100 and still kicking

This weekend the Vienna Konzerthaus will celebrate its centenary with a program of concerts.

The Vienna Konzerthaus 521 (photo credit: Wiener Konzerthaus/Lukas Beck)
The Vienna Konzerthaus 521
(photo credit: Wiener Konzerthaus/Lukas Beck)
Vienna has a glorious cultural heritage. One only has to take a stroll around the compact city center, past the magnificent edifice of the baroque-style Karlskirche (St. Charles Church), the palatial Belvedere residence with its sprawling gardens, now used as a sumptuous art exhibition space, or the towering 12th-century St. Stephen’s Cathedral, to know this is a city with an abundance of historical collateral.
Of course, the good times for the Austro-Hungarian Empire came to an ignominious end with the advent of World War I, which incidentally was about the time the Vienna Konzerthaus came into being.
This weekend the Konzerthaus will celebrate its centenary with a program of concerts, culled from a surprisingly wide swath of genres and mindsets. And there is plenty of quality entertainment and intellectual pursuit in Sunday’s lineup, across a wide range of disciplinary endeavor.
To start, stellar London-based Austrian octogenarian pianist Alfred Brendel will be around to share some of his accrued musical and life wisdom in a discussion with 45-year-old Austrian pianist Rico Gulda, while Konzerthaus archivist Dr. Erwin Barta will offer a whistle-stop review of the institution’s first century, weighing up the pros and cons of the traditional and modern approaches to music and the arts.
On the performance side, as befitting such an illustrious center of culture, there is an abundance of top-class fare to be had, with, for example, the UKbased Belcea Quartet – which will appear at the Jerusalem Music Center in May – performing Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major, and the 40-year-old German composer and clarinetist JÖrg Widmann joining forces with Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja in a rendition of Brahms’s Clarinet Sonata No. 1.
But Konzerthaus CEO and artistic director Matthias Naske has clearly signaled his intent to keep the institution – weighty heritage notwithstanding – at the forefront of artistic enterprise, and there is a plethora of envelope-pushing slots throughout the program.
Take, for example, the solo performance by 55-year-old Austrian composer, organist and electroacoustics innovator Wolfgang Mitterer. Then there is Austrian jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s confluence with adventurous multi-reedman Wolfgang Puschnig, and an eclectic concert with the Hugo Wolf Quartet in which the foursome will take in a string quartet by 20th-century Austrian composer Otto M. Zykan, jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s “Anita” and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s perennial favorite, “The Girl from Ipanema.”
More ethnic entertainment can be had courtesy of Mali-born musician Mamadou Diabaté, who will play balafon – a sort of West African wooden xylophone – alongside Austria-based, Burkina Faso-born percussionist Karim Sanou.
Naske feels the expansive musical-cultural spread is an indispensable chain in the ongoing musical evolution of the institution in his charge. “[Our] perception is closely related to the present,” he says, “that the artistic programming relates to contemporary music and different musical genres is already part of the heritage, and is well-appreciated by relevant groups of our regular patrons.”
Naske is relatively new to the job, although he has been in the business for some time. He took up his position at the Konzerthaus just over a year ago, after a decade of working as director-general of the Philharmonie Luxembourg and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. He says he returned to Vienna enthused by the challenge ahead. “The reason I moved back to Vienna, after more than 10 years in Luxembourg, is actually based on my sincere hope that I could help the organization to flourish and develop new strengths in difficult times,” he notes, adding that he has had a long love affair with the institution he now heads. “I grew up in Vienna and started to regularly attend concerts when I was a youngster. [Feted concert hall Wiener] Musikverein and, equally, the Wiener Konzerthaus were my favorite places in my youth.”
Jewish input to the cultural and musical life of Vienna, during its imperial heyday and thereafter, is still present and correct in the Austrian capital, and Naske is very much aware of it and keen to keep the Jewish flame burning. “One cannot overestimate the contribution of Jewish artists and managers to cultural life in Vienna and to the Wiener Konzerthaus. To name but a few: Hugo Botstiber was the first secretary-general of the Konzerthaus. He implemented the Konzerthaus’s role in Vienna’s cultural life, while committing to tradition and staying open to the new.
“And, of course, countless Jewish artists or artists with a Jewish background performed and still perform at the Konzerthaus. There are conductors like Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Otto Klemperer, Lorin Maazel, George Solti, George Szell and Bruno Walter; virtuosos like Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Bronislaw Huberman, Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Arnold Rosé and Arthur Rubinstein; writers like Max Brod, Egon Friedell, Efraim Kishon and Franz Molnar; and composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky and György Ligeti performed or conducted regularly at the Konzerthaus.
“Since 1913 the Wiener Konzerthaus has dedicated many a concert to the work of Gustav Mahler, and a memorial tablet reminds all visitors that the first performance of a Mahler symphony in Austria, after the end of the Nazi regime, took place on June 1, 1945.”
One cannot, naturally, ignore the catastrophic effect the Holocaust had on Austrian Jewry, and the consequent damage to Viennese cultural life. Naske is keen to point out that the Konzerthaus was at the forefront of attempts to regenerate Jewish musical activity in post-World War II Vienna. “The Holocaust had a very strong impact on the Konzerthaus’s productions,” he states. “Artists and producers alike suffered under the Nazi regime, and were forced to emigrate or were killed. After World War II, the Konzerthaus was – apart from the communist city councilor for cultural affairs – the only institution which invited artists, such as Schoenberg, to come back to Austria.”
In 2008, Matthias’s predecessor Bernhard Kerres initiated the annual Spot On festival, which, as the name suggests, focused on music from different cultures around the world. First up was the Spot On Yiddishkeit program, which featured a host of top Israeli artists and Jewish performers from the Diaspora, including veteran singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein, Paris-based jazz pianist Yaron Herman, world music star Idan Raichel, clarinet virtuoso Giora Feidman and stellar jazz bass player Avishai Cohen. (Incidentally, the latter will perform at the Konzerthaus on Monday.) At the time, Kerres said it was clear to him from the outset that in view of the Jewish contribution to Vienna’s musical and artistic heritage, the first Spot On slot would be devoted to Jewish and Israeli music.
Meanwhile, Naske is looking to the future and to spreading the multi-pronged word and ethos of the Konzerthaus. “[I want] to position the great potential of an openminded perception of music and art in the hearts of as many people in this city as possible. This will only work in close cooperation with the most excellent artists, ensembles and orchestras throughout all musical genres, with the aim of actually enlivening culture – and not only dreaming about it.”
For more information about the Vienna Konzerthaus: www.konzerthaus.at