He was one of the most talented musicians I had ever heard. Sitting alone in front of his audience, his head bent in concentration over the cello. His fingers fluttered effortlessly in time with the bow and generated a haunting, complex melody. And he didn't even flinch when a black Mercedes zipped around him, horn blaring. You expect to find gifted musicians in Vienna, Austria, a city world-renowned for producing and nurturing many of history's greatest composers. You expect to attend a concert, hear the disciples of Mozart and Strauss practice their craft at the highest level. You do not expect to do so in the middle of a traffic circle.
But Vienna's music culture is not allocated solely to expensive opera houses and ornate palace halls. Music and music's history are so much a part of Vienna, that standing room and street corners often offer easier and more authentic substitutes.
I stumbled upon the cello player one evening in Michaelerplatz, a round courtyard carved into a corner of the enormous Hofburg Palace. The setting itself juxtaposed the elaborate, baroque wing of the Hapsburg’s winter residence, deity-laded fountains and all, with the trappings of modern traffic patterns. A narrow road emerged from the bowels of the palace itself, shooting out from underneath an archway before skirting Michaelerplatz's circular perimeter and branching off into a series of quaint boulevards.
In the center of this roundabout, across from some preserved ancient Roman ruins, a young man sat alone with his polished cello. He was dressed in a full tuxedo, his dark hair purposefully disheveled. He was accompanied by a small speaker at his feet and an open instrument case a few feet away.
We must have caught him between pieces because people were already gathered along the waist-high stone wall that dissects the plaza, forming a perfect audience pit.I believe in joining any impromptu group gathered in a public place, especially when it involves a musician. The quantity and quality of a city’s street performers is a good indicator on whether or not the indoor entertainment is worth anything. At the very least, it’s fun for free. So I claimed an empty wall spot just before the cello strings began humming.
In an instant, Vienna lived up to its musical reputation. The man with the cello played effortlessly through three classical movements. His small speaker supported him with taped percussion and horn, but his strings were always the star.He began with a slow-paced piece, drowned in emotion. He paused briefly for applause, tipped his head in recognition and launched immediately into a fast-paced staccato. He tipped the scales, leaning into each stroke with gumption. More than a few heads bobbed along, mine included. He wrangled in the energy level for the third piece and boomed out a vaguely familiar tune. It was then that a black Mercedes raced out from the archway, bathing the cello player in headlight. He embraced the unplanned spotlight by closing his eyes, craning back his neck and hitting the song’s climactic point. His bit of flare earned a collective, “ooh” from the onlookers.
The Mercedes sped off, the cello player came to a rousing finish and twenty pedestrians erupted in applause. Without a word, he stood up from his stool, bowed, picked up his speaker and case and strolled away. In seconds, Michaelerplatz was empty.
I could not name any of the cellist’s pieces, nor did that matter. I had listened to beautiful music in the shadow of one of Europe’s most ornate buildings, played by a master artist drowned in a soft lamplight. The atmosphere rivaled any opera house.
|Vienna's street performers are like no other|
But most visitors seeking that classic musical experience have no shortage of opportunity, either. As soon as you emerge from the subway in the city’s busy Stephensplatz, salesmen dressed in Renaissance garb bombard tourists and locals alike with talk of cheap opera tickets and dinner shows. They are unnecessary.
The only things you need to enjoy a night of fine music, are strong legs and an open mind, because the Staatstoper offers standing room tickets. It’s a trick located in many good guidebooks, but one well worth taking advantage of.
I am by no means an opera guy. But an hour and a half prior to show time, I lined up at the Staatsoper box office with a couple hundred other people, curious about what was waiting for me inside. Four Euro later, I was being shuffled by ushers to a waiting area outside the mezzanine. Forty-five minutes prior to curtain, we entered into the shimmering, golden hall. We claimed spots along one of the tiered railings set aside for the standing room customers (they say bring a scarf to tie on the rail to save your spot, but any scrap of cloth will do). The railings provide good leaning and even have small screens that scroll translations during the show.
If there is a better view inside this gorgeous opera house, I didn’t see it. Center stage, elevated above the floor seats, this box should have been reserved for royalty. Instead, a hundred or so casually dressed deal-seekers stood gawking at the elaborate, lush décor. The rows of red boxes stacked encircled the hall like a lush, velvet-trimmed beehive, and buzzed with a similar excitement as they filled with opera enthusiasts.
With the start of that night’s production, Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow for all you non-German speakers), an opera by Richard Strauss, I found myself ignoring the translation screen altogether and focusing on the powerful voices onstage. Mainly, I did so because the opera’s story made little sense to me; a strange Prince and the Pauper-esque tale of a barren woman who teleports and casts spells. But the composition was beautiful and unlike any other musical experience. So when I left after an hour and a half, during the first intermission, I felt completely satisfied with my four Euro investment.
That evening ended the way any good Viennese night should end: sitting under an umbrella at an outdoor café, sipping a bright orange Aperol spritzer, noshing on a slice of cake and listening to urban chatter floating down pedestrian boulevards.
|The Staatsoper, Vienna's ornate opera house|
On the walk back to the hotel, I took the long way through Michaelerplatz, thinking maybe I could catch lightning in a bottle twice. I walked across the roundabout to where the cello player had sat the previous night. Tonight the stone plaza was empty. There was no audience lined along the half-wall.
But I had no reason for disappointment. For fewer than ten U.S. dollars, I attended the opera and listened to an immensely talented cellist, who by all rights could have charged admission. A win all around, even if the street musicians had taken the night off.
Just as I turned to leave the plaza, a group emerged from a chapel on the other end of the roundabout. They formed a haphazard half-circle near a street lamp. And for the next thirty minutes, I leaned against the half-wall along a street in Vienna, and listened to an angelic choir.
Michael Hartigan is a freelance travel writer from Boston, Massachusetts. From San Francisco to Salzburg, he has explored and written about unique people, places and traditions. Michael's writing has been featured in the Arizona Republic, USA Today and in his monthly travel column published in a series of local Massachusetts newspapers, such as the Danvers Herald. He believes that you should go wherever it takes, but always come back with a good story. Follow his blog at www.whereverittakes.com and on Twitter @WhereverItTakes