The Wiener Festwochen, Vienna’s annual festival for performing arts and classical music, opened this week and will be flooding the Austrian capital with a wealth of performances and concerts over the next four weeks. Originally founded in the 1920s, the cultural marathon was revived in the 1950s and has become one of the most anticipated annual highlights in Austria, attracting international artists and an international audience ever since.
This year’s edition marks a turning point in the recent history of the festival, with artistic director Luc Bondy bidding his farewell after 16 years, having spent 11 at the festival’s helm and five as performing arts chief. The Swiss theater and opera director is moving on to Paris to focus on his responsibilities as the director of the Odéon Theatre and will be succeeded by Markus Hinterhäuser, currently director of the Salzburg Festival.
During his “very long spring” in Vienna, as he put it in a goodbye note, Bondy directed theater and opera productions such as Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and Handel’s “Hercules” with Stéphane Lissner, the musical director of the festival, and brought prestigious international directors to the Austrian capital, Peter Sellars, Simon McBurney, Deborah Warner, and William Kentridge among them.
Twice during Bondy’s involvement with the Wiener Festwochen, the Festival made it onto the evening news, first in 2000, when the late artist, director, and actor Christoph Schlingensief set up a container scenario reminiscent of the reality TV Show “Big Brother” on the opera Square in Vienna with authentic asylum seekers as its inhabitants, confronting the election of the far-right Freedom Party into the National Council with his provocative art and television project “Foreigners Out – Artists against Human Rights,” and again in 2007, when the festival’s performing arts director Marie Zimmermann committed suicide, while the festival was midway – “we miss her,” Bondy wrote in his note.
Next to its traditionally vibrant theater and performing arts program, the Wiener Festwochen and its associated International Music Festival have made Vienna the place to be for lovers of classical music and opera in spring, with world class musicians performing in the city’s historic venues. This year’s opera program pays tribute to Giuseppe Verdi’s bicentennial with a production of “Il Trovatore” under the musical direction of Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber. Katie Mitchell’s production of George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin” (with a libretto by Martin Crimp), which premiered in Aix-en-Provence last summer, has also been causing a lot of excitement. It will be conducted by Kent Nagano.
The second bicentennial that is dominating the opera world this year – that of Richard Wagner – will be celebrated in June, when French conductor Marc Minkowski, whose debut with the Vienna Philharmonic for the opening night left local critics disappointed, returns to the festival for two versions of the “Flying Dutchman” in a single day with the Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. Russian bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin will be singing the title role (after having withdrawn from the part at the Bayreuth festival last year, due to controversy caused by old video footage of the singer, revealing obscure tattoos on his torso, including a partly covered swastika).
Possibly the most anticipated highlight of this year’s festival may well be the international birthday bash with more than 50 concerts celebrating the 100th anniversary of the venerable Vienna Concert Hall with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker plus Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic as orchestras in residence. The glamorous line-up of soloists includes Italian soprano and Vienna State Opera star Barbara Frittoli and Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, violinists Joshua Bell and Hillary Hahn, pianists Maurizio Pollini, Oleg Maisenberg, Emanuel Ax, Till Fellner and the Turkish twin shooting stars Ferhan and Ferzan Önder, to name but a few.
With all the hype surrounding this year’s festival, Austrian media are already speculating in anticipation of next year, when Markus Hinterhäuser will take the helm as new artistic director, especially since it has been made known that the festival’s brand identity is to undergo a thorough makeover. We'll see. And hear.
See highlights from this year’s Vienna Music Festival in the slideshow.