When, on May 25, 2020, the Salzburg Festival announced it would proceed amid the pandemic, it seemed an act of profound optimism—perhaps not unlike Max Reinhardt’s ambition to have a dedicated Festival house, conjured by Hugo von Hofmannstal as a “dream of a fairy temple, in which people from every nation on earth discover each other again.”  In reality, the Salzburg Festival did become one of the first “deeds of peace” after World War I, and it revived itself as a cultural peace project after World War II. Now in 2020, the Festival Direktorium has dedicated its anniversary edition to the Festival’s original principles, returning to themes of “community, the relationship of the individual to the whole, radical individualism and, as a great hope, the idea that the world can be changed through communal solidarity, through a new humanity.”
Intervention by Isa Rosenberger: a tripartite frame on the site of Clemens Holzmeister’s proposed Festival theater (1950-51) in the Mirabell Gardens. Part of the exhibition “Der Traum von einem Feentempel” in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Salzburg Festival.” Photo credit: Katherine Baber
The Festival Direktorium took a leap of faith into the arms of the artists and staff, the audience, and the city who were all expected to adhere to strict guidelines—”communal solidarity” indeed. By most accounts, the Festival has been a success. No case of COVID-19 has been reported among the roughly 76,500 guests (one case among the staff was contained), and 96% of all seats were sold for a total of 8.7 million Euro. Despite a slower than usual tourist season, regular festival-goers were loyal, and audience members came from 39 different countries. While revenues were understandably much lower than usual, especially without the draw of several opera performances, Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler emphasized that it was a triumph to have held the Festival at all, calling it a “Leuchtturm Projekt” (a beacon project). In her statement closing the Festival she directly compared this year to other times of turbulence, recalling the “peace project” in 1920 and the “cultural beacon” that gave “hope to people devastated by war” in 1945. She declared that in thinking of the Festival’s founders, “we would have been ashamed to simply give up.” While not as given to mystical or sacred language as Hofmannsthal or Reinhardt, Rabl-Stadler has a keen sense of the Festival’s significance as a leading artistic center and a site of cultural diplomacy.
During the postwar period, Americans were literal keepers of the peace and supporters of the cultural revival that the ongoing Salzburg Festival represented. As discussed in the first post, the American military occupation helped reorganize the Festival, American audiences provided income, and the U.S. provided significant funding to Austrian redevelopment through the Marshall Plan. Americans’ economic contributions were welcome, but the same could not be said of all American cultural contributions. Hollywood, jazz, and musical theater were popular enough, even after the occupation ended, but American classical music struggled to find a place on orchestral programs and opera seasons. However, during his term as Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival (1956-1960), Herbert van Karajan pushed to internationalize and modernize its repertoire and performers. In 1958 Festival audiences saw their first American opera—Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which had premiered earlier that year at the Met. The critical and audience reactions to Barber’s opera were lukewarm at best and derisive at worst, but the following year, when they heard the first performance by an American orchestra—the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein—the concert was enthusiastically received. The warmer reception for New Yorkers at the 1959 Festival also extended to performances by Jerome Robbins’s Ballets U.S.A.—an ad-hoc company he had created to perform at Gian Carlo Menotti’s Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy (the precursor of today’s Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina). The resurgence of an American presence in Salzburg, this time on stage, met with some complaints, but Robbins and Bernstein proved able to navigate the cultural and political currents of the Festival, each in their own way. Robbins played to type and Bernstein played diplomat.
The music and choreography of Robbins’s program with the Ballets U.S.A. leaned into a particular vision of Americanness that European audiences were primed to accept: modern, urban, energetic, irreverent. A given critic’s taste mattered less in reviews than that Robbins and his dancers conformed to these expectations. Their program featured music and choreography inspired by jazz and social dance in New York Export, Opus Jazz, a satiric remix of Chopin in The Concert, and the bold choice of an abstract ballet without music in Moves. The performance of a Black principal dancer, John Jones, in a pas de deux with a white partner, Wilma Curley—a daring move at home in the Jim Crow era—went largely un-remarked upon in Salzburg. The lack of reaction from European audiences could be attributed their familiarity with the performances of Black American jazz musicians in Europe–Jones’s role in Opus Jazz confirmed expectations. The Ballets U.S.A. appearance also resonated with earlier performances featuring African American artists that had been well-received in Austria, such as the 1947 tour of Porgy and Bess. With headlines like “Ein Weltballet der Marke Amerika” (A World Ballet of the American Brand) and “Abstrakter Tanz—Import aus Amerika” (Abstract Dance—Import from America), the reviews confirmed that Austrian audiences had seen and heard the Ballets U.S.A. as “on brand” for America.
Not everyone was ready to accept the leap from Broadway to Salzburg, however. One review in the Wiener Zeitung allowed that the ballet’s “own American touch may be original” but found it was missing “that high dance culture and noble grace that one must present as authorization for an appearance at the Salzburg Festival.” The officiousness of “Berechtigungsausweis” (authorization or license) is intentional and of a piece with other politicized reviews. Lothar Sträter in Das Feuilleton described the Ballets U.S.A. stop in Salzburg as the “Robbins Truppe-Station” (punning on the military and artistic meanings of “troupe”) while referring to the presence of both Bernstein and Robbins as an American “invasion” of the Festival. However, the tone of Sträter’s review was lightly satirical, eventually admitting that American musicians might bring “a fresh wind” if the quality was high enough, which it apparently was in 1959 as opposed to the unsuccessful opera the year before. The crucial difference seems to have been that while Barber’s Vanessa was perceived as a poor imitation of Giacomo Puccini’s operas, Robbins’s contribution was “original.” Better to be authentically American, even if a touch too popular, than to come bearing a European knock-off.
The tendency to cast artists as representatives of national types that framed the reception of Robbins and Bernstein can be seen in much of the music criticism, programs, and promotional materials of the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, the program of the 1959 Festival described the guest orchestras and conductors as forming a “Landkarte der Musiktemperamente” or “map of musical temperaments.” Joseph Keilberth embodied the “best German character” in his “mixture of thoroughness and deliberation” whereas the French Manuel Rosenthal’s conducting was characterized by “Mediterranean lightness and grace.” Bernstein and the Americans demonstrated the “highly developed pattern precision” of the United States, with the term “Musterpräzision” combining coordination in the military and manufacturing senses. Salzburg, of course, lies at the center of this “künstlerische Kompaß” (artistic compass). Even at the Festival’s founding, writers like Hofmannsthal positioned the Austrian Baroque city as a “Weltstadt” or “Mittelpunkt”—a cosmopolitan center of Europe. The “official” sounding language in the reviews and the geographical metaphors in the programs were part and parcel of the reconfiguration of that earlier impulse for the newly independent and neutral Austrian state. Hence the description of Bernstein as an ambassador at a “Gipfeltreff”—a “summit” in both the artistic and political senses.
The idea of a “summit” is apt given the political purpose behind Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic’s presence in Europe. Funded by the State Department, they were on their way from Western Europe to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Bernstein leaned into this mission abroad with a program that began with Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra and ended with Dimitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—representative American and Russian works on a tour designed to promote cultural understanding in the midst of the Cold War. In between stood Bernstein’s own Symphony No. 2, a move that cast him as a mediator and showcased his multiple talents. (His original program, which also included his performance of a Mozart concerto while conducting from the keyboard, making for a trifecta of composer-conductor-performer, had met with a polite but firm refusal from the Festival administration.) Audiences and critics clearly picked up on the program’s message. Das kleine Volksblatt declared that that the imminent meeting between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev (September 25, 1959) was anticipated in the encounter between American and Russian composers on the Philharmonic’s program. The reception that followed the concert, hosted by Ambassador Gordon A. Ewing from Vienna and the consul in Salzburg, Rebecca Wellington, brought out the diplomatic undertones of the occasion and gathered leading personalities of the political and cultural life of Salzburg, including the “Künstlertrifolium” (artistic triumvirate) of Karajan, Bernstein, and the more senior conductor, Dimitri Mitropolous.
The success of this musical diplomacy depended on the twin forces of Bernstein’s skill as a conductor and the desire of Austrian critics to position their country at the center of European culture by certifying Bernstein and Shostakovich via their relation to Austrian music. Comparisons to the Austrian composer and conductor of the Court (now State) Opera, Gustav Mahler, were frequent in the reviews of this concert and many other concerts Bernstein gave in Austria over the years. Like his mentor Mitropolous, Bernstein was a proponent of Mahler’s music, and his affinity also stemmed from their similar roles as composer-conductors and their shared Jewish heritage. One critic even attempted to bring Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony into this relationship, noting how similar Shostakovich’s third movement sounded to the Ländler (a dance heard in many of Mahler’s works) and its “surprisingly alpine twists.” Certainly, Bernstein understood himself as a Jewish artist (though not exclusively so), interpreted Mahler as a Jewish composer, and was keenly aware of Austrian anti-Semitism and how it shaped perceptions of both Mahler and himself. In the reception of this 1959 program, however, critics seemed most concerned with searching out affinities to Austria, and Salzburg in particular, through Mahler. The invocation of an “alpine” mood also called out to the landscape of the Salzkammergut, where countless artists and musicians, including Mahler, had sought inspiration. Indeed, the natural beauty of Salzburg had been a core component of Hofmannsthal and Reinhardt’s ideological vision of the Festival. Even though he was not on the program, the newly rehabilitated image of Mahler as a quintessentially Austrian artist (despite his Bohemian ancestry) helped to assimilate both Bernstein and Shostakovich into the Salzburg Festival.
However, Bernstein himself also deserves credit for persuading Festival audiences to trust him as a musical mediator, regardless of the nationality of the composer. Although some would have preferred to hear Beethoven or Brahms, Bernstein was praised for tapping the essential Russian character of Shostakovich’s symphony: “not even the Cossacks ride as wild as Bernstein did in the last movement” ending the work with a “majestic Bahöll.” (The word “Bahöll” has no satisfying translation, but “ballyhoo” comes close.) Bernstein would earn a reputation for demanding that an orchestra, even one as committed to its own distinctive sound as the Vienna Philharmonic, should adapt itself to the tone colors and harmonic shading of a given composer or national style. At the moment, that review represented a step forward for the young conductor whose Mozart interpretations were “too Romantic” for Viennese audiences and who was still new to his history-making role as the first American musical director of the New York Philharmonic (1958-1969). Over the course of the next few years, culminating with a hugely successful engagement at the Vienna State Opera conducting Verdi’s Falstaff in 1966, Bernstein cultivated an increasingly international profile. By 1985, the music critic for Die Presse, Franz Endler, would declare Bernstein “ein verkappter Wiener” (a Viennese in disguise) and in 1988 he led the Vienna Philharmonic’s first tour to Israel. Having begun as an ambassador to Austria, he finished his career as an ambassador for Austria.
Intervention by Esther Stocker: one of three enlarged pages from a brochure for a proposed Mozart-Festspielhaus (1890) on the Mönchsberg. Photo credit: Katherine Baber
Gustavo Dudamel’s path through the Salzburg Festival to a now decade-long relationship with Austrian audiences combines elements of Robbins’s and Bernstein’s journeys. Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra appeared at the Salzburg Festival in 2008, but his performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Vienna Philharmonic at the 2009 Festival is still remembered as his breakthrough. At the time, Dudamel was heading into his first season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, having begun his conducting career with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony. Since then he has been received in Austria as an explicitly American artist, sometimes specifically Latin American, and as a more international or ambassadorial figure.
Reactions to the 2016 production of Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival (a shorter, springtime counterpart to the summer festival) followed some familiar patterns. The production starred the Festival’s artistic director Cecilia Bartoli as Maria (the singing half of a doubled role she shared with a younger actress) and featured Dudamel with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. Comparisons of Dudamel to Bernstein abounded, as they have in the U.S. too, given the similarity of their conducting styles. In the case of West Side Story, however, the affinity was their shared Americanness—Bernstein’s in the narrow sense of being from the United States and Dudamel’s in a broader sense, encompassing all of the Americas. In some ways, Dudamel was seen as authenticating Bernstein’s score, which draws heavily on Latin American dance music and Latin jazz styles. For Bartoli, having Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra was “a veritable coup.” In her own words: “Nobody can drive the Sharks so fast and rhythmically as seventy Latinos in the orchestra pit!” One critic picked up on Dudamel’s own comments in a TV interview, and declared that he and his orchestra were “familiar with Bernstein’s rhythms down to their genes.”
These reviews, which lean into Dudamel’s presumably “fiery” Latin temperament, prove that the tendencies of music criticism Bernstein and Robbins encountered in the 1950s have not disappeared. The critics writing about Robbins and Bernstein (and many others) take as their premise that nationality must somehow affect musicality. While there is some truth to this, as in the “national styles” of Baroque Europe, in music criticism it all too often devolves into stereotype. The “map of musical temperaments” means that there is something essentially “Mediterranean” in a French conductor’s work, or essentially “Slavic” in the music of a Russian composer like Shostakovich. The Blackness of Robbins’s principal dancer is unsurprising because of the ballet’s “urban” character. The praise of Bernstein’s musical adaptability is, on the one hand, a recognition of his particular skill set, and on the other an unsettling echo of the presumption that Jewish musicians are adept only at mimicry–a stereotype rooted in Richard Wagner’s infamous tract Das Judenthum in der Musik (1850).
This trend in music criticism continues today, when we see the same mixture of delight at an “authentic” quality and the reduction of a musician to nationality, race, or ethnicity. In 2016 the classical music critic for the LA Times, Mark Swed, compared Kent Nagano’s process of conducting Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun to the Japanese custom of slurping noodles. That the comparison was intended as a compliment, presumably demonstrating the critic’s cosmopolitan bona fides, matters less than that it is part of long chain of exoticist criticism of artists who read as “ethnic” in any way. Kent Nagano, for the record, was born in Berkeley, California and has spent much of his career working in London, Los Angeles, Lyon, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Montreal–and also appeared this year at the Salzburg Festival. The racism we can see here is not particular to Austria or the U.S., but it is endemic in lazy criticism. For example, although the 2020 review in the Salzburg Nachrichten that referred to Dudamel as a “Feuerkopf” (spitfire, or literally “fire head”) on the podium was a clever pun on the piece he and the Vienna Philharmonic performed—Stravinsky’s Firebird—it still reverberates with earlier racist characterizations, regardless of intent.
Although Dudamel embraces his Venezuelan heritage and promotes the music of composers from all over the Americas through his programming with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is also a cosmopolitan musician. He appears regularly with the Vienna Philharmonic on their season concerts, European and world tours, and at the Salzburg Festival. In 2017 he became the youngest conductor at 36 to lead the New Year’s Concert at the Musikverein, usually an honor reserved for an éminence grise. At times he has served as a musical ambassador, whether voluntarily or not. Over the course of 2017, the Salzburger Nachrichten and other Austrian publications tracked Dudamel’s response to the protests against President Nicolás Maduro, comparing his initial silence to Venezuelan artists who were quicker to voice their opposition the repressive regime, like pianist Gabriela Montero. When Dudamel did speak out after a young violist was killed in a peaceful protest that April, Maduro’s subsequent public attack on Dudamel and the cancellation of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra tour to the U.S. were also covered in Austria. Although these were high profile events in cultural reportage around the world, Austrian papers, especially the Salzburger Nachrichten, never failed to mention his connections to the Festival and/or the Vienna Philharmonic. Like Bernstein before him, Dudamel is becoming a local figure in Salzburg and Vienna.
Musically, Dudamel and Bernstein share the ability to heighten the characteristic qualities of a given composer, while also allowing an ensemble to retain their distinctive sound. In his appearance at this year’s Salzburg Festival, Dudamel was praised for letting the string section retain their characteristic warmth as part of the orchestra’s “Klangkultur”—”Viennese sound culture remains Viennese sound culture”—while making sure that everything necessary to Stravinsky’s music, from “shimmering and buzzing sound effects” to “sound masses with immense force,” could be felt. The critic for Die Presse declared the performance to be truly “festival ready,” implying that others had not been. For the Vienna Philharmonic—which has no chief conductor in the way that the Berlin Philharmonic has Kirill Petrenko and the Los Angeles Philharmonic has Dudamel—the honor of having appeared with the ensemble 69 times already signifies the depth of his relationship with the orchestra. (In comparison, Bernstein’s lifetime appearances with the Philharmonic totaled 194, while Kent Nagano, also present at the Salzburg Festival this year, has only conducted the ensemble on 10 occasions.)
Dudamel has also re-committed to the role of artist-activist over the course of the summer. For radio listeners in California he hosted a series of broadcasts, “At Home with Gustavo,” in March and April, listening to his favorite music and