Vienna, You Alone

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Vienna is on my short list of favorite cities in the world. I am not alone in this, but I also know there are people who abhor it. I can understand why. It has had many long periods of brilliant creativity and influence, but some of the darkest days of European history took place there as well. Because much of that history happened during the lifetimes of a small but significant group of surviving old people, we must be cognizant of what they endured and learn from what transpired.

Vienna is contradictory to be sure. It is a city of amazing art, creativity and innovation, but also of a provincialism that is, most of the time, naively inward-looking but has been, in the past, poisonously anti-Semitic and racist. Vienna is hardly alone in this regard, but few places juxtaposed this hatred with the creation of the loftiest, most radical and deeply humane artistic expressions.

When I was a child in Manhattan in the 1960s and early 1970s, West 72nd St. was full of bakeries, cafes and small businesses run by Viennese emigres—most of them Jewish—who maintained much of their Old World ways in exile. They were the lucky ones who escaped before being killed by the Nazis. More than a few of them became doctors and psychiatrists. Many others brought their musical talents and enriched their new city. All of the New York Viennese regularly went to Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and had a sense of themselves, in part, through their engagement with culture. 

Julius Rudel, in his important memoir First and Lasting Impressions: Julius Rudel looks back on a life in music (University of Rochester Press, 2013), did an excellent job of describing what Vienna meant to him as a young man who left just before the war, found opportunity in the New York of the early 1940s and worked in Vienna, with mixed emotions, later in life.

I first went to Vienna in 1976, just shy of my 20th birthday. I had been steeped in the ambivalence of the New York Viennese but felt there must be more than what they told me. At the time, there was still palpable evidence of the war, including men missing limbs and quite a few people who never smiled. And yet I explored neighborhoods, visited cafes where people idled over superb coffee and cake, and dined in typical restaurants (called a beisl) where the quirky and melodic Viennese speech seemed geared to wit that was both sharp and mildly profane. People laughed more in these places.

I visited Freud’s house, but also those of architects, artists and composers, including Beethoven. Museums contained centuries of glorious art and whole collections were devoted to paintings done in Vienna that came to define that city in 1900. Art galleries sold Kokoschkas and Schieles for not much money. Antique shops were full of gorgeous yet practical objects made by the Viennese pioneers of modern design such as Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and Josef Urban (who later became an important scenic designer at the Metropolitan Opera).

And then there was the music! This is the city where a long line of composers lived and worked, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, the Strauss family, Bruckner, Mahler, Lehár, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and many more. Not all found it congenial but each one produced extraordinary works that are at the core of the classical music repertory. Imagine our concert halls without them. I went to operas and concerts every night, heard sensational performances and discovered passionate and highly opinionated audiences who would demand dozens of curtain calls and then go debate the merits of performances well into the night.

What I found in Vienna, and find with every return visit, is air that is highly charged—with creativity, intellectual fervor, contentiousness and an unmistakable eroticism. This last factor should not be confused with being romantic in the way of Paris or Venice, but is always so palpable there that I can understand what is at play, just below the surface, in Der Rosenkavalier and Die Fledermaus. These works are not about slightly transgressive naughtiness but bespeak a society where the discreet pursuit of extreme pleasure is high art.

All of this will be on my mind as New York embarks on a citywide festival of arts and ideas called "Vienna: City of Dreams" from February 21-March 16. While events will occur in 20 venues, its anchor will be Carnegie Hall, which is offering a marvelous series of performances by the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna State Opera (concert versions of Wozzeck and Salome), recitals and chamber music.

Talks, exhibitions and performances will be held at significant venues throughout the city, including the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Jewish Museum, the Morgan Library and the Paley Center for Media. The Neue Galerie, New York’s treasure trove of Viennese art, has an exhibition of posters from the Vienna Secession until June 30. The Leo Baeck Institute has an exhibition about Jewish Vienna through March 31.

I am looking forward to a film series, Vienna Unveiled: A City in Cinema, at the Museum of Modern Art. Details for the whole festival can be found on Carnegie Hall’s website.

Two Vienna-themed plays are on now: David Grimm’s new Tales from Red Vienna at Manhattan Theatre Club and Ferdinand Bruckner’s 1926 play Pains of Youth at the Access Theater. The Metropolitan Opera, though not involved in the festival, will soon revive Strauss’s Arabella, which both embraces and skewers Viennese middle class propriety.

I hope my fellow New Yorkers will immerse in this Viennese feast. It arrives from a place that has a strong sense of identity and whose citizens criticize it actively yet love it fiercely—just as we do in our city.

1) Cafe Hawelka, Vienna, Austria (Flickr/Paula Soler-Maya) 2) Vienna State Opera House (Johannes Simon/Getty ImagesGetty Images)