Wien Modern Erupts

The opening concert of Vienna’s festival of new music kicks off five weeks of contemporary sounds.

An inherent aspect of new music is that it’s being heard for the first time, something we have gotten out of practice doing. The Musikverein alone has played the 9 Beethoven symphonies close to 3,000 times since 1934 (and that’s only the year its online archive starts). No wonder Beethoven is considered the definition of “classical” music. And while I do love his works, I don’t always want to hum along. Sometimes I want to be flabbergasted by complexity, by quirks and quiddities, by the adventure of the new.

That’s exactly what Wien Modern, the annual festival of “new music for the city,” offers. An erupting volcano is the image for this year, with Wachstum (growth) its byword. That says it all: Wien Modern has grown, now spanning five weeks of daily concerts, many of them Austrian, if not world, premieres. A General Pass gives access to roughly 100 events at 24 different venues across the city.

The opening concert was unambiguously an eruption: The Austrian premiere of Hekla (1961) by the Icelandic composer Jón Leifs, performed by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under its new music director Marin Alsop, on the job as of a week.

A fitting work, as Hekla is in fact a volcano in Iceland. A year-long eruption in 1947 inspired Leifs to write the loudest piece of music that had ever been heard, a thundering, continual crescendo supported by a giant orchestra plus organ and choir—and some 19 percussionists making noise, using their regular battery, anvils, rocks, sirens, bells, iron chains and pistols. I used the earplugs the usher had given me.

New Classics and Cutting Edges at Wien Modern

Nonetheless, new music has it “classics” too: The same concert also saw the sixth performance of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968/69) at the Konzerthaus. Intricate and big, this 50-year-old piece no longer feels avant-garde; with Mahler’s 2nd symphony shimmering through the rhythmic shouts, whispers and jabbering of eight mike-holding singers (performed by the current incarnation of The Swingles), there was nearly a sense of nostalgia.

In fine contrast was the Austrian premiere of Clara Iannotta’s Moult (2019): Also for large orchestra, its quiet carpet of strange, organic noises is perhaps the music our great-great-great grandchildren will listen to on Mars to revive a fading memory of Earth.

Peter Ablinger’s 4 Weiss (2018/19) had the orchestra essentially pantomiming a four-movement piece as it was drowned out completely by electronic white noise. Forced to hear high volume radio static too long, we watched politely – one cannot say we listened. The most interesting moment – I am probably not alone in this – was the sudden silence at the end.

In keeping with the evening’s celebratory spirit, Fireworks (2018) by Agata Zubel was a marvel of activity and virtuosity, with Stravinsky-esque rhythms and jazzy Bernstein mambo moments. Definitely worth hearing again.

Official terms for describing a volcano’s explosivity range from “gentle” to “mega-colossal.” Wien Modern seems to be aiming at mega, and not only as a buzzword.

Oct 28-Nov 30, various locations. For tickets and program:

(Foto credit: Markus Sepperer)

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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