Musical Aflenz

Aflenz, Austria

3 August 2012

At the Vienna Airport, do not turn left merely because the sign points toward the train station. No one will tell you so, but the utterly essential information kiosk is just to the right. Being obedient to signs, you’ll doubtless turn left, and regret it soon enough. The left takes you to the station platform for both the CAT (the shuttle to center city) and the OBB, the train service that delivers all Austria to all of Europe, calling along the way at a dozen downtown stops. This same left hand turn is presumed so efficient that the ticket machine, the passageways, the platform, the printed train maps are completely free of human interference.

You’re on your own.

Your Plan: take this train to town and transfer to a faster train to Bruck an der Mur 150 kilometers distant. There, you can take the 20 kilometer taxi ride to Aflenz. The Plan Killer: getting off at Schwechat because your machine-printed ticket suggests you might change trains here. In truth, Schwechat is but the second stop, about 6 minutes from the airport. That platform has no information, and the station house on the other side of the track, down many stairs, under the track, and up many stairs, is unmanned.

Do not fail to notice that these are the first day jitters, the ‘I’ve never been here’ blues that signal the adventure’s start or, looked at from half way up a staircase when your 90 pounds of gear suddenly slide away from you, the moment that you know the Furies that tracked you down even in peaceable Austria.

{The Ruined Castle}

ImageThey are also there at the bicycle rental shop where they persuade you to sail at speed down the mountain to Thörl to photograph the ruined castle that’s so beautifully built that you can barely tell where the cliff wall ends and the human construction begins. They do not tell you that the rear brakes are too worn to be of much use. The front brakes, the ones that pitch you over the handlebars, are of no interest to Greek genii.

But Furies or jitters, the purpose of visiting this ski resort town in the Austrian sub-Alps, has been Image

{The Aflenz Village Church and Concert Hall}

to connect with the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, a collection of 50 Hong Kong children, maybe 12 to 16 years old who are here enjoying master classes with teachers from the Vienna Conservatory. On Saturday they’ll play a concert here; on Sunday afternoon they’ll play in Vienna in the Musickverein.

Georg Baich spent three hours a day this week with four young cellists, all of them younger than 15. The boys were ambitious enough, strutting their stuff with a Brahms Sonata, a Haydn Concerto, a Bach Suite for unaccompanied cello.  Herr Baich is Austrian, but his training was in Russia, and he does much incidental work in Bulgaria. Those, then—German, Russian, Bulgarian—are his primary languages, so one of the elements of heroism on all sides was Georg struggling to put his thoughts into workable English while his Hong Kong boys did their best to weed through his accent and his peculiar notion of English and American idioms.


{Professor Baich and his Charge}

When language failed, he seized the boy’s instrument, usurped his chair, and demonstrated the player’s weakness, an even worse error he could fall into, and two or three degrees of better sound, better intonation, better interpretation, better fingering, better bowing, better tuning, better grasping of the instrument between one’s legs, better hand/shoulder/arm/neck/head posture, better projection, better understanding of what pianissimo means when playing with an orchestra or with a chamber group or with a piano accompanist or in solo performance.

In short, learning the cello is an endless process, perhaps an impossible one. But the boys learned, picking up the technical hints and applying them even though, in Georg’s mind, they were only half-expressed and, in the boys’ minds, they were perhaps half-understood.

Other questions, however, found no answer: Brahms wrote this sonata while he was in love with________? In the Bach suite the dances—the Gavotte, the Courante, the Gigue, the Allemande—come from what countries? Should these staccato notes in the Haydn Concerto really sound like machine gun fire? Why not?

My mind flashed back to days when I interviewed applicants for university places in Hong Kong. Always prejudiced in favor of musicians, I asked prospective students if they played an instrument. ‘Yes, of course.’ ‘ And what are you working on these days.’  ‘Sonata.’  ‘Really? Whose?’

No clue. No clue that ‘Sonata’ was not a title, like ‘One Enchanted Evening.’ Here in Aflenz, the boys were a bit more sophisticated, but they do know very little of music history or biography or the relationships among musical friends and enemies. Music is permanently abstract, unblooded, disconnected from human experience. Purity is its element, so it must be played exactly. Thus a student’s concentration on technique is justified even if musicianship dare not peek out from the score.  Perhaps this sensibility describes the world where careers are launched or sunk by competitions where every player strives for a note-perfect performance. (Herr Baich’s daughter, Lidia, is a notable dissenter. A rising star violinist, she sports a tattooed treble clef sign under her right wrist and a songbird beneath her left.  At every movement of bow and fingers, the reminders speak: “It’s the music. Sing.”)

Your assignment then: devise a method of teaching music history, musical biography, the sociology of music, the possibilities, limits, values of interpretation that makes sense even as students struggle with bow placement, intonation, fingering—all those elements of technique that wow the contemporary audience and add rather little to musical life.

And a one, and a two. . . .


{A Dream House in Aflenz}

{Rural Life in Aflenz}


4 thoughts on “Musical Aflenz

  1. Truly a real problem in teaching young people largely concerned only with the technical aspects of,playing their instrument, not who made it, who improved it, who were the first masters, who composed for it, and the relationships they may all have. Let me know if you solve it.

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