Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance in Vienna

We arrived at 35 Stuwerstrasse in a downpour. A young woman wrapped in a raincoat stood in the shadowy doorway. She said her name was Lena and looked as if she might be in league with Harry Lime, an impression augmented after she led us upstairs to our latest home-away-from-home, took the envelope of rent euros we handed her, dumped them onto the kitchen table and counted them, twice. All we lacked was a zither.

Lena proved both innocent and helpful, but the ghost of Harry Lime, Graham Greene's cynical black marketeer in the post-war Vienna of The Third Man, was still around, as I discovered the next morning on a bike ride in the Prater. There, still rotating, was the Riesenrad he rode with his disillusioned friend, Holly Martins, more than sixty years ago. As I watched the giant wheel turn, the dramatic confrontation between Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton drifted down from one of the gondolas rocking high above.

A German poster for The Third Man (1949).
See the Riesenrad scene on YouTube here.

After indulging in this cinema reverie, I remounted the two-wheeler I had just rented at a nearby CityBike station (the first hour free, one euro for the second) and explored the Prater, which is only an amusement park at one end. The rest is a vast spread of lawns, woodland, ponds and streams stretching between the Danube and the Danube Canal and only minutes from the Ringstrasse, the center of the city. 

I set out on the Hauptallee, an almost three-mile-long boulevard that bisects the park.  On this Saturday morning, it was streaming with pram pushers, in-line skaters, walkers digging their twin Nordic poles into the pavement with every determined stride, and fellow cyclists, most flying by on their multi-gears as I puffed on a leaden, balloon-tire descendent of my no-gear high school Schwinn. Well, it's a bargain, and good exercise, I  rationalized, as I yearned for the easy strokes of my feathery Specialized Sirrus Pro back home.

Half way down the Hauptallee, a banner announced the Sri Chinmoy Marathon. Ethereal music sounded from speakers in the foliage, suggesting that, though the event's namesake had left his body in 2007 through the mystical process of Mahasamadhi, his soul was still inspiring runners. One participant's tee shirt read: "There is only one perfect road. And that road is ahead of you. Always ahead of you." Under the circumstances, this seemed apt. This was no ordinary marathon, but a six-hour run; whoever logged the most kilometers would win. Suddenly, my CityBike felt quite satisfactory.

As I pedaled along parallel to the narrow-gauge tracks of the Prater's Liliputbahn, on which since 1928 mini trains have been pulled by replicas of steam locomotives, a familiar thwock broke through the engine's shrill whistle. It sounded like a bat hitting a baseball, but that hardly seemed likely in this place that had been the hunting ground of Emperor Maximilian II in the16th century, even if the park's concession oases now advertised "hot dogs."

Then I heard the unmistakeable voice of an umpire declare, Zwei balls, ein strike. The Wanderers were playing the Blue Bats, in a Little League game on a well-tended diamond in the Prater's Spielplatz. Just beyond the outfield fence, a women's softball game was underway. I might have been in Vienna, Virginia, so American was this scene. The chatter was in German, but sprinkled with "Slide!" and "I've got it."

"Coming down," shouted the Blue Bats' catcher after the warm-up pitches, as he threw the ball to second base on one bounce. "Way to go, Felix," the manager yelled, encouraging his pitcher, whose hair came down to his shoulders and who looked no more than than four feet tall; somehow he managed to throw strikes, and he charged in to cover the plate like an enraged bull whenever his catcher let his pitch get by, which unfortunately was often.

Parents and friends leaned on the fences behind first and third, kibitzing in German. I didn't understand their words, but their tones sounded the universal mixture of support and despair, and occasional criticism. "Do you speak English?" I tentatively asked one mother standing next to me. "Yes, of course," she said, with a certain polite disdain. Her son was playing right field for the Wanderers. "He should have caught that last fly ball; he was playing too deep, don't you think?" she said, with barely an accent. 

*  *  *

The day after this cognitive dissonance in the Prater, Diane stumbled on another such astonishment as she walked by the Volkstheater.  Posters, and a large banner strung above the sidewalk, announced that 33 Variationen was now on at the historic playhouse. She had no idea that this play, in which she had performed most of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations more than 200 times on Broadway, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, was on the boards in Vienna.

We had to go, and did, with our New York friends Ed Davis and Tom Phillips. They were in Vienna for the first time, to see us and–borne on strong legs and bearing two oft-clicked cameras–to delve into the city's rich heritage. They had seen 33 Variations, and knew it well. As Diane's roadie/groupie, I had watched more than a dozen full performances, and several rehearsals. For Diane, the play was now as familiar as middle C. If nothing else, this was the only play in German we would ever understand in its entirety.

The Volkstheater is an intimate, baroque ornate hall with comfortable seats; but perhaps inevitably for a theater built in 1889, the stage is small, and the first thing we noticed was how cramped the production seemed. At the O'Neill Theatre in New York and the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, the actors had a good deal of elbow room, and Diane appeared carefully lit on a platform in front of stage right. Here, the piano was crammed in at the rear of the stage, leaving even less room for the cast to maneuver.

Pianist Akiko Yamada

The pianist was a young woman named Akiko Yamada, who captured with great sensitivity the intricacies and dynamics of the Diabelli Variations, the performance of which is so integral to this drama about a 21st century musicologist, Katherine Brandt, struggling, as she is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to understand Beethoven's obsession with composing the set, which would become one of his finest and most difficult piano works.

Moises Kaufman, who wrote this play about illness, death and classical music, understood that the audience needed some comic relief, and in directing the New York and Los Angeles productions he supplied it, with some nuance. At the Volkstheater, relief too often became laff riot, especially in the scenes between Anton Diabelli (Erwin Ebenbauer), whose waltz was Beethoven's inspiration, and Anton Schindler (Marcello de Nardo), the great composer's amanuensis. They were less two complex 19th century music devotees, than Groucho and Harpo on a tear.

The same was occasionally true of Gunter Franzmeier as Beethoven. A high point in the play comes in the second act when Beethoven composes the dramatic fugue variation aloud as the pianist performs it. Akiko Yamada gave the variation a note-perfect, beautifully-timed reading; but she was constantly upstaged by Franzmeier's shouting, which he accompanied by swigging desperately from a wine bottle and waving his arms like a conductor with delirium tremens. In fairness, the blame for these excesses rested less with the actors, I suspect, than with the director, Stephanie Mohr.

Maria Bill as Katherine Brandt and Gunter Franzmeier as Beethoven
in 33 Variationen at the Volkstheater in Vienna.

The audience seemed stony well into Act II, and I feared the play was bombing. But after the fugue scene, they burst into applause, in tribute to Yamada's fine playing and despite Franzmeirer's schtick, or maybe because of it. When the curtain came down they called the cast back four times, something that rarely if ever happend in New York or Los Angeles, even with Jane Fonda as the dying musicologist.

We waited at the stage door to pay our respects to the pianist, and soon she and we were swept up by Maria Bill and taken to a bar upstairs in the theater. Maria, a Swiss actor, was no longer the ALS victim she had just portrayed but a jolly diva bent on hearing how the U.S. productions had differed from what we'd just seen. We were polite, concentrating our praise on Akiko, who spoke fluent German but almost no English and could only nod in appreciation.

As wine and beer flowed, we were joined by Till Firit, who had played Mike, a male nurse who falls in love with the musicologist's daughter. Like Maria, he made us New Yorkers feel special, as if we had just arrived in Vienna from some exotic star. I attempted to tell him that my home town was not all bagels and Broadway, but by now conversation had grown increasingly difficult because a cocktail pianist was banging ferociously only a few feet away.

Worse, it was 11:15, and we four hadn't eaten.  No problem, said Maria, who assured us that Glacis Beisl, a popular restaurant, awaited just up the street. She lead us there walking her bike, which had a baby seat on the back. "Do you have a small child?" I asked. "No, my son is 24, but leaving the seat there makes it less likely the bike will be stolen." The restaurant was open, as promised; we kissed the leading lady goodbye and watched her pedal off.

"No food, only drinks," the waiter said apologetically, as we moved to sit down. Taking pity on our hungry quartet, he said that Cafe Europa was still serving food, gave us a map and pointed the way. With Ed as our walking GPS, we soon found our quarry, an explosion of loud rock with customers crowded in the doorway and on the sidewalk. Not for me, I insisted, even though it was now midnight.

We took a cab back to the Bristol, Ed and Tom's hotel, and the desk clerk directed us to the only place in the area that was open. Its menu was limited, but we made do, augmenting our entrees with fistfuls of popcorn from bowls that arrived at the table with the regularity of the city's trams.

It was pushing 2 A.M. as Diane and I, in another cab, passed the Riesenrad en route back to our apartment. It was at rest in the dark, deserted amusement park, where the shade of Harry Lime likely still walks.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Week in Venice

Shhh! . . . Do you hear that sound? . . . No? . . . Listen hard. . . . It's the silence of La Giudecca, a bewitching hush broken only by occasional footfalls echoing in the narrow calle that leads to our hotel, by the rare and almost apologetic gargle and splash of an outboard in the canal beneath our window, by a bark so tentative the dog must be afraid of disturbing the peace.

We are in Venice, and away from it, on an island so quiet and serene that 50,000, the number of tourists who spill into the city daily, seems ridiculously hyperbolic, though just a ten minute vaporetto ride away hordes swarm through the Piazza San Marco and jockey for photo ops atop the Ponte di Rialto.

Giudecca looks like a caterpillar and is almost as silent. It's a mile long and about 400 yards wide; I strolled the fondamenta that stretches its length in thirty minutes, a half-dozen bridges arching me over the slender channels that empty into the Canale della Giudecca, the broad passage that separates the island from the crush across the way.

A canal near our hotel on Giudecca
Giudecca suggests to many that the island was once Venice's Jewish ghetto. Not so. The district of Cannaregio, on the north side of the city, held that dubious distinction from 1516 until 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Venetian Republic and opened the gates. Monasteries were more the rule on Giudecca, among them one to which Michelangelo retreated, in 1529, in self-imposed exile from the Medici court in Florence.

In the first half of the 20th century, industries and shipyards hummed on the island. But after World War II, that economy shattered, and Giudecca slowly became what it is today: a haven for residents who so treasure its solitude that many refer to themselves as Giudecchini rather than Venetians. After 24 hours, I was a Giudecchino myself, content to linger over a cappuccino at the Trattoria Dimori, watching the vaporetti thread through the brisk zig-zag of the water traffic.

Every 20 minutes or so, these crowded nautical buses load and unload passengers at five stops along the fondamenta, providing easy access to the heart of the city. I feel guilty not hopping on one and dutifully inspecting the Tintorettos and Tiepolos at the Gallerie dell' Academia, or paying homage to the two dozen doges buried in the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Yet as one day follows the next blessed with clear skies and temperatures in the mid eighties, the shadowy insides of churches, palazzos and museums, however stunning and instructive, have all the allure of a coal mine.

Besides, Venice itself is the city's greatest work of art, a sunlit procession of Gothic, Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque architecture that stretches along the Fondamenta Zattere, just across the water from where I sit. On the right rise the two domes and two bell towers of the Salute, the octagonal Roman Catholic church built in the 17th century to honor Venetians who died in the plague epidemic of the 1630s.

As my eyes move left, I feel as if I am walking through a gallery hung with sunlit masterpieces; not just churches, but one palazzo after another. These centuries-old three- and four-story structures that once housed dukes now serve within as hotels, apartment buildings or offices; but their facades remain largely unchanged, the arched windows and filigreed balconies looking down on the Zattere's bustling terrace of stones and bridges.

While I wallowed in splendid isolation–and scribbled at last week's post beneath the Domori's sheltering umbrella–Diane did what proper tourists are supposed to do, explored the city. Her main destination was the Teatro La Fenice:

On my last visit to Venice, in 1996, it had just burned down, for the third time. The smell of the smoky ruin still permeated the neighborhood. This time, I arrived at  the theater just as it was opening for the day, so I took a tour guided by a headset voice that sounded like Helen Mirren's, but probably wasn't. The house had risen from the ashes, like the Phoenix of its name; it had been beautifully recreated in a 19th century style, but with 21st century touches, among them individual air-conditioning/heating vents under each seat. 

As I sat in one of these velvet-covered chairs, I thought about another La Fenice, the quintet I helped found. A few days after September 11, 2001 Catherine Cho, Marcy Rosen, Maria Lambros, Peggy Pearson and I had a concert scheduled in Boston. We considered canceling, since it was hard to concentrate on anything other than the unfolding tragedy, but we decided that the audience needed the balm of music in that dark time, and so did we. 

The concert went on as scheduled, and included the almost unbearably intense Brahms Quintet. Afterwards, we decided to give our ensemble a name. I thought of the Teatro La Fenice, which I was certain would rise once again, and suggested we call ourselves La Fenice, in hopeful tribute to the power of art to help the world recover from the ashes of 9/11. 

When yet another day dawned bright and sunny, Diane and I grabbed our bathing suits, took Vaporetto No. 2 to the San Marco stop and transferred to the No. 1, which brought us across the lagoon to the Lido. This spit is famous as the site of the Venice Film Festival, but as we splashed in the Adriatic the beach was more a reminder of the sand at Long Island's Robert Moses State Park, where we first met 31 summers ago.

Though the Lido permits cars, they seemed far outnumbered by bicycles, which were tied up by the dozens wherever we looked, or wheeled noiselessly along the quiet streets, their riders carrying groceries home in large baskets or just out for a spin. I was back the next day at 9 A.M., rented a sturdy bike for four euros and spent the next two hours rolling from one end of the seven-and-a-half-mile-long island to the other.

Drivers were ever polite, always giving a wide berth; at the Aeroporto Niceli I paused to watch light planes bounce onto the runway; as I hugged the beach, horseback riders on the sand waved. After returning my own steed, an ice cream cone was a must: two scoops of stracciatella!

On our last night, we dined at the Ristorante Al Storico da Crea, which sits high above a boatyard on the side of Giudecca away from the fondamenta. The owner-chef didn't bring menus and seemed a bit grouchy as he tried to manipulate us toward pasta with squid ink and mixed grilled fish, the dishes he apparently felt like preparing. Somewhat sheepishly, we asked if we could possibly have spaghetti with shrimp and artichokes (Diane) and spaghetti with shrimp and cherry tomatoes (me). He acquiesced, and produced a delicious meal, which he served himself and we ate as dusk settled over the water.

Photo: Diane

Well fed and aglow from our glorious week, we ambled back through the boatyard and emerged onto the fondamenta to find the Brillance of the Seas, a 90,000-ton cruise ship, edging through the Canale della Giudecca. She dwarfed the delicate city, a giant ham actor in a white clown suit chewing up the scenery of the Zattere's exquisite backdrop.

Time to move on.


In the Singapore election on May 7, the People's Action Party, which has kept the country under tight, authoritarian control for more than four decades, posted its poorest showing ever. Sensing the voters'  discontent, several PAP officials made vague promises that more freedom was coming. Not of speech, apparently. As I wrote in my post from Singapore (April14), Alan Shadrake faced imprisonment for allegedly offending the Singapore judiciary in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock. The 75-year-old British author appealed the sentence, to no avail: he is now serving six weeks in jail, which will be extended to eight if he fails to pay the court's fine of $16,000.

Correction: There is no doubt that the Turkish government censors the internet, as reported in my post from Istanbul (May 21). However, I was mistaken in implying at the beginning of the report that the censors were blocking the sound of the Dudley Moore-Peter Cook YouTube video, which shows a cop pulling over a pianist for playing Beethoven too fast. The silence, I discovered too late, was not caused by Turkish authorities but by my failure to properly set the YouTube volume. It has now been put right, revealing that the British team's sketch is, as I suspected, pretty funny. Judge for yourself here.