Culture Tourism in Vienna

I always had a hard time remembering if Vienna was in Germany, Italy, or Switzerland (it’s the capital of Austria). Its fascinating how close all these countries are to each other, that Bratislava airport in Slovakia handles a lot of Viennese air traffic, and road signs in the city center direct you towards “Praha” or “Budapest”.

Kunsthalle in Museumsquartier


I read a lot of about Vienna as a child studying music theory and history, picturing Schubert living in a magical city where everyone played classical music and symphonies flooded your ears 24/7. I expected Vienna to be a town frozen in time, stuck in the 1700’s, full of horse-drawn carriages and Baroque fashion. Or maybe it could have been as late as the 1850’s, and I could have seen Haydn conduct his own symphony, but Vienna 2011 didn’t quite fit my hopeless expectations. Its quite similar to every other European city, a clash of incredible history and impressive architecture mixed in with globalized commercialism and little kebab shacks at every tram stop. In German, Vienna is spelled “Wien”, and I have some sort of dyslexic complex misspelling it as Wein or Wine, both referring to fermented grape juice and not one of the most important cities in classical music history.


a famous golden statue of J.S. Strauss

The classical music thing is like beer in Germany, or casinos in Vegas – it’s presumably emthe/em tourist attraction you came for. You can’t go to Vienna without being offered tickets to a Mozart concert, and every night of the week you have the choice of something like 3 classical music concert houses, 2 opera houses, 3 churches, a couple palaces and uncountable theatres to see a show. Then there’s the waltz season, where everyone goes to balls in gala halls waltzing to J.S. Strauss being played life. People dressed up in period fashion sell tickets on major street corners and on the doorsteps of the most popular tourist attraction, and even some of the concerts are played on period instruments in various halls, all shimmering in gold, chandeliers and original art.


Walking around Vienna, I got the feeling that every building was a palace; even the common-place apartments had arch entries and stone angels on the roof corners. The universities, churches, government buildings, and museums were even jaw dropping – all built in slightly different styles from different eras, but all so grandiose, surrounded by regal gardens and flashing cameras. I snooped around inside the gothic city hall, sat to meditate in every church with unlocked doors, and strolled through the Schönbrunn Palace gardens pretending to be a princess.


Schönbrunn Palace, former home of Emporer Franz Josef I

As much as I wanted to see the inside of every museum, I knew it would be a failed mission since it could take days, weeks even, to really see and learn everything they have to offer. Bu I did make it inside som music halls, always second-guessing if I had picked the right venue and show since there were at least 2 options every night I was there that I would have loved to see. My first night in Vienna, I saw Singing in the Rain, a musical/tap-dance theatre piece, which I probably could have understood better if my German wasn’t so bad.

the Vienna Symphony Orchestra

one ballroom in Staatsopera house


I had no difficulty understanding the Vienna symphony on night 2, who played a symphony by Carl Maria von Weber that I had never heard before, but loved, and a piano concerto by Haydn – I loved that too. Piano concerts give me shivers down my spine. They’re also amusing, since it cracks me up how everyone in the audience always has to cough between movements, even if no one is sick. My last night we went to Staatsopera house, by far the most beautiful building, inside and out, that I saw in Vienna. They played Madame Butterfly, a tragic opera set in Japan, sung in Italian, but thankfully subtitled in English that made understanding it no problem, even the depressing unhappy ending – which I wouldn’t have minded misunderstanding.

Classical Music is food for my soul

I love watching the symphony play because every time I see classical music performed live, I feel soul-fed. It´s like some inexplicable therapy session that totally destresses me, and as I enjoy all that alone time to think and digest my day, my life, the future, I actually feel calm inside instead of pressured or worried. Its probably one of the few times where I´m actually not daydreaming about travel, and instead totally infatuated with the lead violinist or the piano soloist.

In the last few weeks I´ve had some good soul food servings, and nicely varied with 3 different symphonies and one church choir. In March I watched the San Francisco Symphony play at Davies Hall in downtown San Fran and just the venue itself already creates a reverent atmosphere preparing you for the meditative experience you´re about to have. The soloist was a Swedish mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, who sang a Brahms serenade and a selection of Scandinavian songs. Taking in the view from the 3rd floor balcony over Civic Center and Van Ness Avenue during intermission is an important part of the Davies Hall experience, as is being the one of the youngest people there by 40 years.

A few weeks later I watched the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra play a Russian-themed concert matinee at the Orpheum. This is an extraordinary venue only from the inside since there´s almost no way to know which building the performance hall is actually in from busy Granville street. Indie musicians, rock bands and jazz artists all share this stage, and besides the symphony I´ve seen Nina Simone,  David Gray and Sigur Ros all play the Orpheum, but still the symphony best suits the building decor. A classy afternoon with my family listening to Rachmaninoff symphony no. 2 and some Prokofiev had me daydreaming about Rachmaninoff´s piano concerto that was meant to be played but somehow got switched.

Since being back in Iceland, I took advantage of one of the last symphonies to be plaid by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra at the University of Iceland since they are going to be housed at the brand-new, world renound Harpa Concert Hall opening next month in the Reykjavik downtown. Its located in the harbour literally ontop of the ocean with beautiful views and an unbelievable performance hall. But, for now, they play at the movie theatre with mediocre acoustics and uncomfortable seats, but tickets are only 1700kr for students and an all-Tchaikovsky program still impressed. It was conducted by a very flamboyant, 50-something year old Swedish guy, famous for being a trombone virtuoso, but will forever be remembered as the conductor in way-too-tight pants and a purple satin, bamboo print, made-in-China blouse that he managed to totally sweat through as he jumped and danced his whole way through the program with more energy than everyone else in the house combined. The program opened with Capriccio Italien, followed by Tchaikovsky´s violin concerto performed by the very young, Armenian Mikhail Simonyan who later joined the 5th violinists to sight-read through Symphony number 5.

the organ at Hallgrimskirkja

The most spiritual soul food I´ve had lately is definitely listening to the Hallgrims Church Choir sing a Bach program for passover/easter. Hallgrimskirkja is a typical protestant church with no decorations and a hollow, concrete interior that gives the choir an even more angelic sound. The natural acoustics, the epic organ, and the sun rays shining in through the windows giving each choir member its own halo make everything come together for the sweetest sound, and the experience of listening to all this with a live orchestra and a few soloists singing the story of Jesus´death are bound to bring you either to peace, to tears, or a little chat with God.