January 31, 2011

A Night in Vienna at the Johnson

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Early 20th century music, delicious and authentic canapes, a rare exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky’s Kleine Welten (Small World) prints and a view of the midnight blue Cayuga waters that almost resembles the Danube transformed the Johnson Museum into a multi sensational experience of early 20th century Vienna on Saturday night.

There was almost too much to choose from at Saturday night’s smorgasbord of art and the organizers did their best to make sure that the food, art and music overlapped enough to complement one another but not so much that it was chaotic and overwhelming. As guests entered the lobby they were enticed by a delicate presentation of Viennese wine, coffee and sweet snacks. Upstairs on the second level of the Museum, acclaimed musicians from Xak Bjerken of Cornell to the Daedalus quartet played selections from various early 20th century musicians. Then downstairs in the study gallery —where the music faded into a pleasant background ambience — original prints by the influential Russian born painter Wassily Kandinsky were displayed.

The main course for the night was definitely the musical performance. A city more famous for Strauss, Wiener Staatsoper and golden Christkindlmarkt, the capital of Austria is hardly the first city that comes to mind when we think about modernist musical innovations. Between 1918 and 1921, Arnold Schoenberg established and directed the Verein Fur Musikalische Privatauffurhrungen in Wien (Vienna society for Private Musical Performances), a society that aimed to create a more accepting, liberal setting for avant-garde composers that were constantly under attack from traditionally-oriented Viennese critics. The need for Schoenberg’s protection is very obvious: pieces presented in the concert depart radically from the graceful and controlled compositions of Mozart or even impressionist composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Chopin and Liszt. Representing what is known as “new music”, these pieces proudly disregard the Austrian musical heritage of old and seem to be more influenced by composers such as the notoriously trailblazing Italian Futurist Luiggi Russolo, who justified his compositional inspirations with a manifesto called L’arte dei Rumori, or “the art of noises”.

While performed using classical instruments such as the piano, clarinet and string quartet, these compositions by masters such as Szymanowski, Stravinsky and Schoenberg himself used tonalities and metrical arrangements that carried the listeners to a “twilight zone” of strange but attractive harmonies and forced the listener to focus on and try to interpret and appreciate the unique musical language without any outside references. Although the goal of the music is to showcase the narrative prowess of sound itself, the modernist movement is actually a result of the overwhelming socio-economic changes that took place at the turn of the century, an urgency that erupted from a need to create art that accurately described the modern condition. A particularly memorable performance was Ignor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet brilliantly performed by the Daedalus Quartet, using traditional chamber instruments in unconventional ways to narrate abstract terms such as “Dance”, “Eccentric” and “Canticle”.

Kandinsky’s prints should have been placed somewhere closer to the music instead of tucked away in the basement of the Museum because they are a perfect companion piece, standing as a visual manifestation of the music. The prints on display were a selection from a series of prints produced in 1922, the height of the Bauhaus movement and the peak of modernism’s influence on art and literature in general. Literally meaning the “house of construction,” visual art from the Bauhaus school echoes its hallmark architectural motifs of geometric shapes, clean lines and concise use of color. The prints in this selection showcase these qualities but also remain unmistakably Kandinsky. Although non-representational and outrageously abstract, the prints are somehow even more engaging than portraits of people or other recognizable things. Just like how Schoenberg’s music re-situates the listener’ perception of sound, carefully calculated lines and shapes create an amazing dynamic that give the two-dimensional pieces movement and energy, and the limited choice of colors heightens the drama and tension between shapes and present a renewed understanding of visual composition.

Although the music and art are both phenomenal, a night out in Vienna isn’t complete without some light delicate snacks and a glass of wine. Karen Gilman, co-owner of Dano’s Heuriger on Seneca, was asked to prepare a menu that mimics food served during intermission at Viennese opera houses. I walked out of the concert and strolled through Kandinsky’s gallery worriedly wondering what “atonal” food tastes like; thankfully, Gilman was unwaveringly committed to an authentic Viennese menu. A savory selection of Brotchen (bread) topped with light Viennese canapes such as gorgonzola with red onion marmalade and walnuts or smoked salmon spread with dill cucumbers were served. The evening had a sweet ending: a gorgeous and authentic selection of linzer cookies, vanille kipferl and apricot meringue cookies. The apricot meringue cookies were from a family recipe that Gilman thought was lost when her Austrian mother-in-law passed away, but it was rediscovered out of pure serendipity 20 years later when Gilman was having homemade tea at a friend’s house here in Ithaca. Since innovation and re-representation was the theme of the event, Finger Lakes sparkling wine was the pairing of choice for these classic Austrian bites — and they matched perfectly.

Original Author: Lucy Li