Arnold Schoenberg, Cafe Demel, Cafe Landtmann, E. Randol Schoenberg, Gustav Klimt, Hollywood Exiles, Leonard Bernstein, Roland Berger, Solti Ring Cycle, The Seccession Building, The Woman in Gold, Vienna, Vienna Philharmonic
To the Time, Its Art. To the Art, Its Freedom.
My home of Hollywood was the exiled haven of a legendary list of emigres, my mom serving many of them at 20th Century Fox or Chasen’s. Older teachers and colleagues spoke rapturously of working with Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter when they were with the Los Angeles Philharmonic or Columbia Symphony. That meant discovering Mahler would not be far away. Lotte Lehmann was at the Music Academy in Santa Barbara. Erich Wolfgang Korngold invents the film score here, his violinist granddaughter Katie living down the street from our house in Eagle Rock. Alma Mahler lives with Franz Werfel in Beverly Hills. Schoenberg is friends with Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers and his entire family are now great friends. And a very young Zubin Mehta was leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recording Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varese and William Kraft, so the name Hans Swarowsky was in the air.
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (I could stop right there but it wouldn’t be honest) Schubert, Brahms, the Strauss Family, Bruckner, Wolf, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. The strongest list of local composers on Planet Earth. The Viennese feel they own this music so in September of 1977 I set out to find out their secrets.
My mom had filled me with Viennese detail. Before moving to Los Angeles she had her apprenticeship in service at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas with a Viennese taskmaster maitre’d. If place settings were not perfect, he’d pop the silverware with his fist until my mom got the message that everything needed to be perfekt. And natuerlich, she taught this to me when I worked for her at our family restaurant (free advice if you run an ensemble: learn how to put on a dinner).
I grew up in West Hollywood with an extended family grandmother, Elizabeth Ricca, who, being Italian, loved opera and was widowed from a member of the La Scala Orchestra. When I learned of dwarfs, dragons, giants, heroes, gods, mortals, rainbow bridges and magic fire, I was hooked on Wagner. My mom got me started with an RCA Victor record with Toscanni and Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel singing the third scene of Act I of Die Walkuere. Mom had often waited on both Melchior (he retired to the San Fernando Valley) and Traubel (who was in quite a few movies).
And being hooked on Wagner in the early 1960s meant the first recordings of his Ring Cycle with Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic were an event. I still remember purchasing Das Rheingold on Washington’s Brithday at a Discount Record Store on Wilshire Boulevard (which was directed nationally by my now best friend Martin Perlich). Or saving in a piggy bank to buy the score of Goetterdaemmerung, for me the title alone conjured up the music.
When this recording showed up as my next birthday present, the rest was history. Though I’ve moved beyond the French horn to follow my even deeper love of new music, I was inspired by the playing of Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic. His playing constitutes an argument ender about how the horn should sound.
What is the mystery of the Viennese sound? Is it a true secret? Like Haydn’s Clock Symphony, what makes the Viennese tick?
Dreams might not come true in Vienna, but cliches do, especially if you believe in love-hate relationships. The fin de siecle glow of a world careening to its cliff, Vienna experienced its death hunting a pervasive Jewish intellectual and artistic presence to a failed extinction. The brief shining moments of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele married to the structural hallucinations of Gustav Mahler. Robert Musil, the Joyce and Proust of the German language. The background of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven countered by a foreground of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. The unique application of German Wienerisch, celebrated by ultra conservatives Hoffmanstahl and Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier. The Path to New Music of the Second Viennese School, which ends in my home town of Los Angeles.
And one of those cliches (why should one avoid food when discussing culture?) is the sugar heaven that is Vienna. There is no denying it – Vienna has great cuisine, a gulasch of Hungarian, Jewish, Gypsy food mixed with a French occupation and a Viennese attention to detail. Think Wolfgang Puck. And all us should agree, the Viennese own pastry like they own music. And pastry, like music, demands the precision and perfection of a jeweller.
Often a digression becomes the point. In Vienna, the background of their sound, their klang, is rooted in a deep faith about the abstract qualities of musical construction. Think Beethoven. Qualities that are simultaneously mysterious and known. A Viennese musician is intellectually engaged about music, bordering on the scientific, but it is second nature. That is what confuses the outsider. All of this sounds wildly out of fashion today. Does it sound boring to you? Then perhaps I can suggest the environment of the Viennese coffee house?
For something private, always go upstairs to talk.
But precision alone will not get you very far in music. So keep one thing in permanent focus. The Vienna Philharmonic is an opera orchestra. The sound concept, from the first violins to the bassoon to the tuba to the timpanist, all use the human voice as the goal. Tone production, for every instrument, is uniformly structured. Are there rules? Yes. But remember even John Cage urged his students to “follow the leader.” After all, he’d studied with Vienna’s Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles.
But to complete the stage set needed for the sharing of my apprenticeship with Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic that will be my next post, and in many ways to bring my story full circle and into the present, I need to also discuss color. Specifically one color.
Beethoven had a favorite book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was influenced by The Theory of Color and I would recommend a read to anyone who is interested in Beethoven, which might mean the entire planet. I am writing this in September for a reason. Because in Autumn Vienna turns to gold.
The Autumn leaves of birch trees turning gold are everywhere in Vienna. It’s not like a New England or Japanese Autumn. But this one color becomes a symbol of the richness of Vienna. The color of gruener veltliner and riesling wine is gold. The interiors of auditoria are decorated in gold, as you can see in the photo of the Muskverein in this post. And most of the art of Gustav Klimt celebrates this autumnal glow. No surprise he is buried next to a birch tree in Hietzing.
No doubt you’ve heard that the story of this painting has received the attention of Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Jonathan Pryce, the Weinstein Company and director Simon Curtis. The film tells the story of the legal odyssey returning the painting to its rightful owner. And to say we at the LA International New Music Festival and Southwest Chamber Music are proud of friend and board member E. Randol Schoenberg is an understatement. Proud but not surprised.
The film is set to be released in Autumn of 2015, and you can expect a good deal of activity from our ensemble in celebration. Which will make all my Viennese musings come full circle.
But as far as gold is concerned, there is one more image to share before my next post. The golden horn of Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic.
He never criticized a sound I made. He just pointed out that the sound that wasn’t right was in the wrong place. And proceed to find a different example where the wrong sound would be right. When he introduced me to Leonard Bernstein on the stage of the Musikverein, Bernstein put his arm around me, happy to encourage an American student in Vienna. “You’re working with the greatest musician I’ve ever conducted. Just do everything he tells you.”
When I was playing with Bernstein at Tanglewood a year later in 1979, I had a letter of recommendation from Berger to take to him as a hello. As he looked at the give away Austrian orange envelope he said “Ah, Roland!” I was Bernstein’s principal horn for the 5th Symphony of Serge Prokofiev. He read the letter at the podium at a break and was like a happy parent to remember me from our Musikverein introduction. I took a moment to ask if he had any suggestions. His answer came across with rabbinical authority.
“Don’t you change a thing!”
There are musical rules in Vienna. All of them golden.
Best, best, best