Sunday, May 29, 2011

death and the matron

I have wanted to go to the Zentralfriedhof since before I got to Vienna. The way it's shot in The Third Man is so beautiful, and it is even more beautiful in real, um, life. Even the cemetery here is elegant.

Life, of course, intervened after I got here. More than once this year I've thought that the new job would be the death of me, but of course that's typical human hyperbole as I continue to be relentlessly alive and have failed to make the time to get to the outskirts of town and walk among the former Wieners. But today - today was perfect, sunny and mild, weather begging for a bike ride and body begging for distraction.

See, this week, these weeks, are full of news from friends all over, news of turmoil and upheaval. Some of it is joyous: marriage, new jobs, babies on the way, surprising endeavors. Some of it is frightening: changes in health, in employment, in the idea and picture of the future. Is it an especially stormy spring, or does the current constant glut of information make it seem so? The picture of the flood, the ruin, is ever before our eyes. I wanted to go walking in the cool green, lots of people, no conversation, imagining myself (as one always does in a new neighborhood) living in one of the newer homes.

This here is the Trusty Steed, which multiplied its daily commute by a factor of 4.5 today for this trip. She was a champ. Lord, it's a pleasure to ride the bikeways of Vienna, although I'm still a little tense on the busy streets where cars are closer than I'm used to. But most of the way even as far out as Simmering is designated bike paths, pleasant and safe. You can ride your bike around in the cemetery too, but I locked mine up at the entrance.

The entire place smelled incredible after the last two days of rain, fresh and green. It also smells often of roses, and there are bushes and vines of wild and cultivated roses on many graves. Some are totally overgrown with ivy, some of the statuary is falling down, some graves are hand-washed and carefully tended with new flowers and white rocks. There are Eastern European tombstones with photographs of people and cars. There is a section for babies with toys and pinwheels. I saw a family spading up earth there, and I could not take a photo of that. I remember my own family gathering around a small place in my hometown's soil, just large enough for the tiny box. So many things fell apart after that, so many things fell together. When I think of my own dead, the shades that seem closest, I still think of that day, of our angel.

And I think of Alice, of course, of my grandmother, who also tended roses in her own garden. I was mentally planning my summer trip and was looking for a good day to visit her when I remembered that of course, I wouldn't. She came to mind often as I saw the many tombstones that referred to "seine lieben Bergen" - his beloved mountains. That's a fairly common theme, city transplants calling up the memory of their Alpine homes at their place of final rest. Alice loved to be outside, and she loved to go back to New Ulm, to "the farm", or to be out on the lake.

This particular monument made me smile, knowing this town of literature, of learning, of law, of analysis. Was it the dead man who had trouble letting go of this world, his work, his opinions? Was it family? An admirer? patron? pushy engraver? Talk about getting the last word! There are so many fascinating works of art here, languid goddesses and strange busts and eerie death masks and oddly/brilliantly judged abstractions, along with plenty of grandiose religious statuary.

I spent a peaceful and inspiring few hours here, strolling on the dappled paths and thinking of the shifting sands everywhere. Then I hopped back on the Steed and headed home. Riding up the queenly broad path along the canal, the main artery that leaves town to the south hummed with cars to my left as trains and trams crossed the bridges over my head. My way was no less busy, packed with bikes and joggers, dogs and inline skater, strolling lovers and immoveable packs of tourists. Every artery of the city was flowing with its life's blood, its people, and we were all on our way in and out of Vienna's heart.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers

Today is supposed to be the Rapture, according to a particularly enthusiastic group of weirdos. There were billboards in Houston advertising this at the end of April, but I'm sure no one in Vienna was aware of this prediction when they programmed Mahler's Ninth Symphony for this past Wednesday. That was the hundredth anniversary of his passing, a day of remembrance significant to this town, and so the music of the end of his life, of the end of life, sounded in our hall 72 hours in advance of the purported end of time. Even if I do start seeing empty piles of clothing around me today, I'm not sure it would feel more monumental.

The last week anyway has been all about future and past, and the exquisite catching in between. Sometimes planning forward or remembering back can keep me from living in the present moment, but sometimes those activities are mirrors that throw light back upon the now, and I find myself there, or at least closer to there than usual. I've been meeting with all my colleagues making plans for next year, who plays what, when we start coaching the new things, when the old, who never needs a Solostunde for Sciarrone again and who should always have one, on and on. It is the beautiful, rolling story of a repertoire house, musicians with thirty years of triumphs and failures folding the new people in. I had to do an interview one day in a break from all this, and as I invited the interviewer through the door and said, "welcome to my office", I turned toward my desk, my pianos, the tall windows, the three roses, and found myself folded.

This comes right at a time when other professional/personal shifts feel seismic, historic endings and soon-to-be endings at Lincoln Center. So many days, I walked up Broadway from the Columbus Circle station and crossed that plaza into a certain community and tradition. So many nights, I walked through the doors on all sides of that square to hear friends make music. Nothing stays, that's true. But still.

There was a long symposium on Mahler in Vienna on Wednesday afternoon, at the end of which a colleague and I performed three songs. They happened to be exactly the same three I performed with a different beloved mezzo in NYC four years ago, a time monumental for other reasons. It was extraordinary to return to these pieces with a different mind and body. How trapped I was in mine then. How extraordinary now to touch this same music in a room that called us all away from ourselves, a room named for the man we were honoring, a man who once ran this house. His picture was everywhere in the room, chubby and bearded in youth, seated in an uncomfortable approximation of authority later, out in the recognizable streets of the city with his daughter.

The thoughts in your head that no one ever knows about! The chatter of life that I think Strauss tried to put into his operas, the dumb and present sound that Mahler writes as screaming winds or dirty strings. How many people are in the audience oh there's my boss does it matter that our dresses are different lengths I have absolutely got to get moth traps today and then it's time to begin. And then, mostly, somehow, you're gone, until you're not. As we began "Urlicht", an elderly lady in the front row loudly unwrapped a candy, then got up and walked out, etwas derb, perfect.

I had just enough time to nap before the concert, but the phone was ringing as I entered my office (my office).  He'd been at the symposium and loved the songs, he was at the stage door, could he meet me? He dropped the name of a singer I know, the one I had lunch with after the recital I almost slept through. The elderly man is the son of the architect who presided over the restoration of the Staatsoper after the war. We had a coffee and I listened to him talk about Vienna in rubble, the rebuilding of the city, his life as a lover of music. Then it was time for us to go hear the orchestra.

I gave a quick call to a sick colleague who will come back to work next week after a long illness. He lives, incidentally, in Bruno Walter's old apartment. The piano rehearsals for the original Mahler 8 soloists were held there, and Walter was living there when he conducted the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. I've eaten an omelette there, where those singers once made mistakes. I turned off my phone and walked through Mahler's halls, sat in the Loge next to my friend, a friendship that stretches back through Houston to a living City Opera, looked down on the stage as the Philharmonic walked out, their faces and habits now familiar. The concert would be dedicated to the tsunami victims, and it ended in silence after all that noise and suspension.

Lord, does it take courage to play the Ninth. The end of several movements are spun out forever, long and slow, very quiet, and often just a few people are playing. A little woodwind duet here, a single brass note there, a quiet string chord. These quiet notes are often sustained for a very long time. I can't describe to you the courage it takes to keep your breathing calm enough to just do that, play a super quiet long tone in the middle of all that music. There are also shatteringly loud and fast passages, and the sounds Mahler calls for range from exquisitely warm and beautiful to downright hillbillified. The piece has, is, everything. When it was over, my friend and I walked back to our offices without speaking, partly because we couldn't, and partly because there was nothing to say.

Outside on the plaza named for another Staatsoper director (a whole different set of ties to the rubble, the rebuilding, the orchestra, my oldest colleagues) there was music and chatter and traffic, the smells of the sausage stands, people licking at the first ice creams of the year and running for the tram. The world is coming to an end. Yes, always. I took a deep breath and stepped into the Ring.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

and we'll all go together

I am not at the movies. I thought about going because it might be a historic night, but I cleaned my apartment instead, and now I'm hanging out with mineral water, olives, and YouTube. I love spending leisure time looking through the endless offerings on that site, put up lovingly by fans who want to share whatever it is they love. It's the Internet at its finest, all this performance available and findable.

My latest jones is for American ethnic popular music. MtMn's Viennese forays into blues sparked this. Of course he's met a variety of echte Wiener with impenetrable accents who know more about American blues than both of us put together, and he spent hours on YT listening to rough. tangy gospel and blues from the 20s and 30s in preparation for his gigs. I learned about a time when Texas and Alabama sounded wildly different, and how eventually some of those people would follow the trains and the money up to Chicago and Detroit, bringing their music with them to be shared and changed. Somehow John Lee Hooker leads to Aretha leads to Jay-Z.

My grandfather was born in Ireland. I remember him actually singing "Kathleen Mavourneen" to me once, and "I'll Take you Home Again, Kathleen" (I was well into adulthood before I thought that those songs were not really about me or my name but about the grief and cost of leaving home). There were Clancy Brothers recordings in the house, music from the old country sung for the new country, but largely for the emigres or those with ties to them. I'm fascinated with that era around the great wars, Connie Francis singing in Italian and Lou Monte in dialect, Fanny Brice with her Yiddishisms, all those Irish bands, all the poor people's music becoming popular. These stories pale in comparison to the story of black Americans' musics, their popularization, co-opting, and metamorphosis, but all the stories are damn interesting.

Here I am in opera's old country, avoiding the HD screen and the things I long and dread to see. Instead I use technology to listen to the music of the Kellys, joyous and drunken and sad and nostalgic. No, it's me that's nostalgic - the music is still vibrant and full of information about a people and a way of life. Humorous, raw, tough, irreverent, pious, it still speaks to me.

Across the ocean wild and wide, a father is parting from his daughter forever. I'm reaching through the screen for something that has not yet disappeared.


Friday, May 13, 2011

smooth move

My week began at 9:36 am on Sunday. It isn't normal for me to remember such a thing with precision, but the moment I rolled over and looked at my cell phone that morning remains just a little bit seared into my brain. There is nothing quite so bracing as waking 24 minutes before a sound check.

The kicker is that I somehow knew I was going to oversleep. I'd been one week back in Vienna post-Texas, truly worn out from teaching, socializing, staying up until all hours, and finally getting sick just in time for my flight home. Then came catching up at work, rehearsing for said recital, still recovering from illness, and jet lag. I hadn't slept well in many days. On Saturday night, I knew I was exhausted enough to crash. I went to bed early, I chose a new alarm tone, I upped the number of repetitions of said tone. And when I opened my eyes, that little electronic salsa tune was two full hours in the past.

I was at the Staatsoper at 10:05. Juliette and Norbert and I proceeded to have our sound check and then do a very beautiful concert to end our series in the Mahlersaal.

Lessons learned:
1. still alive in this middle-aged body is the sleek young thing who could make a morning church gig in ten minutes, thanks to short hair, perfume, gum, and plenty of dark clothing.
2. No one in NYC will stare at you for applying makeup on the subway, which is different than in my current location.
3. I could probably kick my caffeine habit if I just got up really late for everything. Exciting.

What a stroke of luck that dear pal JB was in town that day, and that we could have a leisurely breakfast after the recital. Spring rain fell and the sun dried the streets off while we caught up with each other. The week's been full of beauty like that, cafe visits with old friends, good performances, good rehearsals. A family visit draws closer (and with it some needed time off), summer plans come into focus. My bike carries me around the Ring, we're ending our season and organizing the next.

I can almost say: done. I can almost see what actually happened, past and above the noise of opinion and worry. The great adventure, the big risk, the drama - it all continues to smooth out into a normal, bumpy, silly, beautiful life.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

from Mary Oliver

Why I wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.