The Classical Girl with Jazz in Her Heart. Letter From Graz 0

Sintija Šmite

If five years ago someone had told me that I'd be studying and living in a German-speaking country, I'd be very skeptical of that person's ability to see into the true nature of my soul. In my mind's eye, I saw myself running through the streets of London – once a week standing in line for cheap musical theater shows, but on Sundays – reading a magazine by the side of the Thames like a local, after having just shopped at Portobello Market. Similarly, I yearned for futuristic parties on the streets of Paris and rich breakfasts in the guise of éclairs and hot chocolate. But please, don't make me comprehend German and Austrian pedanticism, their punctuality, clean streets and strange working hours that make a couple share a congratulatory kiss in the parking lot of IKEA after having just purchased a new sofa, but on Sundays, makes the city a ghost town because everything is closed – except for churches. Recently, a Croatian friend and I decided that regular mountain climbing, even while it's raining, is not for people who have risen like Aphrodite from the foam of the sea, nor for those who are used to the evening sun setting on the horizon – and not behind a mountain.

Still Life with Statue in Schlossberg

But here I am, and for three years I've been singing about schnitzels and strudels like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”, cooling myself off in the shade instead of the sea, and every evening I ride my bike home, uphill. I'm happy now, and I'm not afraid to say it out loud because I've already forgotten all of the bad times: when I had only 5 euros a week to spend on food; when my greatest joy was eating a fried egg instead of the daily rice with ketchup; and when I was too tired to even brush my teeth before bed – due to spending the entire day trying to understand a language I didn't know. Even though a tourist or a newcomer can get by very well with just English at first, an education and the goodwill of the locals only comes through having full command of the language. Which is the way it should be. The exception is for those studying jazz – English is the main language in their department.

Graz – Austria's second largest city – cannot boast with Mozart, who made Salzburg famous and is a lucrative source of income for souvenir-sellers who haven't the slightest connection to the composer. But not far from Graz is the birthplace and childhood home of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Graz has also been home to the conductor Karl Böhm, to the composer and conductor Robert Stolz, and to the writer and creator of “masochism” – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Graz is also a renown student-city, containing six universities and almost 40,000 students from all over the world. The music scene is especially international here.

The mountaintop town of Schlossberg

Having finished the Riga Dome Choir School and following the music in my ears, I went in the direction of the setting sun to resolve the dissonances that had accumulated there – and ended up in Graz. Of course, in the beginning, I had to struggle a bit with the different method of writing chords, with teachers that didn't follow my every move, and with mastering my coordination between either writing something down or listening to it; I quickly chose the latter. The most valuable things I've gained are my new friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Call it as you wish, but there is this magic that happens when you feel yourself caught in the flow of a common language with a person from another continent, to the point where all traces of racism are gone, if there even were any to begin with. The cliché that by age 25, one should finish studying and think about doing something practical, doesn't hold water here. At 20, I was almost the youngest person in the whole university, and I regularly sat next to fellow students sporting graying hair; it was curiosity that united us together. We also didn't have “one class” of unchanging classmates – who all take the same courses together, as is the norm in Latvia; here, every student has their own program of study that they undertake. Which semester you're in, and how long you take to graduate, is up to you. On one hand, this is welcoming to those who are still learning the language, or who have to work on the side; on the other, it teaches independence, since you are the only one responsible for making sure that you have taken and passed all of the necessary courses before final exams. In addition, even though I'm not all that crazy about theory subjects such as contra-point and harmony, the knowledge and intelligence – and even sense of humor – exuded by some of my instructors in teaching these subjects made me attend every single class and listen to every word they uttered.


To be admitted to the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, you have to pass entrance exams in your chosen specialty. These usually test your knowledge of musical theory, your sense of pitch, and your specialty – an instrument, singing, or conducting, as was the case with me. If you pass all three levels, you become an official student and you can start working on the most difficult issue – where to live and how to pay for rent. I now consider myself an experienced apartment-searcher, which is backed up by my having to move several times, as well as my ability to be the first to read an ad and get a look at the room/apartment in question. There are many students, demand is high, and everybody is looking for the cheapest option that fits their budget. If you're from Latvia and you don't have a rich aunt in America, then you must quickly learn the bare minimum of vocabulary in German, read on-line listings, and call immediately to set up a viewing. Take a look, and if it's “OK” (you'll probably never find something you “really like”), immediately tell them you'll take it; and then keep on looking, because the owners of the apartment, or your potential flat-mates, will pick whoever they like the most anyway. Don't forget to get a guarantee on the price, and make sure that everything really is included... so you don't end up paying for furniture, the services of a real estate agent, and so forth. If you have a roof over your head, all that's left is to figure out how to pay for it. You can apply for a stipend starting with your third semester – once you've proven yourself to be a responsible student, and using as proof your grade-book filled only with ones and twos (“1” is the best grade in Austria, something which quite shocked my mother at first). During your first semesters, be proactive and look for various opportunities – since it's hard to get a job while you're just learning the language. I was helped by the organization “Good Deeds”, as well as by the wonderful people around me. Very quickly I began to earn some money as a choir extra at the opera, and I got to take part in productions and concerts.

Kasematten stage in the mountaintop town of Schlossberg

It is quite likely that many people who have left home for some reason or another, have experienced the four-month or half-year crisis – when you feel as if no one needs you, you're tired from the foreign language, and all you want to do is pack your bags and buy a one-way train ticket back to Riga. Spending the Christmas holidays at home, with a lot of food, is especially dangerous after a period of forced near-famine. But one must remember the cyclical nature of life – namely, if you haven't spent all four seasons in a new place, you cannot regard that you've done enough to garner self-pity and have earned your trip back home. But then comes the moment when students pop up like dandelions in the city park – Stadtpark, and you begin to understand the German language without having to put in 100% effort. This wave coincided with my sudden interest in jazz as the ideal combination of great music, friends and partying – in the sense of a creative, bohemian-kind of freedom. And this was what probably set in stone my status in Graz – “the classical girl with jazz in her heart”. It may not be exactly a revolution, but I got a warm and fuzzy feeling in my heart when I heard, earlier this year, that some jazz players had changed their attitude about “classicists” being just boring interpreters of Mozart who properly sit in class every morning at 7:30 AM. And some of the “classicists” were happy to come along with me to listen to the “jazzists”. Of course, these two musical behemoths began their friendly discourse at the start of the 20th century, and hopefully, the circle will close with another imperceivable coming together of the two. But it's definitely worth coming here to listen to jazz, if only to feel the freedom of the music, and to get up on stage in front of the jazz players and borrow some of their team-playing spirit in the process of making music – something that is often lacking in classical music, where everybody just wants to become a soloist.


But if you happen to come upon Graz in the summer, when the students are gone, then look to the festival schedule. The second half of July and the start of August are especially full of romantic concerts and productions that take place in the open air. For instance, a popular concert venue in the summer is the usually-forgotten Kasematten stage in the mountaintop town of Schlossberg. The physical exertion you put in to get there is rewarded with fabulous lighting and classical musical wafting in the warm summer breezes; and the audience gets to sit under open skies – above the city streets and closer to heaven. The La Strada dance festival, featuring visiting artists, is also held every summer; French dance companies are being highlighted this year. Having started as a free street-festival (as its name indicates), it still has a presence in the parks and streets, but has now also moved indoors – to the opera and the List Halle, among other venues. Inflation has left its mark here as well. The beginning of August is also the time of the castle festival, held at the final stop for Tram no. 1 – Schloss Eggenberg – with concerts inside the castle and in its park grounds. The real masters of the castle, however, are its colorful peacocks (I even saw an albino one).

You'll have to look a bit outside of the city for wine festivals – both big and small – but on rainy days you can head to the nearby Zotter high-end chocolate factory; here you can sample chocolate with chili peppers, or even with fish.

 A really fantastic annual event is the a capella competition Vokal Total, in which I also participated last year. In 2011 the Grand Prix was awarded to our own local girls – Latvian Voices. It's a great chance to see some really good groups, especially in the Pop and Comedy divisions.

Well, that's it for now, from Graz – capital of the federal state of Styria, where pumpkin seed oil always tastes better and where motorists give bicyclists the right of way.

Zotter chocolate