Thursday, December 31, 2009

Change of the guard among the cultural capitals

Each year the European Union names one or more of Europe's cities the European Capital of Culture. In 2009 the honour was shared by Linz in Austria and Vilnius in Lithunia. In 2010 it's the turn of Essen and the surrounding Ruhr region in western Germany, Istanbul and Pecs in Hungary.

The Ruhr is a far-flung region and 53 towns and cities make up the "Ruhr.2010" project, with Essen as the principal city. Like Linz, the Ruhr is struggling with post-industrialisation. Its glory days were built on coal mining and steel production. Today the region is struggling with high unemployment, low investment and falling population. It is hoped that the year as one of Europe's cultural capitals will help the Ruhr valley turn the corner to greater prosperity and a sustainable cultural, social and economic structure.

The thinking behind such optimism derives from the influential books by Richard Florida. His most influential book, The Creative Class, describes how cities and urban regions can boost business activity and secure a better future by attracting creative individuals - the members of the "creative class". Florida's ideas have now become popular in many parts of the world and have been tried with varying degrees of success.

In many ways the Ruhr is an ideal candidate for a makeover a la Florida. Already the region has introduced a number of interesting cultural initiatives and organisations and others - such as the theatre in Bochum - are well established centres. The Ruhr, with its many challenges, will certainly be a good testing ground for the creative industries and the Creative Class theory. Time will tell how powerful the cultural sector is in regenerating old industrial regions in the current economic climate.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kepler: the new Philip Glass opera

The latest opera by Philip Glass is his twenty-second, so he clearly feels attracted to the genre, although few of his stage works are 'operatic' in the traditional, melodramatic sense. The new opera - titled Kepler - is no exception.

The libretto is the work of the Austrian theatre director Martina Winkel and consists of texts taken from the writings of Johannes Kepler, the Bible and the Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was an astronomer who proved that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe and that in fact the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around. At the time this was heresy and Kepler was hounded by the religious authorities throughout his life. But the libretto focusses more on Kepler'a ideas and spiritual conflicts than on the day-to-day struggles of a man struggling to reconcile his science and the society around him. It is, then, not really operatic in the traditional sense and could equally be an oratorio. The concept (but not the music) reminds me of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex.

Glass's cool, methodical and ritualistic music is well suited to the scientific and philosophical bent of the libretto. The whole work also has a strong ritualistic element which also fits well with Glass's musical language.

The second act develops a clearer and stronger dramatic narrative and the music at points showed elements of a more romantic language. In that sense it starts to feel a little more like a traditional opera although the libretto never really leaves the rather dry realm of scientific theorizing.

The opera received its world premiere at the Landestheater in Linz, Austria in September. Directed by Peter Missotten, this first production is visually rich with powerful use of light, vibrant copper colours, video projections and the existing architecture of the stage area.

The work is a welcome addition to Glass's operatic output. While the libretto runs close to becoming arcane, the music is approachable, rthythmic and warm and the text does have a certain relevance to some of the key problems facing contemporary science and our wider society.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Rewriting history

This is a statue of Dr Karl Lueger (1844-1910), the Mayor of Vienna between 1897 and 1910. Lueger was a well-known antisemite and was a major influence on the thinking of Adolf Hitler. The future Führer lived in Vienna during the Lueger years and described Lueger as the most powerful German mayor of all time. The statue was erected in 1926 and today dominates a square named after Lueger in central Vienna.

But not everybody is happy about Lueger's prominent place in contemporary Vienna. Now moves are afoot to redesign the statue and the surrounding square to turn it into a memorial against antisemitism and racism ( Submissions for a redesign of the square are currently open. But the proposal is not without controversy. Michael Häupl, the current Mayor of Vienna, has ruled out a redesign of the square and would prefer an explanatory plaque on the statue.

Across Europe during the last twenty years (since the end of the Cold War) many streets, squares and avenues have ben renamed. In the case of Leningrad the whole city was renamed, back to prerevolutionary St. Petersburg. The end of World War II saw a similar rebirthing as countless Adolf Hitler squares and streets were renamed. As much as such rebadgings are understandable, they do, of course, represent a form of historical revisionism. Nobody would want to live in Adolf Hitler Square today. But cases such as Lueger are less clear. He was nowhere near as extreme in his views as the younger Hitler. Many other past national heroes and local identities throughout the world have histories and had views that are no longer acceptable. While we need to warn against racism in all its forms, pretending that it did not exist in the past (and does not continue to exist) is not the solution. In the case of Lueger, a new square and monument against racism would be better. That would allow us to acknowledge the past while charting a more positive and egalitarian future.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Life on the moon

The composer Alban Berg exhorted peformers to play new music as if it was old, and old as if it was new. For well over half a century Nikolaus Harnoncourt has led the musical world in the refreshing of many masterpieces of the classical repertoire. It was fortuitous that Harnoncourt's eightieth birthday coincided with the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Jospeh Haydn. Harnoncourt has certainly done his bit to rescue some of the largely forgotten operas of Haydn. The most recent example of this happy combination was the production of Haydn's 1777 comic opera Il Mondo della Luna at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna that finished its run on 22 December.

I made it along to the last performance and it was a real treat. Harnoncourt's own orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien was in the pit and Tobias Moretti was the director. The young cast was excellent and their genuine acting and movement skills were one of the highlights of the evening. The production was contemporary in feel and made effective use of video in the first act.

The whole performance showed how current, interesting and alive opera can be when the approach to the old is that of a creative team and cast approaching a new work. Just as Berg wanted.

p.s. If you are in Vienna anytime soon and you want to see some fresh, lively opera minus the layers of dusty tradition, check out the Theater an der Wien. It's a wonderful old and small theatre where Beethoven once lived and where his only opera, Fidelio, was premiered. But it's not the history that counts. A recent magazine survey of 50 critics put Theater an der Wien in second place of the world's best opera houses! It's well worth a visit if you want to see opera come alive.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do religion and music mix?

We are used to the idea that the state and religion are best kept separate. I would like to argue that music and religion should follow suit.

Some would argue that music is an ersatz religion, that when also goes well music can bring about experiences in us that are similar to religious ecstasy. If this is true, we should ask what happens when these two powerful cultural phenomena come together in the form of religious music.

Today I heard Franz Schmidt's oratorio The Book with Seven Seals performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This piece is my Exhibit A for why religion and music don't mix. It was written near the end of the composer's life and requires a large orchestra, six singers, choir and organist. With such big resources at hand it is an even greater pity that the music (first performed in 1938) is so run-of-the-mill and uninspired. It sounds like half-baked Hindemith.

When composers like Schmidt are overcome by the calling to set religious texts to music it seems that it is music that comes off second best. Perhaps they are blinded by their religious fervour to the point that they fail to notice that the music flowing from their pens is second rate. That is my argument for keeping music and religion separate. Religion only subjects music to extra-musical imperatives such as the worship of a supernatural being and music, at least in the case of many twentieth century composers, is the one that comes off worst. Let's keep them apart.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In the Führer's footsteps

I was in Munich the other day. I went to see the Haus der Kunst (House of Art). This is a large art museum that is now home to contemporary exhibitions. When I was there, there was a show by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. But what I really wanted to see was the building itself. It was built under the Nazis in the late 1930s and survived the war more or less intact. Hitler intended it to be the new home for German art. In his mad world German art would be freed of Modernist influences and the art of jews, Communists and anybody else he didn't approve of. And this museum was to be the new home to this ideologically cleansed German art. It was an embarassment to the Nazis that the exhibition of works by the banned, so-called "degenerate" artists (everybody that Hitler didn't like) was more popular than that of the officially approved new German artists who were shown here at the Haus der Kunst.

Nazi ideology placed considerable importance on the arts. For those artists prepared to tow the party line (and with the required racial profile), the Nazis were good for business. Hitler himself was an artist of sorts and was keen to open the new museum himself when it was finished in 1938. There is a well-known photo of him delivering his speech to a bevy of luminaries in this very building. The building has changed very little since then. The monumental pillars of Nazi architecture are all there, the megalomania is still very present. It is not hard to find the exact spot where the Führer stood to delivery his speech and his views on arts policy. It is still somehow an eerie experience, standing in the footsteps of the most "evil" man in history. Europe is, of course, full of traces from Hitler and the Nazis, but for me at least, this was the first time I had stood in the same spot where he stood and delivered one of his withering speeches. It was a sobering moment indeed.

Photo: Adolf Hitler opens the Haus der Kunst with a speech in the main hall. The hall still looks much the same today.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bernhard in Brandl

Gmunden is a country town in Upper Austria. It sits at the top of Lake Traun, a long and narrow mountain lake in the Salzkammergut. Gmunden is a strange kind of place. It's a kind of upper-class Royston Vasey. The landscape is beautiful and the town is also pretty. If you are just passing through or spend a day or two here you probably wouldn't notice much unusual. But if you stay much longer you start to notice that money really does not buy happiness. All in all the Gmundner don't have much to complain about. And money is certainly not a problem. But that doesn't mean you see too many smiles or obviously happy people around. 

If you want to understand that uniquely western ability to resist happiness despite having satisfied all your basic needs (and more), then the writing of Thomas Bernhard is a great place to start. Bernhard is Gmunden's contribution to great literature. A writer of novels and plays, Bernhard used to hang out in the cafe in the centre of town, the Cafe Brandl. Bernhard's writing is acerbic but somehow ecstatic, destructive but loving. He captures the artificiality of society and then turns the knife again. Sitting in Brandl is a good way to get a feel for Bernhard, although it is hard to say exactly how or why. He was certainly a writer with a deep connection to those around him, the community of Gumnden and Austria, with all its querks and curiosities. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tony Abbott to lead the Libs into oblivion

The Liberal Party has found it's own Mark Latham. It must be something to do with the electoral cycle. Parties seem to think that the first term or two in opposition are a good time to try a few wild experiments. In the case of the Liberal party it has also jumped back two years. It has clearly learnt nothing from its 2007 election defeat and the intervening two years of political history.

A lurch (back) to the conservative right is the last thing the Australian electorate is going to reward anytime soon. The Howard years are over. Perhaps it is a natural part of the electoral cycle that newly minted opposition parties spend the first term or two still believing that they are still in government. After eleven years in power the remnants of John Howard's government are certainly having trouble coming to terms with the fact that the world has moved on.

At this rate it is going to be a very long time before the Liberal Party can offer a serious alternative for contemporary Australia as distinct from an alternative that involves turning back the clock. Recent polls indicate that the Liberal Party is heading for electoral oblivion, particularly if the climate change skeptics who are now calling the shots get their way and another round of dithering becomes the order of the day. Maybe time travel back into the good old days seems like an attractive alternative to the party's parliamentary members. Bon yoyage!

Photo: Bart Fields