Musicians like to tell you that there are no boundaries in their business, and that music is a universal language. Which is true. But for a young performer in one country to reach audiences in another can require some help. And I was pleased to help provide it when, in 2003, the magnificent Andrea Rauter who supervised all things musical at the Austrian Cultural Forum asked me to ‘curate’ (which I think was the term agreed) a programme of concerts that would select talented young Austrian artists, airlift them over to the UK, and give them a London platform.
I’d been Chief Music Critic at the Independent, and thereafter writing for the New York Times and fronting programmes for the BBC; but to my shame, I didn’t know much about the ACF or what it did. So I was hesitant - not least because my German was so lousy (I could quote you Schubert Lieder-texts but couldn’t say much about flight-times and rehearsal schedules). But Andrea was persuasive: one of her endearing and enduring qualities. And in 2003 the New Artists Series began – with me choosing the artists, fixing the repertoire, and introducing the concerts as a sort of living/breathing programme note. Needless to say, in English.
Thankfully it worked, and carried on working for more than ten years under successive ACF directors and successive Austrian ambassadors, who often graced the concerts with their presence. The first-floor salon at Rutland Gate would be packed out, time and again, with people sitting on the stairs because we couldn’t fit them in. Audience responses were beyond enthusiastic: they were borderline ecstatic. And for me it was a joy to get to know the staff and interns at the house, as well as to be functioning alongside fabulously talented young artists on the cusps of what in many cases turned out to be grand careers.
Perhaps the one I’m proudest of was the Vienna-based soprano Chen Reiss who made a spectacular UK debut in our Series just before her break-through as Susanna in a Wiener Staatsoper Figaro. Nobody who heard that voice (and personality) in the close quarters of the salon could have doubted that this was a star. And by the time we brought her back, to lead an afternoon/evening of masterclasses with young British singers, stardom had indeed arrived. As I recall, she squeezed our masterclasses in between Staatsoper engagements as Ilia (Idomeneo) and Sophie (Rosenkavalier). And my only regret is that plans for her to return with more masterclasses were never realised.
But that said, there were so many great events in that Series – from artists like soprano Nina Bernsteiner, pianists Christoph Berner, Stefan Stroissnig and Florian Feilmair, baritone Alex Puhrer, mezzo Daniela Lehner, tenor Daniel Johannsen …the list goes on, extensively. We stretched our audience’s ears with the challenge of percussionist Martin Mallaun or viola da gamba player Christoph Urbanetz. We even blasted them with a trumpet on one occasion, though that probably wasn’t the best idea we ever had. And I’m glad to say that although these were modest events that could have been completely lost in the sprawling jungle of London’s concert life, they punched above their weight and got known. People like Daniela Lehner found themselves taken up by the BBC and Wigmore Hall thanks in no small part to the exposure they got at the ACF. And in other ways we helped our artists to make useful contacts with the UK music scene, pairing them up with star British musicians like the pianist Roger Vignoles, or involving them in projects of local significance. One I remember was the first London performance of a Schubert song-cycle – and yes that IS correct, although it depends on your acceptance of the composer’s Kosegarten settings as his first, unrecognised but plausible cycle. It’s a matter of contention, but the eminent pianist and scholar and David Owen Norris thought it counted as a cycle, so we put it on with him at the keyboard, co-produced with singers from the Royal College of Music. And it drew a lot of interest.
Another thing in which our artists got involved was a 2006 Wigmore Hall gala for the ACF’s 50th anniversary; and what a wonderful project that was! I have happy memories of digging deep into the archives to write the words for the progr amme book, and discovering so much about the early days of the Institute (as it was then called), back in the 1950/60s - when Rutland Gate functioned like a glittering private residence (complete with liveried butler, Herr Knetzl) and the first floor salon hosted concerts by illustrious visitors like Paul Badura-Skoda, Edita Gruberova and Gundula Janowitz. From the records, you could believe that the Vienna Boys’ Choir were in almost permanent residence, the boys kept entertained down in the basement by Herr Knetzl who did magic tricks when he was not engaged in serving canapes.
Writing that programme book, I also recall finding out something about the lanterns that stood either side of the front door at Rutland Gate. The oft-repeated story was that they had come from one of the last Emperor’s limousines – which turned out to be almost true but not quite. They had actually been made for the last Emperor’s military tent, and painted in Imperial colours, black and yellow. When they found their way to Rutland Gate the colours changed to a straightforward black for fear that, as they were, it sent out the wrong message.
Message-sending is of course the natural business of diplomacy; and over the years, it’s been a natural part of the agenda of the ACF, the emphases changing through time. But through the time I spent involved with Rutland Gate, two messages were constant. One was that Austria, though a small country, has a vast and unrivalled musical heritage that continues to this day. And the other was a simple message of friendship. I had SUCH happy times at the ACF, working with Michael Zimmerman, Johannes Wimmer , Andrea Rauter, and their successors. And I wish everyone there now the very best for this 65th anniversary.