isa21 – the 2021 International Summer Academy of the mdw took place from 14 to 29 August with “unlimited” as its theme. And indeed, the promise that such a theme would suggest was in large part realised thanks to a hybrid format and a comprehensive prevention concept.

It was finally back and as present as ever, that famous “isa Feeling”: at the prizewinners’ concert on 28 August at Schloss Reichenau in Reichenau an der Rax, with the maximum permissible number of people in attendance, artistic director Johannes Meissl lit the candles on the cake for isa’s 30th birthday. The festival audience, isa’s prizewinning young soloists and ensembles, camerapeople from the AV team, the prize sponsors and cooperating partners plus the entire isa team were in a famously good mood. Alongside the delight evoked by the performances’ impressive artistic quality, there was also a palpable sense of universal relief at the fact that two weeks’ worth of in-person courses, workshops, and events had been successfully held without a single COVID-19 case.

Ritter Dene, Voss – Winderlich, Rose, Tuppy, isa21 © Stephan Polzer
Numerous Premières

It was with a production of Thomas Bernhard’s Ritter, Dene, Voss, a project in cooperation with the Max Reinhardt Seminar, that isa21 opened on 14 August. This was the first performance of this pre-diploma production by directing student Azelia Opak to take place before an audience, a performance that at the same time officially opened Reichenau’s Gerhardthof as an event location. And at the Welcome Concert on 15 August at Literatursalon Schloss Wartholz, this year’s theme of “unlimited” was illuminated from musical, discursive, and filmic angles. In the accompanying discussion with moderator Arabella Fenyves, Rector Ulrike Sych spoke about the magic of the Semmering-Rax Region and the pandemic-related challenges faced by the mdw. Johannes Meissl described the considerations behind this year’s theme, which was initially born out of a “despite-the-pandemic” attitude and aimed to provide impulses not only to overcome and transcend boundaries of a geographic, social, and political nature but also to expand personal and creative potentials. And Yasmo, with her Poetry Slam Show, opened up a perspective on socially critical themes in a way that was extremely personal and authentic. This evening simultaneously provided the kick-off to several days of digital teaching and streaming offerings at isa21. The mdw’s AV Team had brought along a complete complement of studio equipment to Reichenau to facilitate live streaming—from Literatursalon Schloss Wartholz during the first week, and from Schloss Reichenau during the second week. A focal point of the initial week was a collaborative project with the mdw’s Centre for Banned Music headed by’s Gerold Gruber: in addition to a concert on 16 August, it featured a multi-day workshop and resulting performances that added outstanding music to the repertoire of the isaFestival’s concerts.

A special highlight at isa21 was an opportunity to encounter Alfred Brendel. In a public masterclass and a lecture recital together with the Selini Quartet, the 90-year-old pianist passed on his extensive knowledge of Beethoven’s late works and held the audience spellbound with his well-founded remarks and scintillating intellectual acuity.

A public masterclass with Alfred Brendel and the Selini Quartet © Stephan Polzer
Yearning for Togetherness

isa21 was planned so as to be crisis-proof, for which reason numerous teaching spaces at the master class locations in Reichenau, Payerbach, and Semmering were equipped with digital infrastructure. This enabled participants from Asia and America who had been unable to enter the country to participate virtually and receive instruction from renowned teachers including Ulf Wallin, Andrea Lieberknecht, Dag Jensen, Sharon Kam, Julius Berger, Margit Klaushofer, and Bo Skovhus, to name just a few. And from locations in the USA, France, Israel, and Germany, Shmuel Ashkenasi, Boris Berman, Emmanuelle Bertrand, Hatto Beyerle, and Hagai Shaham were likewise able to work with isa participants.

The desire to take part on location was great, however, and thanks to the regular testing of all participants as well as disciplined adherence to the safety measures, around 70 percent of the normal number of participants were able to participate in person. isaOutreach, a music-centred outreach programme that represents an important component of isa’s established interdisciplinary array, was also able to go forward and bring young and old, music students and locals together by way of various creative approaches.

Insights and Outlooks

With its first-ever hybrid edition, isa successfully took on a logistical challenge—thereby doing justice to its aspiration to always serve in part as an “experimental laboratory”. The ideas of a laboratory for the future and continual self-reinvention are also very much in tune with the theme chosen for next year’s edition of isa, which will take place in August 2022. “Always anew” will address social themes such as resilience, the ability to start over following crises or setbacks, and fundamental questions of transformation and innovation in art and research as well as topics including the repetition and practice that necessarily figure into any artistic activity, the interpretation of existing works as re-creation and reinvention, and the notion of life itself being a joyful exercise. The overall point will be to look positively into a societal future that will, one can hope, already have become a post-pandemic one!

Arabella Fenyves & Gerold Gruber © Stephan Polzer

Save the date:
isa22 – International Summer Academy of the mdw
18–28 August 2022,

Best of isa21 at the mdwMediathek

Comments are closed.