Vienna’s Classical Music | Tonight’s the Night

An intro to subscriptions for the upcoming music season, or how to remember where you put the tickets

The concert season has finally reopened. From now until the last day of June, Vienna’s concert halls offer a musical bounty that is unsurpassed. For the most part,  this means “classical” music: a term that, for some, exudes a musty odor inducing visions of a slow death by sitting still.

This is completely unjust. Concerts in Vienna display a level of excellence that rises from a deep well of profound enthusiasm for music that has defined the city for generations. Trust me.

The first public concerts – for which anyone could buy a ticket – took place around the mid-17th century in London. Venice premiered the first public opera performances at the same time. It took another century before there were public performances in Vienna: Mozart had an impresario who organized concerts for him in the Augarten in 1782. And there was a series of subscription concerts in the Festsaal of the old university (today’s Austrian Academy of Sciences) during the winter of 1807/08, where Beethoven’s first four symphonies were performed ten times.

Subscriptions were, and are, a way to entice audiences. Concert halls use them for creating a reliable financial base. For audiences, they are a way of saving money: six concerts for the price of five, or some such bargain. They are also advantageous since they let pros put together series that fit individual tastes.

No reservations

The Vienna Philharmonic has been performing subscription concerts since 1860. Ten years later the Musikverein was built, and it has been the sanctuary for the orchestra’s subscription concerts ever since. These subscriptions, which guarantee certain seats, have a special status in the city: They are completely sold out. While they can’t be inherited when the original owner passes away, they are a coveted possession, with tickets passed between family members for years.

The Philharmonic’s website explains how to get on the waiting list for the next free space: Write a letter (“on paper”) in the spring, wait for the response in the fall, and if the answer is no, write another letter the next spring to keep your rank on the list. This may seem old-fashioned and slow, but it is nicely proportionate to the average wait, which is six years for weekday soirées and 13 for weekend concert subscriptions. The only way for mere mortals to get in is to grab a standing-room subscription on September 12, the day they go on sale. The orchestra’s office opens at 9:30, but come at the break of dawn (5:00) if you want a chance at getting through the door.

There is a comparable obsession for opera, with subscriptions at the Staatsoper being similarly exclusive. Those tickets can be inherited, so there is very little chance of ever getting one. Luckily,  there are still standing-room and single tickets available, as well as late returns, or extras hawked outside just before the curtains rise.

Volksoper Wien
© Volksoper Wien / Dimo Dimov

But there are many other possible subscriptions. Both of the main concert halls offer them, from the Musikverein’s “Golden” concerts of A-listed performers, to the Konzerthaus’s innovative and exuberant rising stars. More than 30 different Jeunesse musik.erleben (experience music) subscriptions combine various venues with fantastic mixtures of genres; for listeners 26 years old or under, there is a nearly 50% discount. The Theater an der Wien has 21 different subscription series, the Volksoper offers flexible subscriptions with your pick of opera, operetta, musicals and ballet.  There are many more; but hurry, they sell out quickly.

New Frontiers

Vienna is a concertgoer’s heaven, and not just for music from the dead composers’ society; today programs are rich with both the new and rediscovered. Which means you never know what treasures you might hear. Vienna’s legendary new music ensemble, Klangforum Wien, continues its explorations with the series Science? Fiction! The group Phace is offering subscriptions to its Quest series, a homage to the late Pierre Boulez and his revolutionary and uncompromising spirit.

There are intriguing and never-yet-heard sounds all over town. Try the Sargfabrik in the 14th district, now in its 20th year of adventuresome concerts at the crossover of jazz, folk and world. It has seven subscription series, from global vibes to local color, as well as the provocative Fundstücke (findings), music that is “unclassifiable, strange and rare.”

Oh, yes. How to remember where you put the tickets? Don’t put them in a drawer. Stick them on your fridge with a strong magnet. If it comes to the worst, today there are e-tickets: the computer in the venue’s hall remembers your name and can print out new ones for you. Finally, set a reminder on your phone.   

Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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