Vienna's blue note

Europe's music capital is no longer strictly classical with jazz, blues and rock pulling big crowds, writes Mark Juddery.

Tuesday night in Vienna, a city synonymous with fine music. As on any other night, there is a choice of events for music lovers. Local singer-songwriter Mika Vember is performing at the International Accordion Festival.

The Slovenian bands Y [:Why] and Broken.Heart.Collector can be seen at Porgy & Bess, the city's most popular jazz venue. Meanwhile, US musician Popa Chubby is performing on the stage of the dark, smoky Reigen Wien to launch Europe's longest blues festival, the Vienna Blues Spring. Here is a club that seems more Berlin than Vienna.

Or at least, more than the Vienna of legend, where Mozart composed The Magic Flute and Strauss was inspired to write The Blue Danube and make the city famous for its waltzes. That is the Vienna of several kilometres away, where the famous Musikverein concert hall had, a few hours earlier, played host to the Budapest Symphony Orchestra as they played concerts and suites by Brahms and Prokofiev.

It's clear that the Musikverein would never have a Popa Chubby concert. No, this revered venue has been too busy hosting events like a storytelling guitar tribute to Woody Guthrie and Drumfree, an experimental jazz performance by local musician Wolfgang Muthspiel.

This might all seem surprising to those who see Vienna as a city frozen in time, with its classical buildings (old-fashioned even when they were built) and famous coffee houses in which you can order a torte with whipped cream from waiters in dinner suits. But for all the old-world charm, Vienna is not limited to its classical heritage. Currently, the city is celebrating the sesquicentenary of artist Gustav Klimt, leader of the modernism movement that forced Vienna's creative artists to move with the times. Over the year, seven Viennese galleries will be hosting major retrospectives of Klimt and his fellow modernists.

Vienna's reverence for Klimt is telling. Classical architecture still embellishes the MuseumsQuartier or the Opernring, but newer buildings, such as the Haas House and the Hundertwasser House, add ultra-modern colour.

The city's music is also a mix of the old and the new.

The Vienna Blues Spring lasts for a month each year, centred on the Reigen Wien, a former ballroom and discotheque, now a venue for alternative rock. "Mozart did pop music," says co-director of the festival, Alfred Pulletz. "He wrote music for the common people." At Reigen Wien gigs, Pulletz says, he has rubbed shoulders with Mozart fans who might be attending a Musikverein classical concert the following night.


Vienna remains a mecca for musicians, but it embraces all genres, as does the consummate Viennese music lover, it would appear. The accordion has a strong following, energised by musicians such as local hero Otto Lechner. Over the past 13 years, the International Accordion Festival has attracted a variety of acts from around the world in various genres, from punk to experimental jazz.

In June and July, the Vienna Jazz Festival attracts an impressive line-up (including Rufus Wainwright, Eric Burdon and Melody Gardot this year). However, jazz fans in Vienna are catered for throughout the year at venues such as Porgy & Bess, which presents a long list of international performers: everything from smooth, traditional jazz played by guys in suits to more experimental work at their new space, the Strenge Kammer.

Everyone wants to play Porgy & Bess's main stage. Except for a brief summer break, live concerts are held seven nights a week, even on Christmas day. In this venue, artists can be guaranteed a crowd. Moreover, the same act rarely appears twice in the same month. The queue is just too long! Top acts (Branford Marsalis, Marcus Miller, and one of the keenest regulars, violinist Nigel Kennedy) are sold out months in advance.

Austrian music festivals tend to last for weeks, but Vienna's largest rock festival, the Danube Island Festival, is a brief affair. Still, 3 million people attend - more than Vienna's entire population.

While it might all happen in a long weekend (this year, June 22-24), much is crammed into this outdoor event, with 2000 musicians playing for 600 hours all together on 13 stages. The music includes chart-toppers but also 19th-century folkloric "Schrammelmusik".

If you can't choose which music you prefer, perhaps you should visit during the Vienna Festival, under way this year until June 17, when musical productions from 24 countries converge on Vienna. It can leave young rock fans with a taste for Verdi and classical music lovers with a new appreciation of the "percussion art" of Martin Grubinger and his Percussive Planet Ensemble. In Vienna, the variety works just fine.

Three music history sites

1 Vienna musical museums also go beyond the classics. The House of Music, a kid-friendly museum in central Vienna, has rooms dedicated to the great composers — but it also has the avant-garde Brain Opera, in which visitors can make their own experimental music. (This competes in weirdness with another room, the Sonosphere, which emulates the sounds heard inside the womb.)

2 Most locals could tell you that Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert are buried in Central Cemetery, but then, they could tell you that Falco, Vienna's biggest rock star (remember Rock Me, Amadeus?), is buried there as well. Their other favourite chart-topper is Anton Karas, whose Harry Lime Theme from the 1949 movie The Third Man, seems to signify latter-day Vienna as much as The Blue Danube signifies the Vienna of old. One museum in Vienna is dedicated to The Third Man, including the zither on which Karas composed that music.

3 Another of Karas's zithers is in the Museum of Fine Arts' Collection of Ancient Musical Instruments, a tremendous museum for music lovers of all stripes, even those who think that classical music is far too modern. It has specimens dating from ancient times and even a few mediaeval devices that were evidently musical, but which no living person can figure out how to play.

Trip notes

Getting there

In midyear, the height of festivals and fine weather, airfares rise accordingly. Austrian Airlines has Sydney-Vienna flights in June from $2428 and Emirates also has good deals at $2545. If you wait until August (when the weather is still good), Air China codeshares with Austrian to offer fares as low as $1964 (via Shanghai and Beijing) and Austrian offers $2282 fares (via Beijing).

Staying there

Like any major city, Vienna has no shortage of accommodation, ranging from backpacker lodges to luxury hotels.

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