Arriving in Vienna was suspiciously painless. It is almost as though I have finally mastered the art of endlessly navigating new public transit systems. Also, my ability to magnetize strangers to pity/assist me has risen to an all-time high. I have become a beacon of obvious confusion towards which the culturally-moored direct their assistance.
I have been “living” in Hernals, a district about 4km outside the city center, just next to the Vienna Woods. The Vienna Woods is arguably the best part about life in Vienna. One can easily walk or bus up into the hills where the houses slowly become cuter and quainter and smaller until they can barely be registered as actual human homes and not the domain of gnome people. Just beyond their reach is a massive swath of rolling forest with trail systems slice cozy paths across it’s dense interior. Beech trees sway lazily, snakes and foxes cruise around looking for trouble, and determined Austrians puff around the weaving trails.
And that’s basically what Vienna is all about, on the fringes. The city itself is pretty cool, if you’re into seeing massive probably-important buildings. But if you’re like me, you’re less interested in seeing old oil paintings that have been deemed important and more interested in awkwardly shopping for peanut butter, asking strangers for directions, and trying to do regular-person stuff without embarrassing yourself. So of course, the regular and mundane are accessible in Vienna, but we must mention the most obvious and acclaimed facet of Vienna: The land of classical music.
Knock Knock. Who’s There? Many Important White Dudes
Vienna was, of course, famously home to Mozart, an oil-painting who wrote several hundred thousand pieces of music, including Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the theme for the first two Jurassic Park movies. His fame was such that he has even been referenced in the hit television show “The Simpsons”.
Knowing this, along with Vienna’s reputation for being one of the great cities for classical music, I decided to go to the Wiener Konzerthaus to see a show. I managed to procure a press ticket which made me feel conflictingly proud, happy, and nervous. As I scanned my backpack and found only a single, highly-shredded cardigan, I wondered if it would be enough to please the ghost of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, the Camerata Salzburg Orchestra, and an entire packed house of fancy and possibly shmancy concert-goers.
This is How Long They Make Your Applaud For
I decided that at worst, the ghosts could only terrorize me and not physically hurt me, the orchestra would be too busy convulsing on stage, and classical music decorum would prevent anyone from taking any action against me beyond the mild raising of an eyebrow, which posed no real threat.
And so I made my way from the land of foxes and snakes into the clean, old, but smoke-filled city, onto the rickety #43 tram toward Alser Straße, and to the konzerthaus, positioned near YET ANOTHER very cool fountain, painstakingly erected someone very important who probably made slaves do it.
As I entered the concert hall I was immediately floored by the number of coat checks. Vienna must have been a coat-lover’s paradise because everywhere I looked, coats were being handed over to unsmiling Austrian faces and placed on racks. I myself did not bring a coat, and if I took off my threadbare cardigan, I would reveal that I was wearing a walmart t-shirt, and surely the punishment would be severe, not to mention my mother’s shame, who loves classical music and is always trying to get me to buy new clothes.
Fortunately, I was able to boldly procure my press ticket and keep my clothes on, and I entered the hall. It was regally red, gilded in gold, made mostly of marble. It sounded amazing, like singing in 10,000 showers. I walked in and out, exploring different parts of the konzerthaus. The average patron was probably 62-68 years old, seemed to be Austrian, and while not dressed to the nines, were definitely dressed up for a night out. I felt unclean, American, and out of place, but by usual neurosis was supplanted by my curiosity with the space and the general kinda stuffy vibe. Downstairs there was a bar directly ahead of a beautiful descending staircase into a marble floor and behind it, a bust of Beethoven frowned over the entire room. I think anything anyone needs to know about the classical music experience, broadly, can be inferred from this scene.
There are old men here, they are living in stone forever, they have been deified, they are unhappy to see you, and they would prefer if you were silent because all that frowning takes immense focus.
Following Beethoven’s orders, I went upstairs and asked a vested-employee if she could help me find my seat. She obliged, leading me to the last place I was expecting-right in the center of the room, a few rows back from the stage. Debatably, for visual and auditory purposes, it was the best seat in the house.
As I settled into my throne, I stood up to let three people by, all of whom were in their young twenties. Startled, I asked them if they were looking for the Taylor Swift concert, because this is classical music only.
The man explained he was an intern at the konzerthaus. I asked what that entailed and he told me a bunch of jazz about organizing transportation, something about documents, maybe some logistical stuff. I don’t know, his accent was thick. I asked him if Mozart was performing tonight. He affirmed, wrongly, that Mozart’s works would be performed tonight. I explained that I was asking of Mozart himself would be performing. He looked confused and said no, Mozart was no longer alive. Shocked and saddened by this news, I began to weep audibly, but just then the orchestra took the stage and my wails were drowned out by the restrained thunder of applause.
They were probably 50-or-so members: 4 cello, 3 bass, 5 viola, 10 violins, 10 brass and woodwind, and one timpani player that they stuck off in the corner on timpani island. After they had been seated, the conductor strode in and did a lot of bowing, hand-shaking (only the principle instrumentalists get a handshake from the boss), smiling, and more bowing. Eventually, the kind of long-winded pomp ended and we all got down to business, the real-reason we were here: To listen to old, very complicated, and emotionally irrelevant music.
I say this mostly in jest, because I think there is a place for classical music, but I think that place is mostly in the ears of an ever-shrinking niche of people that study and play it. I have some background playing it, but I still find listening to it to be a great challenge.
Classical music is usually heralded as a sort of intellectual watermark of music; an apex that we the people will never again reach. There’s a reason people think/thought making your baby listen to Mozart would make it “smarter”, a vague and dubious outcome. If anything, making your baby listen to Mozart would probably just make it more pretentious.
I suppose this belief is predicated on the fact that the music itself is rhythmically and harmonically spazzy. Because the music is linear but basically always changing and morphing, circling back on itself with changing themes, long-form and often inscrutable (to untrained ears) patterns, it’s reasonable that people would draw the conclusion that this complexity and focus on detail requires “intellectual” focus.
But for me, most classical music feels maddeningly A.D.D., which is sort of the antithesis of our culturally agreed-upon assessment. Instead of being able to sit with a nice melody, a simple rhythm, or a beautiful harmony, most classical music is constantly flying off on interminable flights-of-fancy. It cannot sit still to save it’s life. If intellectuality is based on never-ending complexity, then I guess classical music is intellectual. However, I would argue that there is plenty of room at the table for the emotional richness of contemporary and popular music and a lot to be said for more folk-driven, repetitive music. To me, regarding classical music as the top of a hierarchy in this way is the same as regarding an ivy-league education as intellectually superior strolling on a beach. They seem unrelated and not in need of such limitations of qualification.
Sorry About That, Let’s Continue
Anyway, the orchestra came and played some amazing music and I learned a lot during my two hours.
Firstly, I think that the only reason the orchestra pauses in between movements or pieces AT ALL is to finally allow patrons to cough that have been desperately suppressing the urge. Observe.
People Love to Cough At The Orchestra
Secondly, as long as the audience is applauding after a piece, the conductor will bow, shake hands with the principle players, then walk off stage, then walk back on stage, bow, shake all the hands again, ask the orchestra to rise and bow, bow once more, then walk off stage again. But if they keep clapping, he just keeps leaving and coming back, making them all rise, bow, and then sit again. This happened 5 times after the Mendelssohn piece. I am curious to know how many victory laps are possible and I did my part to keep them coming.
Lastly, conducting is weird. You basically act out the emotional feeling of every instrument’s part of every piece, wincing, grimacing, smiling as if in a meadow, pulling up darkness from the underworld, bopping along on a country trail, often in the span of just a few seconds, over and over until the piece is complete. It really feels like a form of interpretive dance, and I think most modern concert halls should have a jumbo-tron of the conductor’s face so we can more easily engage with what is going on, emotionally.
And there you have it. The orchestra finished and I witnessed some sweet Stradivarius playing. Me, dude in crummy sweater. I liked it, but I would have liked it better with more fog machines or an inflatable dragon or something, but I guess tradition is tradition.
I smiled at Beethoven on the way out, and like most older Europeans, he did not smile back. But that’s just his way.