Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Sci-Fi Suburb in Austria

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By James Gaffney  

Mature Life Features

VIENNA – Facing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, I raised the baton and with breezy optimism began conducting one of the world’s premiere music ensembles in Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz.”

Viennese Virtual Virtuosity

The moment was magic — until I butchered the tempo. The orchestra played too fast, then too slow. Finally the musicians ceased playing all together. A tuxedo-clad violinist stood up and shouted something in German to this wannabe maestro. The orchestra chuckled. An Austrian boy standing nearby with his giggling classmates translated: “The man said, ‘Have you even heard this piece before?'”

It all started with a retired Australian couple I met on the four-hour train trip from Prague to Vienna. They unfolded a map and “palace, palace, palace … cathedral, cathedral … palace, cathedral ” the man rattled off amicably before rolling his eyes.

In all fairness, Vienna is still regarded as the embodiment of a grand European capital. Just stand in the shadows of the 1,441-room Schonbrunn Palace or any of the baroque or neoclassical refuges left by the Hapsburg dynasty that ruled half of Europe from 1278 to 1918. And don’t forget the Vienna Boys Choir and Spanish Riding School’s prancing Lippizaners, cultural icons reflecting this city’s unabashed devotion to artistic precision.

But even locals admit the city has rested for too long on its cultural laurels. “A lot of people think of Vienna as only this,” said resident Christiane Haustein as she played an invisible violin to make her point. An exclamation point to her statement can be seen in the hip MuseumsQuartier, a tour de force of 10 art museums housed ironically enough in the Hapsburgs’ royal riding stables.

The several hundred exhibits gallop the gamut from modern art and experimental architecture to avant-garde multimedia demonstrations amidst an interactive children’s museum, theater, cafes, restaurants, and library. The icing on this cultural cake is the Leopold Museum, home of the world’s largest heretofore private collection of Expressionist masterworks by Austria’s Egon Schiele. Adjacent rooms feature the highly stylized works of Schiele’s mentor Gustav Klimt. He was the turn-of-the-century Viennese artist behind those arte nouveau paintings of femme fatales casting their Victorian cares to the Freudian wind.

The cobblestone boulevards of this city of 1.6 million people are still swept clean, making it still a delight to sip espresso at the Black Kameel. This 385-year-old sidewalk café is where a peckish Beethoven often sent his manservant for take-out schnitzel and beer.

Nearby, the sweeping central bay of the Hofburg Winter Palace is where Hitler made his conciliatory speech to the Austrians in 1938. That was shortly before the German army rolled into town, destroying nearly a third of the city, during World War II.

Gentler times are reflected in the eye-catching art-nouveau facades that flatter the pleasant, upscale shopping corridors of Kohlmart, Graben, and Rotentum. The same curvaceous style also left its signature inside the city’s legendary, turn-of-the-century coffeehouses. One evening we tumbled into the oldest — the smoke-filled, bohemian Hewelka. There we drank in the cross-section of Viennese society over a late-night Turkischer, or Turkish coffee.

It was clear no one was going to mistake this buzzing, theatrical java den for an American Starbucks. First of all, the waiters all wore tuxedos — a tradition requiring three years’ formal training as prescribed by Austrian law. Second, nobody at Hewelka sat quietly alone with noses buried in a laptop computer.

“A coffeehouse is Vienna – it’s life,” said Diane Naar, an English-born writer who has called this city home for some three decades. “It’s where Viennese come for dinner, meet friends, have intellectual conversations. Look around. People are actually talking to one another, people who have only just met while sharing a table.”

Next morning it became clear why the Gasometer, or G-town, has been turning the heads of urban planners and architects since it opened early this century.  It’s worth the 15-minute U-Bahn, or subway, ride from Stephansplatz downtown for anyone who wants a glimpse into the weird and wonderful future of suburbs as science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury might have designed them.

Envision a quartet of round natural-gas storage structures, or gasometers, from the turn of the 20th century sitting side by side. Each is about half the size of a domed stadium. They’re connected by glass walkways. The lower levels comprise the uber-mall of four brick mega-structures complete with florists, cinemas, nightclubs, banks, grocery stores, rental car agencies, you name it. Rising above the glass-domed ceilings of the uber-mall are residential communities of apartments and condos. A second glass dome tops each gasometer’s residential section allowing for year-round, weather-proof outdoor living.

But even the futuristic G-town seems almost plain compared to the hallucinogenic vision called Hundertwasser Haus. Designed in the 1980s by Vienna’s late artist-turned-architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, this Gaudi-meets-Crayolas apartment building dominates nearly a city block with sinuous multicolored walls, leaning columns of colorful broken tiles, and multi-tiered roof forests.

The man standing at the curb snapping photographs shook his head. “Have you ever seen anything so ridiculous?” he asked.  Actually, yes. Me conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

But that’s not the fault of the software-driven “Virtual Conductor,” the popular interactive exhibit at the House of Music. Opened in 2000, the high-tech $55 million complex is a six-story showcase of enjoyable cutting-edge multimedia exhibits celebrating Vienna’s A-team of composers — Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, the Strausses, and Mahler. With “Virtual Conductor,” an infrared beam from a baton aimed at a super-sized screen “conducts” an interactive Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra that responds to the maestro’s tempo and rhythm.

Raising the baton for a second try, I led the orchestra through Strauss’ most famous waltz, successfully  this time. And this time the orchestra applauded.

Mature Life Features Copyright 2002

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

August 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm

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