Franktfurt may have a reputation, like many German cities, for being boring. But can you try too hard to be edgy?
Frankfurt’s hybrid old/new skyline is the pleasing backdrop as I make my way across the Untermain-brücke towards the birthplace and home of Goethe. I’m looking forward to an evening of lieder, an advertised program of works by Schubert “and other composers”.
Navigating what seem to be city-wide construction sites, I at last reach the Goethe-Haus. Its modest 18th century scale is matched by a modern museum extension, embodying a pull between present and past which would come to be the theme of the evening – and perhaps the city itself.
Inside, I am greeted by steaming kirsch tea served in paper cups with the musical program printed on them. Schubert is listed, Brahms too, and music with lyrics supplied by Goethe. My seat is near the front of a dark, chilly and minimalist exhibition space, from where I can see a stage filled with a baby grand piano and a bizarre apparatus of a pole supporting funnels containing sand, pebbles and gravel. The coziness of the old house seems so near, yet so far.
A violinist walks onstage barefoot and dressed in diaphanous veils, my first clue that this might be a different sort of concert than I expected. The appearance of the baritone and pianist dressed in concert white tie is reassuring, until they begin to perform. What starts out as Schubert turns into the pianist scratching the keyboard with his fingernails and plucking the strings. The baritone sighs and inhales loudly and slowly and then puts his head under the piano’s lid and sings to the undamped strings.
I shift in my seat. The violinist scrapes her bow and occasionally pronounces a single word loudly. Then she begins pouring sand and pebbles into the funnel. I am even more alarmed when she strips until she is wearing only a wispy leotard. I look at her bare feet on the cold floor and feel glad to be wearing socks.
What was it all about? I have no idea, perhaps my own fault for not knowing enough German to understand any of the introduction apart from the mystifying phrase: “Mussolini’s Bunker”.
I head back into the freezing night thinking that some art is eternal and some is not. Romanticism, of a sort, is still alive in Frankfurt but I’ll stick to following the lieder.