Bernhard Günther, the new artistic director of the Wien Modern festival, sets his course.

Where do we come from? Where are we going? And where the hell are we? These are the three “ultimate” questions of life. While the answers will undoubtedly remain forever elusive, the search for them has been a wellspring of human creativity for millennia.

Bernhard Günther, the new artistic director of the Wien Modern festival, has chosen this fundamental dilemma as his inaugurating theme.

Wien Modern’s new artistic director Bernhard Günther brings his own vision to the major contemporary music festival.
© C. Nafezrerhuf

He admits it is rather “dark.” But as he explains, “these ‘last questions’ pop up very frequently in contemporary music.” Indeed, “composers are working with real life; they are asking themselves the same questions we ask ourselves.”

Wien Modern is one of the biggest contemporary music festivals on the planet. This year, it runs for the entire month of November, with 88 performances (including pre- and post-concert events) and 55 world premieres. The 29th edition of the  festival is “certainly a very big one,” says Günther. “I wanted to kick off with a bang.”

Paving the way

The festival retains the brilliant policy of offering a general pass, which is good for most events: If you take full advantage, you’ll end up paying less than €2 for each. While venues are all over town, the Konzert-haus is the festival’s home base. “It’s really about making people curious,” Günther explains. “You don’t have to know a great deal about the music, you can just walk in and try it out.”

There always seem to be champions for new music, and thank goodness. We would miss out on a lot if there weren’t. Vienna’s most prominent missionary of the modern has long been Lothar Knessl, who will turn 90 next year. He’s being honored by the festival with a special exhibition. For decades, his late-night radio show, first broadcast in 1968, introduced curious listeners to contemporary music they had never heard – or even heard of. The show lives on in the Ö1 “Zeit-Ton” broadcasts, every weekday around midnight.

The Swiss-born Günther is another tireless groundbreaker for contemporary music. Choosing him as Wien Modern’s new guiding force is certain to keep the festival’s banner high. But he is amiably modest about his own expertise: “I just listen to a lot of stuff.”

Being and Nothingness

One great thing about the festival, he finds, is its diversity: “There are some big orchestra projects, small improv projects, quartet projects, and a really experimental video opera. I try to make programs where a lot of different people can find their favorites.”

Much will be “serious.” The festival opens with Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) and will close with Maurice Ravel’s La Valse (1906–1920), which has often been described – correctly or not – as a metaphor for the aftermath of WWI.

Günther mentions Georges Lentz’s Jerusalem (2011–2015): “Beautiful, but really about an apocalypse, about the lost Malaysian Air flight,” the flight that vanished off the radar in 2014. Lentz has dedicated his orchestral piece to the memory of “all victims of violence, madness, fanaticism, terrorism and hatred.”

© Stefan Olah

On a single evening, the fifteen string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich will be performed. Normally that would take all night. Günther’s concept, however, is to have these monumental works performed simultaneously in different parts of the Großer Saal at the Konzerthaus, with the audience free to walk around. It’s not unusual – overlapping music is part of our daily lives; some mindful listening might bring revelations.

In the end, we return to the question of life. Specifically, to Luigi Dallapiccola’s Three Questions with Two Answers (1962–1963), his last orchestral piece, and, unsurprisingly, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question (1908/1930–1935).

Seven times Ives’s solo trumpet repeats the question. Agitated, the flutes try to respond, ever more atonal and desperate. There is no comment from the low tapestry of string chords. Finally, they glide into inaudible nothingness.

Oct 30 – Nov 30, various locations. wienmodern.at