Music in Vienna: splendid performances in magnificent settings
Vienna — There's probably no place in the world more intimately associated with music than Vienna. Although a visit here is certainly enjoyable for additional reasons - outstanding art and an eclectic cuisine, to name just two - there is no more appropriate celebration of its unique culture than hearing the Vienna Choir Boys ''at home,'' attending the grand Staatsoper, or mixing Strauss with the strudel.
Music has long been the staff of Viennese life, as evidenced by the number of composers - among them Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Strauss - who have made the city their home. Though formal concerts are the rule in this pleasurably proper, purposefully nostalgic capital of Austria, music is heard on all scales, from a solo lad on the street playing a flute magically to an accomplished company performing ''The Magic Flute.''
Sharing name and musical fame with the city are the Vienna Choir Boys. In Vienna, where the choir's function for nearly 500 years has been to provide music for Sunday and festival-day services, one doesn't actually see the boys. In keeping with tradition they are in the third balcony behind and above the congregation in the Hofmusikkapelle, the music chapel of the former winter palace of the Hapsburgs. Because the acoustics of the chapel are so fine, however, and the angelic voices so eminently well-suited to the sacred-music repertory, I found my appreciation for the choir increased by having the members out of sight; it meant I could concentrate on the boys' heavenly sound without competition from their delightful cherubic countenances.
Each Sunday's program - a printed copy of which is available with a booklet on the history of the chapel and choir for about $1 from one of the ushers - features works by classical composers, performed by the Vienna Choir Boys and male members of the Vienna State Opera chorus with its orchestra. The Choir - actually four choirs of 24 boys each, rotating on duty in Vienna and on world tours throughout the year - performs at 9:25 a.m. for an hour and a quarter, except for recess in July and August.
Tickets, priced from $2 to $6 to cover costs, can be reserved by writing six to eight weeks before a visit to the Verwaltung der Hofmusikkapelle, Hofburg-Schweizerhof, A-1010 Wien, Austria. Payment should not be enclosed. Actual purchase for both advance reservations and last-minute walk-in tries is made upon collection at the Schweizerhof at 5 p.m. on Fridays or from 8:45 a.m. Sunday mornings. If no seats are available, line up about 8 a.m. at the chapel for free standing-room space; although you may not get into the actual chapel, the door to a large anteroom is left open and the choir can be heard clearly.
For many, opera is the high note of the musical scene in Vienna, since the Staatsoper (State Opera) is one of the small group of the world's best. From September through June there is a performance every night - except Dec. 24 and the last Thursday of carnival - with rotation of program nightly. During one upcoming week, for instance, ''The Magic Flute'' and ''Don Giovanni'' by Mozart, ''Arabella'' and ''Salome'' by Strauss, ''Parsifal'' by Wagner, and ''The Bohemians'' by Puccini will be offered. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra provides the first-rate accompaniment, and both sets and staging are superior.
The setting for the splendid performances is the handsome Staatsoper building on the Ringstrasse, a broad tree-lined horseshoe-shaped boulevard that encloses the old city and is rimmed with civic and cultural landmarks. If you've a yen to dress formally, this is the occasion. On the way up the grand staircase to the elegant white and gold hall decorated with red plush and crystal chandeliers, detour for a view from the roof of the sparkling Ring. An English version of the libretto will be found at the back of the program.
During intermission inquire if the coat clerk at the middle loge will show you the Emperor's tea room across the hall from the imperial box, where Franz Joseph I and his party spent their interludes at the opera. At intermission drinks are served in glittering reception halls decorated with tapestries depicting scenes from Mozart's ''The Magic Flute.''
Most of Vienna's major musical events take place from September to June, with September-October and May-June high points, when opera and orchestra have returned refreshed from summer holidays or are approaching the coda of the calendar. Opera schedules and forms for ordering tickets by mail are available well in advance from Bundestheaterverband, Goethegasse 1, A-1010 Wien, Austria.
Tickets, which range from $5 to $70, go on sale in person at the above office near the Staatsoper four days before the performance; you must pick up and pay for tickets reserved by mail then or up to 24 hours prior to curtain time. Tickets for less popular attractions may be available - for a fee of up to 22 percent - from Vienna ticket agencies. One and a half hours before the day's performance, 500 standing-room tickets are sold - usually quickly - for less than $1.
The Viennese usually prepare for an evening's performance by having late afternoon ''jause'' (beverage and one of the famed tortes) at a cozy coffeehouse. Some Konzertcafesm even offer chamber music accompaniment. Dinner is generally enjoyed after the final curtain, usually set for about 10 p.m. with performances beginning sometime between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Visitors needn't exert themselves to find signs of Vienna's musical heritage. Many streets are named after the city's great former-resident composers. Statues of these composers grace parks along The Ring: Strauss playing the violin in the Stadtpark, Mozart standing in what was once the private garden of the Hapsburgs. In front of the Mozart statue is a G clef, clipped in flowers.
As visitors to Vienna discover, some taxi drivers really do hum the overture to ''The Magic Flute;'' singers and conductors do have superstar status; and the white Lippizaner stallions of the 400-year-old Spanish Riding School really do strut to Strauss.