Peelman’s idea of Vienna is all over the place

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Didgeridoo, voice and guitar artist William Barton and his partner, the virtuosic violinist Veronique Serret, will perform “Heartland” as part of the festival. Photo: Anthony Browell.

WHEN it comes to planning the Canberra International Music Festival, artistic director Roland Peelman wants to have his Sachertorte and eat it. 

For he has no intention of being straitjacketed by whatever title he puts to the festival, so that the 2021 motif, “The Idea of Vienna”, will be balanced by a formidable program of indigenous Australian music performed on each day of the event. 

To be sure, as the program reads, Vienna is “the city where Schubert and Strauss were born. The place where Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven made history. The opera house that Mahler transformed for the 20th century. The circles where Schoenberg foreshadowed the tragedy of two world wars”.

Or as Hungarian writer Sándor Márai put it, “Saying the word ‘Vienna’ was like striking a tuning fork and then listening to find what tone it called forth in the person I was talking to”.

“The idea of Vienna is about whatever you want,” the disarmingly unconventional Peelman tells me over lunch.

“Music is whatever you want it to be; whatever you want to hear in it”.

So much so that in a Jesuitical twist, he writes, “If taking you to Vienna may appear strange in current circumstances, remember, in a roundabout kind of way, the journey magically crosses the very heart of Australia.

“The beauty of music is that it is abstract, which is why we can all share it.

“And the idea of Vienna can take in a wide variety of cultural expressions – theatre, designers, turn of the [19th to 20th] century changes in thinking, Freudian psychology and in music, the collapse of the tonal system”.

Vienna is, it seems, all things to all people.

It’s also a city where you could meet almost anyone. One author wrote, “If you walk into a coffee shop in 1903 Vienna, you might find at the same table the artist Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky and possibly Adolf Hitler, who lived in Vienna at the same time”.

“The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt,” Austrian satirist Karl Kraus wrote. 

“I’ll dance with you in Vienna,” Leonard Cohen sang.

“Vienna, City of My Dreams” the 1914 song went, but Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “I don’t want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me”.

Peelman, unlike Nabokov, will happily embrace that elderly gentleman, Sigmund Freud, in the May 5 concert called “Night and Dreams”, a program including Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” and HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!”

Neither Mozart nor Beethoven were born in Vienna, but they both moved there and are both handsomely represented in the 2021 festival.

Bearing in mind that Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday party last year was a bit of a fizzer, Peelman has programmed a special breakfast series, “A Bit of Beethoven”, that is almost booked out. Over five mornings during the festival, 25 “bits” by Australia’s favourite composer will be performed over a bite of breakfast, and Canberra-raised musicians, violinist Kristian Winther and flautist Sally Walker, will be on the menu.

While Vienna was always a city of innovation, Peelman says, there was a reactionary strand alongside the progressive.

“It’s a paradox,” he says, but a paradox that Vienna‘s population took to like ducks to water so that it became the most forward-thinking of European cities.

As well, he points out that it’s a city at the crossroads between the north and south, east and west. 

“The Ottoman Empire was within earshot”, he says, and to that end, Peelman has programmed a program of traditional Sufi music as well, of course, as Mozart‘s famous Sonata ‘Alla Turca’ K 331, to be played by Canberra pianist Edward Neeman.

“It’s a city where so much was articulated and undermined, where, for instance, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pulled the rug from underneath the comfortable philosophical establishment.

Peelman, too, is pulling the rug from under the feet of conservative music goers in this festival which he describes as “a proud showcase of Australian music – we are not short of great artists”.

At its heart is what he calls “a big focus on indigenous music – putting First Nations artists first”.

Yuwaalaraay woman, Nardi Simpson, will be performing on a possum-skin instrument in “Possum Song” in “Hand to Earth” at the NGA on May 2.

Then on May 8, didgeridoo, voice and guitar artist William Barton and his partner, the virtuosic violinist Veronique Serret, will perform “Heartland”, one of the hits of the Sydney festival but originally commissioned by CIMF in 2019.

“What started as a small duet for the 2019 festival has since become a fully-fledged major work, an invitation into landscape, culture, language and country,” Peelman says.

At the back of his mind is the fact that the 2020 event was cancelled. Well, not quite – he did curate a mini digital festival.

Nonetheless, Peelman has taken advantage of the restrictions on international travel to focus on Australian artists.

And it gets “a little offbeat, but so damn good”, as he says. In the “Sessions@Verity” strand, Canberra’s downtown Verity Lane Market will host artists as varied as Filipino and Aboriginal rapper Dobby, Josh Cohen and his Radiohead songbook and saxophonist/composer Sandy Evans.

“You can’t take the ‘I’ out of CIMF, but I thought we could put together an international festival using Australian artists,” he says.

“In any case, the whole idea of Vienna means turning the tables, looking at the west, at Vienna, from this side of the world.”

Canberra International Music Festival, April 30-May 9, book here. Digital access to 10 concerts in the festival here.

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