Vienna through The Eyes of Sélim Mazari and Dr. Elfriede Iby


He is a musical prodigy trained at the Paris Conservatory and recognized by ADAMI as the Best New Classical Music Performer of the generation. She is the curator of the historical interiors of the Schönbrunn Palace and co-responsible for the preservation and preventive conservation of the building structure.

And today, we sit down with both of them for an interview, talking about their life in Vienna and what the city means to them.

Meet Sélim Mazari

GLH: Hello Sélim. Let’s start with a quick introduction. Tell us about yourself in a few words.

Sélim Mazari: Hello. My name is Sélim Mazari. I am 27 years old and a pianist, and I spend a big part of my time doing solo recitals and sometimes chamber music with partner violinists, cellists, bassoonists and horn players. I also play as a soloist with the orchestra, which happens quite often during the year. It’s a full schedule we are talking about. 

GLH: And what’s your path been like until now?

Sélim Mazari: I don’t come from a family of musicians but they’ve always been passionate about it. I started playing the piano when I was five years old and I was lucky enough to have a piano teacher for a neighbor, and who was a student at the Paris Conservatory, and which I enrolled at a few years later. 

I studied in Paris and then in London, earning a master’s degree at the Royal College of Music. Afterwards I met a Viennese professor called Avedis Kouyoumdjian who offered me the opportunity to work with him and so I moved to Vienna. Vienna is probably the only city in the world where music is such a priority, especially classical music. 

In this city, everyone is interested in music…it’s the culture really. There is a much higher percentage of people who go to concerts, compared to other European and world capitals. 

GLH: And who are the people who inspired you the most and contributed to making you the person you are today?

Sélim Mazari: It’s impossible not to mention Brigitte Engerer who was my teacher at the Paris Conservatory and a great French pianist who really marked a period. She was a woman who was very demanding but also very generous musically, and I must admit that my career path became much clearer after I met her. In this profession, you also make wonderful encounters, sometimes just for the duration of a concert when you are on stage and sharing that space and that’s how I met Yo-yo Ma in 2012, the famous American cellist. I have to say that in the space of about 20 minutes together, 40 minutes with rehearsal, I learned much more than I sometimes do with people over several years.

GLH: Is there a well-kept secret of Vienna that we can get you to reveal? Or perhaps a secret address?

Sélim Mazari: It’s a small detail but one that has always fascinated me. It’s the doorbell of Herbert Von Karajan from when he was the artistic director at the Vienna State Opera. At galas, parties and concerts, he would sometimes go to his office and whenever he was needed, you’d have to ring the doorbell to make him come. This doorbell is hidden near a door, behind an unsecured board. I don’t know if it’s still connected at the moment, but you can still see it, and the board hasn’t been replaced yet. This is a detail I shared with many people, even people working at the opera. The door is near the Mahler Saal, which is a public hall and that’s why it’s fascinating. 

GLH: What’s your favorite thing about living in Vienna?

Sélim Mazari: I came from a city like London, which is very fashionable, very popular and very dynamic. I came to Vienna wondering if this calm atmosphere would suit me, without realizing that it was exactly what I needed. I came here to join my teacher and to work, but I stayed because it’s the only city where I work properly, calmly and peacefully.

It’s also a small town where you can do everything on foot, in the historic center, and I love that. There is a very important word that the Austrians teach you quite quickly: Gemütlichkeit. It’s a concept that would be somewhere between pleasant, cozy and comfortable, and the good side of life in Vienna. It’s a city that’s not stressful and where the people are friendly. There is a sense of calm that I have never seen in any other major European capital. 

GLH: Who or what do you think about when you play your music? 

Sélim Mazari: When you are a performer, you are the messenger of the composer, and the personal imprint that you bring when you play is only unconscious. From the moment you add your imprint voluntarily, consciously, it becomes artificial. When I play, I humbly think about reading the piece and trying to find the artistic gesture, the musical gesture, the will, the atmosphere and the feeling of the composer… There is so much to discover there, but the first thing I think about is having a humble attitude. 

GLH: And finally, what does a perfect day in Vienna mean to you? 

Sélim Mazari: What is important is to walk around the historic center without necessarily having a goal, to get lost inside the ring and eat at a traditional Viennese café offering traditional Austrian dishes. In the early afternoon, you can go for a walk on the banks of the Danube, which is magnificent. And in the evening, go to the concert of course!

This is the only city where the standing room at the Opera House is four euros (ten euros for non Viennese residents), and at this price, a live show at probably one of the best opera houses in the world is exceptional. It’s a unique experience, different from the other operas where the standing room is badly connoted and badly located. Here, the standing room is at the heart of the opera where people live, applaud and sometimes shout. It’s really a place with a unique atmosphere. Everybody buys these standing places, from regulars with season tickets to students and pensioners.

Meet Dr. Elfriede Iby

GLH: Hello Elfriede. Let’s start with a quick introduction. What’s your path been like so far?

Dr. Elfriede Iby: Hello. Well, I am an art historian. I studied art history at the University of Vienna where I received my doctorate in 1994. The subject of my thesis was “The colonial architecture of the convents of Quito in Ecuador”. I was born in the countryside so perhaps the passion to explore the world came from there, to look beyond borders and travel to other countries and discover their culture.

GLH: And who are the figures who inspired you the most and contributed to making you the person you are today?

Dr. Elfriede Iby: I think an open mind is inspired by humanity in general, so I would say my personality was shaped by all the experiences I had studying abroad. And as I also studied anthropology, I gained a deep understanding of cultures, history and politics, and how all these things influence and shape society. So I broadened my knowledge by speaking different languages, meeting people from all walks of life and seeing the wonderful monuments, and remnants, of different cultures.

GLH: What’s your connection to Vienna? Why did you choose to settle there?

Dr. Elfriede Iby: Since I was born in the country, my dream since I was a little girl, was to live in the city. I can still remember how fascinated I was when I first visited Vienna at the age of 3, when I arrived at night and approached the illuminated city. Even today, I feel nostalgic sometimes when I approach Vienna and remember that feeling.

Then in 1994, I got the ultimate reason to move here, my work at Schönbrunn Palace.

GLH: And why did you choose to work at the palace?

Dr. Elfriede Iby: Just before I graduated, the administration of Schönbrunn Palace was contracted out by the Republic of Austria because the state was unable or unwilling to invest in the restoration and preservation of the complex. At that time, very little was being invested in Schönbrunn, so my professor recommended that I should do more research on the palace, its history, and shed light on it.

GLH: And what did you learn and conclude? 

Dr. Elfriede Iby: The history of the complex is very interesting and linked to the history of the Austrian Empire. The changes that were made to the palace and its gardens reflect the changes of the time. The most important one was initiated by Maria Theresa when she decided that the palace would become the summer residence of the family.

GLH: Why is this palace more special than the others in the city?

Dr. Elfriede Iby: What makes Schönbrunn Palace so special compared to other European palaces is that Maria Theresa and her husband Francis Stephan de Lorrain have made it very lively and cozy. Even at large events, the family and the many children were always present “on stage”. And the members of the family were very gifted too, and produced many works of art, which ultimately found a home at the palace.

GLH: What does the palace represent for the Viennese people today? 

Dr. Elfriede Iby: The Viennese and Austrian people are very fond of Schönbrunn Palace. When it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, they were very touched. There is a saying that Viennese people come to Schönbrunn Palace twice in their lives: once as a child holding hands with their grandparents and the second time as grandparents with their grandchild.

GLH: Is there a well-kept secret of Vienna that we can pry out of you? Or perhaps a secret about Schönbrunn? 

Dr. Elfriede Iby: What I like best about Schönbrunn Palace is Maria Theresa’s private apartment, because it is entirely painted with landscapes by a Czech artist called Johann Wenzel Bergl. You can’t not be surprised when you enter this world of exotic landscapes and see how unspoiled nature evolved into the baroque garden in the painting.

GLH: And what’s your favourite place in the city?

Dr. Elfriede Iby: I like the district where I live, very close to the city center. It’s the ninth district, home to another baroque palace: the Liechtenstein Palace, and many houses done in an Art Nouveau style. It was once the bourgeois neighborhood where Sigmund Freud lived. 

GLH: And finally, what does a perfect day in Vienna mean to you? 

Dr. Elfriede Iby: You can spend a whole day at Schönbrunn Palace if you wish. In my case, being a resident of Vienna, a perfect day would mean getting up and going to the Augarten near my apartment, which is also a former Habsburg garden. Then I would go to the Döbling district, to a place called Salettl Wien, to have a good breakfast al fresco. There’s a wonderful view of the vineyards. I could also walk along the beautiful houses and private residences of the Döbling district, passing by Türkenschatzpark. 

Then I would go to the Kutschker Markt where there is a good cafeteria with typical Austrian cakes. My favourite cake is the Linzer Torte.

In the evening, nothing beats going to the Burg or Akademietheater to watch a modern production of an Austrian writer, like a play by Elfriede Jelinek, or to watch a film in one of the many cinemas.

After that, I would have a drink at a Schanigarten (a typical name for bars and outdoor cafes), or maybe Schwarzes Kamel in the heart of the first Viennese district, near the Graben and the Kohlmarkt. You can always meet interesting people and even Austrian celebrities there. Finally I will walk back through the narrow streets of the city to enjoy the atmosphere of the well-kept houses, the silence and the security of Vienna.

For more interviews of people on the inside track of destinations, stay tuned. For a roundup of our hotels in Vienna, follow this link.

About Nimah Koussa

The best part about being a travel writer is bringing cities and destinations to life: their stories, secret addresses, luxurious gems and unique holiday moments. And I have been one for a little more than 10 years. From the best bars and restaurants in different cities of the world to hotels where you can check-in to get away from it all, this Magazine is all about making every trip just a bit more meaningful.

Top Stories