Apfelstrudel anyone? Austrian Culture Days festival returns to Tel Aviv

In her festival notes, Weinmann-Stern says Sunday’s audience members “will enjoy an afternoon that will fill the hearts of the generation of old Austrians.”

 FRANZ GURTELSCHMIED, Judith Weinmann-Stern (festival founder), soprano Eva Dworschak and Ronald Leopoldi, son of Holocaust survivor composer Herman Leopoldi (photo credit: VEREIN WIEN-TEL AVIV)
FRANZ GURTELSCHMIED, Judith Weinmann-Stern (festival founder), soprano Eva Dworschak and Ronald Leopoldi, son of Holocaust survivor composer Herman Leopoldi
(photo credit: VEREIN WIEN-TEL AVIV)

Anyone with Austrian roots or who has holidayed in Vienna will surely appreciate the richness of Jewish Austrian culture. That is the core philosophy behind the Austrian Culture Days festival due to take place in Tel Aviv for the sixth time, on Friday and Sunday.

The event was conceived and founded by Vienna-based Judith Weinmann-Stern, in 2015, principally as a means of bringing a whiff or two of the sounds and flavors that Viennese-born Holocaust survivors living in Israel may have experienced in their pre-Holocaust childhood. Thus far, the annual programming, which arcs across a broad stretch of Viennese songs, operetta, klezmer and Yiddish songs, has drawn audiences that include second, third and even fourth-generation progeny of Viennese Jews, as well as others intrigued by the emotive and entertaining musical fare on offer.

Franz Gurtelschmied follows Weinmann-Stern’s line of thought. His appearance at this weekend’s event will be his third and, no doubt, counting. He will perform in Gruss mir mein Wien (Greet My Vienna) in the Friday morning (11 a.m.) slot, alongside Viennese co-professionals, actor-singer Gerhard Enst, soprano Eva Dworschak, and one-man entertainment troupe Roman Grinberg, Moldovan-born clarinetist Sasha Danilov – Grinberg’s partner in founding the Vienna Klezmer Academy, in 2015 – and Austrian-Israeli pianist Lior Kretzer. The fare of the opening show is described as music from Austria and the shtetl, so one may expect to hear a variety of styles and material.

The same cast returns to the Israel Conservatory of Music on Sunday, at 6 p.m., with the A Guater Tropfen So Dreimal Taglich (A Good Drop So Three Times a Day) program named after one of the best-known numbers by Austrian Jewish composer Hermann Leopoldi. Leopoldi survived both Dachau and Buchenwald and eventually made it to the United States, where he continued his career before returning to post-war Austria and, amazingly, picking up where he left off.

In her festival notes, Weinmann-Stern says Sunday’s audience members “will enjoy an afternoon that will fill the hearts of the generation of old Austrians.”

Judith Weinmann-Stern  (credit: JOSEF POLLEROS)Judith Weinmann-Stern (credit: JOSEF POLLEROS)

At 33, Gurtelschmied may not be old but he says he identifies strongly with the spirit of the festival and the musical and social zeitgeist. “I met Julia through Jewish friends of mine in Vienna,” he explains. Weinmann-Stern soon discovered the tenor’s expertise in genres that made him eminently suitable for the Austrian Culture Days venture. “She heard me singing in a concert with some Jewish colleagues. She heard I am very familiar with operetta and with Wiener Lied (Vienna song) repertoire.” That soon led to an offer to come over here. “Judith thought it would be a good idea to invite me to be a part of Austrian Culture Days, so I am now familiar with it, the people involved in it and the idea behind it.”

"A resurgence of Jewish life"

DESPITE NOT being of the faith, Gurtelschmied feels a great degree of affinity with the root cultural milieu. “I was born and grew up in the Second District of Vienna,” he points out. My own mother hails from the same part of town which was home to a large number of Jews prior to the Holocaust. There has been a resurgence of Jewish life in the area over the past 10-20 years, with haredi and Chabad families moving in from around the world, and Jewish eateries and other businesses opening up along the Taborstrasse main thoroughfare there.

Gurtelschmied gets that vibe which, he says, informs his professional intent. “I grew up near the Jewish school there and had Jewish friends. In Vienna, you get to know very inspiring people, some Jewish, and you get to know Jewish people. I am very much into the [Jewish] community, although I’m not a Jew myself.”

“I grew up near the Jewish school there and had Jewish friends. In Vienna, you get to know very inspiring people, some Jewish, and you get to know Jewish people. I am very much into the [Jewish] community, although I’m not a Jew myself.”

Franz Gurtelschmied

The singer discloses that Weinmann-Stern is heavily invested in the Vienna-Israel connection, and working to preserve the familial-cultural backdrop of Israelis with Austrian roots. “Judith is such a brave person, and she puts so much heart and passion into this project. She not only organizes these concerts, she also visits people at home. She interviews them about their history and she tries to write down their stories; otherwise, they will be gone in a few years.” The “people” in question are Austrian-born Holocaust survivors.

All of which, says Gurtelschmied, makes his participation in the Viennese music program even more poignant and meaningful to him. He also makes an effort to spread the word back home. “When I return to Vienna, I try to tell the stories of these old people to my friends and other people. We also have to speak for the people who did not survive to tell their own stories. We should never stop talking about it.”

The pertinence of that commendable approach is even more significant in light of rising antisemitism in Europe, including in Austria. Neo-Nazis in Vienna, for example, have taken heart from the municipality’s refusal to remove a towering monument to Karl Lueger, the rabidly antisemitic late 19th-early 20th-century mayor who was greatly admired by Adolf Hitler. In Mein Kampf, the Nazi leader described Lueger as “a great German mayor.”

Perhaps, Gurtelschmied suggests, that malicious and ultimately deadly mindset can be offset by recalling the invaluable contribution made by Jewish composers, writers and thinkers to Austrian culture, and giving Holocaust survivors and their offspring a fillip in the process. “I want to tell the stories of these times. That’s why I come to Israel. I want to bring back the music and the melodies for the ears and the heart of these people.”

With a growing portfolio that already features baroque music to Mozart, and bel canto to operetta, and even the part of Tony in Leonard Bernstein’s 1950s smash hit music West Side Story, Gurtelschmied should do Austrian Culture Days proud.

The tenor says he is also looking forward to his time away from the stage, too. “After the second concert, we have this beautiful tradition of the Vienna coffee house, with apfelstrudel and other things. We sit down with the [Holocaust] survivors and their children and we hear their stories. We talk about little spots in the Second District and they maybe ask for us to sing some song – Vienna lied. That is wonderful.”

For tickets and more information, contact: [email protected], [email protected] and visit: www.wien-telaviv.com