Mélange Vienna Up Close

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Attending Mélange Vienna this July was a humbling and life-altering experience. There’s something special about Vienna for classical musicians. Part of it is knowing that you are walking the same streets the great composers walked every day - past the homes they lived and died in, past the opera houses and salons where their works were premiered, and even past a few restaurants and coffeehouses they frequented...it feels like a holy city. A living, breathing city of music. 

One of the most beautiful things about the festival’s location in Vienna is exactly that: the city has valued music and the arts for centuries. Music is on almost every street corner, with statues paying tribute to Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven or Strauss, and posters of upcoming operas and orchestra concerts in windows everywhere...and all this in the middle of July, when summer is the supposed “off” season! Even today it is a city, and a culture, immersed in music and the arts.

This was demonstrated by the incredible artist faculty at Mélange Vienna, who all studied music there or live there today. Included in the faculty was Mag. Rico Gulda, the son of infamous classical-jazz fusion composer and pianist Friedrich Gulda. We experienced an amazing piano masterclass, in which Mag. Gulda worked with four of us on our piano pieces (with many artistic and nuanced ideas for playing Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 109!). He also spoke to us about his work today as director of the Vienna Konzerthaus, which hosts hundreds of concerts yearly! His humility, kindness, and depth of thought were compelling during both his teaching and his conversations with us.

Beethoven's statue in the Vienna Woods near Heiligenstadt

For me, some of the most powerful and moving experiences were our visits to local monuments. The cemeteries where Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Mozart are buried. The town of Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven hoped to find respite from his sickness and hearing loss, and where he wrote the letter to his brothers which we now call the Heiligenstadt Testament. Haydnhaus, where Joseph Haydn spent his last 12 years composing, teaching private students, and enjoying the countryside, and Mozarthaus Vienna, where Mozart spent three of the most magical years of his life with his wife and children. 

As we visited Beethoven’s grave at the Zentralfriedhof, I teared up thinking about how many people make this pilgrimage today - to visit someone who forever changed the course of music history through his compositions and life. When he was alive, he was often in physical pain, as well as lonely, and misunderstood. Near the end, with his loss of hearing, Beethoven felt so depressed that he considered taking his own life. He even wrote, "It was only my art that held me back."

I couldn't help but think of how sadly ironic this was. A massive gravestone with flowers all around, and thousands of people coming to visit every year, when during his own life, he was forgotten and unappreciated... Let's never wait until it's too late.

Dr. J giving Hani Alnaeb a piano lesson at Klaviergalerie

Although some moments were solemn along the way, we also enjoyed many enriching experiences of pure delight. The routine of lessons and daily practice at the Klaviergalerie and German language lessons with our Austrian instructor Kerima were highlights for me, and really made the festival unique. By the last day, we were able to hold basic German conversations and even order food and drinks on our own! 

We also had the opportunity to perform in venues like Salon Brahms (just a few feet from the place the great composer lived and died), and the Bösendorfer Hall in the cellar of Mozart’s Vienna apartment. We shared our music at the United Nations Vienna, where hundreds of people came together as part of #AgendaHumanity2 to celebrate art and culture. It was all truly humbling and inspiring.

Wiener Mélange at Das Kafa

Being immersed in another culture for the ten days of this festival was life-changing. Not just because the culture was different from our own, but because, despite hundreds of years of history in between, there are still some things that are quite the same. Stephansdom still stands at the city center. Coffeehouses bustle with people stopping in to get a hot cup of goodness and visit with friends. German is the people’s language, and conversations spill out from restaurants and bars and bakeries into the cobblestone streets. We not only traced the steps of classical composers; we tasted a little bit of their world, and in doing so, imagined their lives more vividly.

I am so grateful for the many people who came together to make this event possible, and especially for Dr. J's vision and leadership running this first project of the Mélange International Music Foundation.

The time we spent at Mélange Vienna included some of the most meaningful memories of my life - moments full to the brim with musical explorations in practicing and performing, building lifelong friendships, and investigating for ourselves the culture around us. What an inspiration to live, even for ten days, in the City of Music. In some strange and wonderful way, it felt a little like home.

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