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By Alan Behr

VIENNA, 14 DECEMBER 2009 — Perhaps more than any other former and European imperial capital, Vienna has struggled to balance heritage and tradition with modernity. Portraits of the last great emperor, Franz Josef, are everywhere, as are portraits of his wife, the Empress Elisabeth, still affectionately known as Sisi. The love for the imperial couple and, by implication, the empire of which Vienna was the capital, has something of a cult status, and Viennese still speak with sorrow about the unhappy demise of the empress. Contrast that with the attitude of the Swiss, who have no particular respect for the imperial histories of countries that surround them: what to Austrians is sacred ground — the spot in Geneva where Sisi was stabbed to death by a publicity-seeking Italian anarchist — is a barely marked bit of dock near the Beau-Rivage, a place to catch the water taxi for shopping in town.

Imperial Ambassador to Paris Prince Joseph Wenzel
of Liechtenstein's Golden Carriage.
Sala Terrena, Liechtenstein Museum
Photo: Alan Behr

Even when modernity has been distinctly Viennese, it has had to squeeze itself around tradition, if only to make itself heard. When my grandmother lived in Vienna, during the First World War, she was only a couple of blocks from Sigmund Freud’s apartment and shared the city with Egon Schiele and Gustaf Klimt. Her timing was just slightly off for the chance of catching glimpse of the celebrated Gustaf Mahler and the impoverished Adolf Hitler. As with many bourgeois Viennese girls of her generation, she was successfully raised to be unaware of any of it.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that, during Vienna Design Week, held in the city each autumn, organizers have to cajole shopkeepers to play along. The idea is brilliant and the execution is often so as well: talented designers from around the world are asked to create useful articles and objets d’art for exhibition in participating shops and other venues. Some stores embrace the experience, as did J. & L. Lobmeyr this year. Founded in 1823 and located on the prestigious Kärntner Straße, Lobmeyr made blown glass for Biedermeier burghers and for the Habsburgs; the firm is still run by the Lobmeyr family. On a long table at the front of the store was set out a project in glass by Max Lamb, a young product designer from Great Britain: each of the many identical drinking glasses bore one additional round engraving, and the price stepped upward with each extra engraved spot, creating a kind of unity between artisanship and commerce.

Muse known as the "Wiener Kore,"
Greek, from 330 to 320 BC, marble
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Photo: Alan Behr

Other traditional shops, many of them also family run for generations, agreed to participate, but a few stuffed the new and unique into corners where they were permitted only second billing to traditional, readily saleable goods.

As fashion designers have known for decades, showcasing the daring is how you sell the comforting and comfortable: after touring many Design Week venues, it was to Lobmeyr that I returned for a traditional Biedermeier-style crystal bud vase.

If Austria can be said to have a national art form, it is music. With its three opera houses and numerous concert venues, Vienna seems to have something consequential going on every day. New this year is one of those good ideas that technology makes possible: while paying customers watch the performance at the Wiener Staatsoper (the Vienna State Opera) from seats within, anyone willing to stand or to sit on a chair or a mat supplied by the opera house can watch the same performance for free on a giant screen set up along the front exterior wall. The picture is clear and the sound system is splendid, and on my first night in town, I finished an early dinner only to hear the night air filling with the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Nabucco as I approached the opera house.

Viennese public watching Verdi's Nabucco for free
outside the Vienna State Opera house
Photo: Alan Behr

The next day, I impulsively bought a matinee ticket to Lohengrin. The Staatsoper follows the European model of embracing the traditional in repertoire while allowing directors to interpret familiar works beyond all recognition. Indeed, if you were to watch this Lohengrin on the outdoor screen and the sound system were to fail, you might have some trouble understanding what opera you were seeing. Nearly all characters were in modern dress, mostly in black, and Lohengrin did not enter and exit riding a swan (no loss there, really); Elsa, who, in the libretto, does not fully understand what a catch her hero really is, was made symbolically blind. A chartreuse toy dump truck held center stage. The burly, bearded Finnish conductor, Leif Segerstam, brought out both the dazzle and pathos of Wagner’s score, and the husband-and-wife duo of Peter Seiffert and Petra-Maria Schnitzer (a Viennese native) gave vocal credibility to their signature roles of Lohengrin and Elsa, parts that, in less experienced hands, can hurl German romanticism crashing into the stone wall of kitsch.

Intermission, Wagner's Lohengrin at the Wiener Staatsoper
Photo: Alan Behr

The Wiener Philharmoniker, which often jousts with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the title of the world’s best orchestra, was absent from town, but the Wiener Mozart Orchester was playing in the Goldener Saal (Golden Hall) of the Musikverein. For someone familiar with the Musikverein only from the worldwide broadcasts of the New Year’s Concert, it is surprisingly small and has a charmingly creaky and woody feel that contrasts with the gilding the television cameras lovingly showcase. It’s rather like stepping into an antique music box.

The program promised numerous Mozart warhorses. The artists who delivered them wore eighteenth-century costume. The audience was composed of foreigners who snapped the hall and the orchestra, even during the performance, with their small but ubiquitous cameras. The orchestra did not use period instruments (in the manner of the Academy of Ancient Music), only the famous bits of multi-movement works were played, and the second encore was a leap into the nineteenth century for The Blue Danube waltz. You just knew what was coming: the conductor, Martin Kerschbaum, entered, banging on a drum and encouraged everybody to clap along to the Radetzky March, just as the audience is encouraged to do during the New Year’s Concert. My concert companion, probably the only Austrian in the room, did what any self-respecting Austrian connoisseur would do and refused to clap along. But as he noted, the orchestra members, who must play much the same concert dozens of times throughout the year, showed considerable enthusiasm for what they were doing. Just as intriguing what the fact that there were many women in their number, with the result that the audience got to hear Mozart’s greatest hits as he probably never anticipated: from young women dressed in full Georgian drag.

Wiener Mozart Orchester performs in Vienna's Musikverein
Photo: Alan Behr

The Albertina, around the corner from the Staatsoper, has received praise among discerning Viennese for its expansive collection of prints and drawings. The German-speaking countries often turn art exhibitions into art-history lessons, and in Impressionismus—Wie das Licht auf die Leinwand kam (an expository title that museum poetically translates as Impressionism—Painting Light), visitors are shown a timeline for the invention of different colors of paint, how the development of paint in tubes helped liberate the Impressionists to work outside the studio and how their paintings left traces of their outdoor methods, such as a poplar seed stuck to a landscape canvas and beach sand that adhered to a seascape.  Although the show felt huge, none of the 170 works was a masterpiece; but the display was excellent, and you left with a greater understanding of the technical demands of painting that are too often overlooked in art exhibitions.

Contemporary visual arts were represented in town as well. My pick for the wholly imaginary Shrug and Huh? Award goes to Micol Assael, whose ФОМУШКА, a noisy and malodorous machine, clanked and spewed water vapor in the Secession building, one floor above Der Beethovenfries (The Beethoven Frieze) of Klimt.

In contrast, the Liechtenstein Museum: Die Fürstlichen Sammlungen (The Princely Collections) has completed its fifth year of displaying part of the important Old Masters collection of Fürst (Prince) Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein, in the family’s former summer palace. It’s a big, Baroque house, finely restored, but the collection of five centuries of European painting, sculpture and decorative arts seems surprisingly small and intimate, even though the main exhibition has about the same number of works as the Albertina’s Impressionist show; the effect is perhaps achieved by the nineteenth-century style of stacking paintings on the walls — or perhaps it is just that the art is so good, time seems to pass quickly as you walk through it.

Grand Hall of the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Stairway from the 1st floor galleries to the main entrance
Photo: Alan Behr

The main fine arts museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the Museum of Art History) seems never to change — except that, some time ago, they took down the small sign, lettered in Russian and other languages, telling invading armies that, as this is a site of high cultural importance, would you kindly not to trash the place. The art works, from the world-class antiquities collection, to Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, to the row of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, seem to be where they have always been. Even the huge sofas framing the fortress-like heating units in the middle of the main rooms appear never to have been altered. If there ever were an example of the comfort of tradition in the arts, this museum is probably it.

In matters of style, the tension between tradition and modernity resolves itself daily in Vienna as well. You do not feel here, as you do in Paris or Milan, that you need to be a follower of fashion or that you even need to dress up all that much. I sat on the mat outside the opera house for Nabucco in jacket and tie and took my last-minute box seat for Lohengrin in the jeans I’d been wearing, and I was not made to feel out of place on either occasion. What really got things moving for me was when I decided to go native: I went to a loden shop and bought a traditional Austrian jacket by Schneiders of Salzburg. When I showed up at the Rote Bar at the Hotel Sacher and other places around town on my final day, dressed like Captain von Trapp, I got true and complete respect. It’s a look that, in the context of Vienna, is both sophisticated and comfortable but perhaps does not travel all that well. And that is precisely the point: all tradition is local, and in Vienna, to be local is a source of lasting pride.

Title photo above: Horn Vision Glasses 
Austrian designer Adam Wehsely Swiczinsky and Thomas Petz of petz hornmanufaktur created horn vision glasses for Vienna Design Week

Alan Behr is head of the Fashion and Luxury Goods Practice at Alston & Bird LLP in New York. He hopes to ask the Wiener Staatsoper, if they are done with the toy dump truck, whether his young son can have it.

Travel Tips: Vienna

Werner Reiterer: Death in a Solution of Life
11 December 2009 - 30 January 2010
Galerie Krinzinger
Seilerstätte 16
1010 Vienna

Till Fellner, piano
12 January 2010
Vienna Konzerthaus
Lothringerstrasse 20
A-1030 Vienna

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