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The power of ‘Masaot’ and Olga Neuwirth, the musical voice of the outsider

Olga Neuwirth
Illustration of Olga Neuwirth for “How to Listen” series by Mark Swed. Credit: Micah Fluellen/Los Angeles Times
( Micah Fluellen/Los Angeles Times)

“I’m standing up here as an artist representing the younger generation, and one who has been doubly affronted,” Olga Neuwirth announced in a speech at a mass demonstration in Vienna 20 years ago. She had one thing to say to a new far-right government that expressed support for neither a ministry of women nor one of arts: “I will not be yodeled out of existence.”

She hasn’t been. Neuwirth, who was born in Graz, Austria, in 1968, has become one of Europe’s most established, but not establishment, composers. Her affront to the Austrian obsession with homeland, “Masaot/Clocks Without Hands,” was written for the storied, old-world Vienna Philharmonic. Last December the premiere of her outrage to operatic tradition, “Orlando,” became the first opera by a woman in the fabled 150-year history of the Vienna State Opera, receiving mainstream international press attention. Her New York Philharmonic commission that John Adams was to have conducted in May got postponed because of the pandemic. She was to have been featured by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Ojai Music Festival in June.

Yodelers, though, still yodel, and Neuwirth’s affronts multiply — musical, racial, sexual, gender or any other form of intolerance — along with her continued stand against Austrian patriarchy. She does so as an Americophile who, like a latter-day Whitman, is a large composer and contains multitudes. She counts as her inspirations Miles Davis (as a teenager she had wanted to be a jazz trumpeter until she broke her jaw and couldn’t play anymore), blaxploitation films, Adams (with whom she studied), the anti-Adams Pierre Boulez (who was one of her early champions and whom she called a mensch) and the Austrian novelist, playwright and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek.

Most of all, Neuwirth’s is the raised voice of the outsider. A Jew, a woman, a radical and a polymath from a place where all raise suspicions, she is a seeker of identity in all its mysterious, often conflicting cultural aspects. And it is the seeking, not the knowing, that makes her work especially important. Identity politics motivates protest and discord. As always, all sides, we fight for the right to be what we are.

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But unraveling our essence, knowing in the deepest and most mysterious crevices of our being, who we are and how we came to be that way, is what the yodelers most easily drown out in false certainty. For all her potent, overt advocacy, Neuwirth to a unique degree probes into those uncomfortable places of the unknown. In Neuwirth’s operas, which have gained the most attention, identity is neither easily understood nor automatically conferred. It must be earned.

Her striking adaptation of David Lynch’s film “Lost Highway” adds yet another surreal dimension of uncertainty about our perceptions of who’s who. Neuwirth brings the shock of the now to the potently feminist “American Lulu,” her rewrite of Alban Berg’s opera, the protagonist now Black, the setting New Orleans, the lesbian theme amplified.

“Orlando,” an updating of Virginia Woolf’s novel, is a phantasmagoria of European cultural history on a vast and magnificently over-the-top grand opera scale that progresses, over three hours, from the 16th century to modern times. The startling scenes on the Vienna State Opera stage include 1960s advocacy of civil rights and sexual freedom, a transgender present and a post-Trump sci-fi future that evolves toward spirituality rather than dystopia.

The opera world has reacted with predictable horror and told this woman who has gone too far to cut, cut, cut. Timorous, irrelevant American opera companies won’t touch the stuff. But that could change. Neuwirth and Yuval Sharon, who directed “Lost Highway” in Frankfurt and who has been trying to bring it to Los Angeles, are cooking up a new project together for Europe. (He also has just been named artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre.)

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Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it.

In the meantime, “Masaot: Clocks Without Hands” has begun to make the rounds in the U.S. The Vienna Philharmonic brought it to Carnegie Hall. The Cleveland Orchestra has performed it, and Daniel Harding was to have given the West Coast premiere two years ago with the L.A. Phil, although an injury caused him to cancel and the program was changed. A subtle, searing search for patrimony, and possibly the finest European orchestral work of the last decade, Neuwirth wrote it in 2013, shortly before embarking on “Orlando.”

The invitation came from the Vienna Philharmonic as part of its commemoration of the centennial of Mahler’s death in 2011. The composition was delayed, but Neuwirth couldn’t escape the ghost of Mahler, who became intertwined with the ghost of a grandfather she never knew. He was a man of many homelands, a wandering Eastern European Jew among the intersecting nationalities and cultures along the Danube. To know herself, she sought to find the unfindable in him, and she stumbled into the elusiveness of memory (the source for confusion in “Lost Highway”) and the elusiveness of time (the source for confusion in “Orlando”).

One way to hear “Masaot” is as a postmodern tone poem in which stories aren’t stories but hints. Narrative remains just around the corner. Time, as we’re supposed to know but never acknowledge outside of theoretical physics, is at best relative and probably doesn’t even exist. Yet we can’t get along without it.

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The 20-minute score begins with four violins playing the pitch D (standing for the Danube) so quietly and at such a high range you sense it in your nervous system before you actually hear it. For the susceptible, this is a moment of instant hypnosis, although even that is a deception. The orchestra joins in for a crescendo that crashing into a deafening chord. The alarm has sounded.

The orchestra becomes a river of sound, lapping waves of kaleidoscopic instrumental colors. In the seemingly far distance come snatches of Klezmer melodies. Then clocks tick. Three metronomes set at different times rhythmically collide, and in a marvelous stroke the orchestra tick-tocks in its own Einsteinian universe, relativity unwinding. Clocks, Klezmer and the river of time flow on and on, changing, evolving, but going nowhere.

Grandfather’s travails — masa’ot means travel in Hebrew — bring sobering thoughts of a Jew in what would become Hitler’s Austria. Neuwirth researched his life and those like him in archives. Studied his pictures. His lack of belonging to place resonates with her own complicated feelings about belonging. But he remains out of reach. Even belonging is relative.

The orchestral writing in “Masaot” takes advantage of the sheer beauty of the Vienna Philharmonic. But for Neuwirth, beauty can be yet another weapon of subversion. Those elusive Klezmer tunes entice just out of reach, reminding us of Mahler, who had to convert to Catholicism to become music director of the Vienna Philharmonic. They’re a long-hidden part of the history of an orchestra that didn’t accept its first female musician until 1997 and that didn’t acknowledge its complicity with Nazi Germany until 2013.

In Neuwirth’s nuanced “Masaot,” identity then becomes understood as a quest, which means every orchestra and every conductor brings something radically different to the table. It was the British Harding who gave the premiere with the Vienna Philharmonic. Could it be that Neuwirth touched an identity nerve? An avid pilot, Harding has embraced his inner “masaot,” his compulsion for travel, announcing that he will take time off from conducting to fly for Air France (clocks without hands presumably assuring on-time arrival).

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The delicious irony is that Neuwirth, herself, doesn’t fly. But in “Masaot,” we all fly with Olga. No yodeling, please.

Starting points



Daniel Harding has recorded “Masaot/Clocks Without Hands” with the Vienna Philharmonic, part of an essential CDof Neuwith orchestral pieces that includes her viola concerto, “Remnants of Songs ... An Amphigory,” which was dedicated to the L.A. philanthropist Betty Freeman and is conducted by Susanna Mälkki.

An edgy live performance of “Masaot” from Berlin can be found on YouTube.

Neuwirth’s most provocative stage works are thus far little recorded, although there is a powerful performance of “Lost Highway” on disc.

There’s a fascinating video of an excitable Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the Mahler that was an inspiration for Neuwirth. Bernstein, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1970s, tries to get a little ethnic flavor out of the orchestra.


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