pianist of this ensemble devoted to uncompromisingly difficult high modernism and advanced experimentalism, told me that he regularly saw the president in the audience.

Certainly, Vienna's appointment of Peter Sellars to conclude the yearlong Mozart bash, with a $13-million multicultural festival within the Mozartjahr 2006, would have been unthinkable anywhere else. With Sellars' New Crowned Hope festival and Wien Modern running simultaneously during the second half of November, Vienna became, as it had been a century earlier, the capital of the new.

Wien Modern operates out of the Konzerthaus, the city's other venerable concert venue. It stands across the street from Beethovenplatz, where a giant statue of Beethoven in deep thought stands guard. The Konzerthaus is generally more adventurous and generally less expensive than the Musikverein, but it is nevertheless grand. Its main hall is held up by imposing marble columns, and its two chamber music halls are elegantly appointed spaces. Five years ago, a modern, small new hall was built underground.

*

A new spin

VIENNA'S formal old spaces, with all their history, can seem inappropriate for new music, and the Neuer Saal has had a liberating effect. A concert devoted to the music of Bernhard Lang, a young Viennese composer whose contribution to the Mozart year was an opera titled "I Hate Mozart," was packed with a mostly young crowd. They were eager to hear a composer who has successfully merged Minimalist techniques with a hard-core academic European style and created a new harmonic language through electronically processed acoustic instruments.

New Crowned Hope hoped to extend Mozart's musical and political agenda with new works of opera, dance, music, film inspired by Mozart. Sellars also made a point of treating art as moral action. And he all but took over the town, allowing a visitor the opportunity to see some of the out-of-the-way venues.

One, the concert hall of ORF, Austrian Radio, is a jewel. Though it's a short walk from the Musikverein, its vibe couldn't be more different. Instead of virtuously stern wood chairs, the seats are leather-padded. On the day Pollini and the Hagen played to a stuffy crowd at the Musikverein, the Kronos Quartet gave a two-part late-afternoon and -night program at ORF with American historian Howard Zinn.

Another venue that caught Sellars' fancy is the Jugendstiltheater, a 20-minute bus ride from the MuseumsQuartier and on the grounds of a large psychiatric hospital. This architecturally interesting building, designed by Otto Wagner in the early 1900s, may be the most provocative performance space in Europe. It was here that the Nazis did medical experiments on Jews. Outside, rows of electric candles memorialize the victims.

That the Viennese have turned this morbid building into a venue for out-of-the-mainstream dance, music and theater is more than a little creepy. But the strong statement that art cannot be morally neutral is an important part of Austria's coming to terms with it troubling past. Like every other concert space in Vienna, it is overheated.

Here, however, little else will lull you to sleep.

Jugendstiltheater is also a bracing relief from the basic Vienna music museum blandly glorifying history. Haus der Musik is a high-tech, user- and kid-friendly hands-on voyage through the history of music that opened in 2000. Zubin Mehta has called it the Disneyland of music, which can be taken in more ways than one (although he is the honorary president).

I found it oppressively cute (with topics such as Beethoven and feng shui) and already dated. But Cafe Cantino, the restaurant on top, with a view of the city rooftops and the Stephansdom, is first-rate. Cantino, run by the chef of the Konzerthaus' outstanding restaurant but less formal and featuring intriguingly Viennese-accented tapas, is an ideal place for after-concert supper.

Vienna has two major opera companies, the stellar, luxurious State Opera, and the more modest, livelier Volksoper. Now there is a third, in the renovated Theater an der Wien, where "The Magic Flute" had its premiere. It dubs itself the New Opera House. But it seemed old to me, the seats so cramped I barely could bring myself to return after intermission in an intermittently interesting production of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutti," directed by Patrice Chereau and imported from France.

Theater an der Wien sees itself as a sort of BAM, a place for relatively with-it international music theater and dance, although BAM-lite may be more like it. The acoustics are ideal, so the ongoing Beethoven sonata series played by Andras Schiff is probably wonderful (especially if you can stand and stretch after each sonata). But the opera program is decidedly mixed next year: Handel, Monteverdi and the Austrian premieres of two American featherweight operas, Andre Previn's "Streetcar Named Desire" and Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking."

Vienna, though, has always attracted foreigners and then struggled with them. Beethoven was German. Mahler, a Bohemian. Neither was ever 100% at home in Vienna. Still, both became Viennese, and Mahler had to convert from Judaism to Catholicism to be allowed to run the opera. The city inspired them, and their cultural tensions made their work all the richer.

That's now the challenge of 21st century Vienna as it attempts, with some success, to regain some of its cultural supremacy.

*

mark.swed@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Classical and not-so-classical Vienna

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) is available on Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Swiss, British, United, American, Delta and Air New Zealand. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $742.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 43 (country code for Austria), 1 (city code for Vienna) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel-Pension Suzanne, 4 Walfischgasse, Vienna; 513-2507, www.pension-suzanne.at. I had one of the larger rooms at this pension, a stone's throw from the Staatsoper. My good-sized studio apartment with kitchen was $125 (starting price for rooms), including breakfast. It's quiet, comfortable and feels very old Vienna. Staff is helpful. The drawbacks are minor: no WiFi (although guests can use the computer in the office) and no one is on duty after 10 p.m.

Radisson SAS, 16 Parkring; 515-170, www.sas.radisson.com. On the Ringstrasse and across from the Stadtpark. It had only two advantages over the pension: WiFi and thicker towels. Doubles begin at $247.

WHERE TO EAT:

It's hard to go hungry in Vienna. Concerts begin at 7 or 7:30 p.m., which makes dinner afterward relatively easy. (Most restaurants serve until 10 or 11.) The streets are crowded with stands selling sausages, pizza and Middle Eastern food, some open 24 hours. Coffeehouses also beckon.

Cafe Schwarzenberg, 17 Karntner Ring; 512-8998, www.cafe-schwarzenberg.at/en/. A favorite with concert-goers. Coffee (almost as many variations as Starbucks) from $3, pastries from about $4.50 and light meals, such as goulash, from $13.

Cafe Sperl, 11 Gumpendorferstrasse, behind the MuseumsQuartier, 586-4158. Hipsters and artists head for this irresistibly funky place. Coffee and pastries, of course, plus light meals (menu changes daily, about $10-$20).

Lebenbauer Vollwert Restaurant, 3 Teinfaltstrasse, 533-5556, www.lebenbauer.cc. Near the university. Uses traditional Austrian ingredients and pays attention to nutrition. Fixed-price meals about $32. Main dishes $12-$26.

Barbaresso, 17 Seilerstatte, 513-8648. At this Mediterranean Asian fusion restaurant, I got a Thai appetizer and an Italian entree and let the spices mingle as aftertastes. Main dishes $15-$26.

TO LEARN MORE:

Austrian Tourist Office, (212) 944-6880, www.austria.info/us.

-- Mark Swed

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°