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Vienna from a new angle

Vibrant music and museums emerge as the capital tests its wings as a modern metropolis. Still, the past is a constant refrain.

December 24, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Vienna — YOU can't escape classical music here. Its history hits you almost from the moment you step out of the City Air Terminal: the bust of Bruckner at the lovely Stadtpark and, around the corner from there, a full-size gold statue of Johann Strauss, the waltz king. In the city center, the Staatsoper, the city's famed opera house that gives Vienna its geographical and cultural bearings.

It is the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and their work has created a pervasive cultural soundtrack in a city whose historic splendor and beauty are second only to Paris among European capitals.

But the old is giving way to the new. Vienna is on the verge of becoming a modern, multicultural city. After decades of postwar cultural conservatism and a recent spell of political extremism, Vienna is trying to steady its bearings as a 21st century city, a crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe, an intersection between past and present.

A former Nazi psychiatric hospital is now an avant-garde performance venue, and the headquarters of the Wiener Mozartjahr 2006, Vienna's celebration of the beloved composer's 250th birthday in February, stands, symbolically, in a plaza between the Staatsoper and Starbucks.

I came to Vienna last month not in search of Mozart but his spirit, for the vibrant creativity, his quest for new forms of expression and a better, more equitable society that were the real Mozart. That spirit is the challenge for a new generation of artists, administrators, entrepreneurs and politicians who recognize that the essence of the Viennese art, science and thought is a revolutionary allegiance to modernity.

Moreover, Vienna no longer owns any of the famous composers buried here. First-rate Mozart performances are just as readily heard in Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, New York's Carnegie Hall or Tokyo's Suntory Hall as in Vienna's glittery Musikverein. The San Francisco Symphony regularly out-Mahlers the Vienna Philharmonic. And few nights at the Vienna State Opera, where routine is the rule, are worth the hundreds of euros a ticket costs.

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The Mozart trail

VISUALLY, Vienna has changed little since my first visit 35 years ago, when I explored the city by seeking as many Beethoven residences as I could find in a short stay. (There are dozens because he moved constantly.) But the faintly sinister atmosphere that still hung over parts of the city has vanished.

Today, the Mozart trail is more popular and well mapped, if less comprehensive. Vienna is easy to negotiate, and you are far less likely to overhear racial slurs or find the offensive graffiti that I regularly encountered on my Beethoven trek.

Most of Vienna's attractions are within walking distance of the center. The Ringstrasse circles the inner city. Trolleys, buses and subways operate on the honor system and are simple. A week's pass is a bargain (about $16) and lets you ride anything. The city is tidy, safe, efficient and hospitable.

Gone too is the palpable atmosphere of anti-Semitism that made the serene Judenplatz a magnet for neo-Nazi nonsense. Now in its center is Rachel Whiteread's understated "Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust." Designed as a library turned inside out, it commemorates the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945.

Whiteread's tasteful memorial, which recalls horrors without blemishing a pristine, historic square, encompasses the new Vienna dilemma: The city recognizes that it must remember its long-repressed complicity in World War II. Yet it dare not forget what it has too long remembered, namely its tradition, which can be smugly suffocating.

Working through this dilemma is giving Vienna incredible artistic vibrancy. Mahler famously called tradition sloppiness. But Viennese tradition weighs a ton and is difficult to overcome. There is, for instance, Wrenkh, a trendy vegetarian restaurant, near expensive shops, that attempts a radical reinvention of the Viennese kitchen.

Organic produce is featured and portions are, in violation of Austrian custom, small and heart-healthy. But although nothing comes mit schlag, nothing is straightforward either. The dishes tend toward fussy, and service remains as condescending as in the most exclusive coffee houses.

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