Mostly Not Mozart

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein moved to the United States just two and a half years ago, but he already speaks a fluent, firecracker English. True, certain prepositions still elude him (“I am the fastest walker of Manhattan!”), and true, he still makes the occasional chopped salad of American film titles (“Have you seen Three Angels for Charlie?”). But periodic lapses in the American idiom hardly sabotage his credibility as director of the new Austrian Cultural Forum, which opens with a bang this Thursday. Particularly when he’s trying to convince me, over lunch, that there’s more to Austria than Klimt, lederhosen, and yodeling.

“I’ve seen the movie Sound of Music,” he says, gamely waving his fork. “I’m a great admirer of the Vienna Philharmonic. And I noticed in the movie Three Angels for Charlie there was a joke about a dirndl.” He chuckles. “But there are other very important aspects of what Austria has achieved – and can achieve – in the arts. And it’s really our task to make those much better known. It’s to make people forget about the lederhosen. And the dirndl.”

Many New Yorkers have sampled a lecture or two at Goethe House. The film series at the Alliance Française has had a loyal following for years. But few of us, with the possible exception of our aging population of Viennese émigrés, have ever even heard of the Austrian Cultural Forum, which until recently occupied a nondescript brownstone at 11 East 52nd Street and stuck with a predictable repertoire of Mozart recitals and art exhibits.

Thun-Hohenstein (pronounced toon-HONE-shtine) hopes all that will change on Thursday, when the Forum reopens as a bustling, mitteleuropaïsch culture bazaar that’s part P.S. 1, part Kitchen, part Angelika Film Center, and part 92nd Street Y. If he gets his way, it will become a place where Gwyneth Paltrow drops in to read aloud from works by Elfriede Jelinek; Susan Graham swings by to regale smaller audiences with her arias; and promising young visual artists – from both Austria and the United States – show their work.

This might sound overly ambitious for a city as culture-saturated as Manhattan, but the Forum has something going for it that other institutions do not: its space. In 1998, the Austrian Foreign Ministry razed the Forum’s old building and began the construction of a slim, zinc-plated tower designed by Raimund Abraham. Even before it was complete, critics declared it the city’s most significant new building since the Seagram headquarters opened in 1958, comparing it, variously, to guillotines, metronomes, and Easter Island totems.

That this innovative structure exists at all, slicing through sedate midtown, is astonishing enough. More astonishing, however, is that even as Austria moves ominously to the right, its government has selected Thun-Hohenstein, a man of emphatically progressive tastes, as its cultural ambassador.

“Christoph isn’t doing the regular, touristy Mozart-kugel-Sacher-torte- Wiener-schnitzel bullshit,” says Stefan Sagmeister, an Austrian-born graphic designer who’s done memorable CD covers for Lou Reed, David Byrne, and the Rolling Stones. “I was just so surprised that the Austrian government would let someone like this at the helm.”

Tall, charismatic, and bristling with energy, Thun-Hohenstein, 42, appears to have a perfect blue-blood pedigree: He descends from a 900-year-old family of aristocrats (one of whom briefly ruled Bohemia), holds a double doctorate in law and philosophy, and spent most of his career as a diplomat, hopscotching from post to post in Africa and Europe.

Yet Thun-Hohenstein’s vision for the Forum is anything but traditional. It can’t even be described as modernist, like that of the Neue Galerie, the gorgeous new museum on Fifth Avenue devoted to early-twentieth-century German and Austrian art. In fact, he’s kicking off the first season with “Transforming Modernity,” a program that includes a two-day symposium on the impact of electronic culture, a week of avant-garde cinema called “VISIONary,” and the “Mahler 21 Project” – concerts in which Mahler is played by chamber musicians and then remixed electronically. (These will be in the Forum’s sleek, 75-seat auditorium, where the piano is stored in the ceiling.)

When Thun-Hohenstein first got to New York, Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, worked with him on a project about composer Ernst Krenek. Botstein has since watched his friend put together the program for the Forum. “You have to remember, Christoph represents a country whose leader is connected to a very xenophobic tradition,” he notes. “So he’s trying to show a diverse range of artists in order to underscore a point: A nation shouldn’t be confused with its government.”

Thun-Hohenstein and I are no longer discussing lederhosen. We are now discussing “Sprockets.” He has never seen “Sprockets,” and he has seen only a couple of episodes of Saturday Night Live. But he knows who Mike Myers is.

“Okay,” I tell him. “So in this skit, Mike Myers plays a guy who’s the host of a German variety show. It’s all very abstruse and conceptual and peculiar. He interviews actors from the Theater of Unhappiness. He talks about paintings called Scabs on Canvas. And he wears” – I realize at this moment that Thun-Hohenstein is wearing black pants, a black turtleneck, and a black blazer – “exactly what you’re wearing.”

This observation seems to amuse him. “Austrians are between Germans and Italians,” he says. “You have this mixture between the German profundity and the Mediterranean lighter approach to life.” He smiles, then sighs. “It’s a pity I don’t know this Mike Myers character.”

The next day, he pulls me aside, telling me he has given some more thought to the Austrian sense of humor. “You know,” he says, “one of the greatest Austrian writers was Thomas Bernhard. And there is also a comic side to Bernhard. To confront Mike Myers with Thomas Bernhard would be terrific. To have him come to the Austrian Cultural Forum and subvert this image from Saturday Night Live would be wonderful. I have no idea what the result would be.”

Mostly Not Mozart