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Cities kick off year-long culture fest - 07/01/2009

New Year’s Eve revellers listening to Rocket Symphony at open-air concert © Linz09

Linz and Vilnius celebrate their debut as European capitals of culture.

At midnight on 31 December, thousands of couples in the Austrian city of Linz began whirling to the sound of a Viennese waltz. Minutes later, hundreds of singers arrayed on the banks on the Danube launched into the world premiere of the “Rocket Symphony”, a work by British composer Orlando Gough that uses fireworks as drums and trumpets.

But the arrival of 2009 was not the main motive for the fanfare. That had more to do with Linz’s launch as a European capital of culture.

This year, Linz shares the title with the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which began the year with an elaborate light show by the German artist Gert Hof.

The New Year’s extravaganzas were just the start. In the year ahead, the two cities promise hundreds of concerts, exhibitions, and festivals. Vilnius will also open a new museum of contemporary art, and Linz will showcase a striking new addition to its centre for electronic arts.

Linz and Vilnius are the latest of 39 European cities to have been dubbed culture capitals since 1985 – a distinction currently worth €1.5m in EU funds. Many have been transformed by the experience, which often entails major improvements in infrastructure. Both Linz and Vilnius began their preparations years ago.

With over half a million inhabitants, Vilnius is the biggest city in Lithuania. Founded in the early 14th century, Vilnius was for centuries a crossroads for Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Jewish cultures. But the Jewish community was decimated during World War II and the city’s cultural heritage was further suppressed under Soviet rule.

Linz – home to some 200 000 people – grew from a small town into an industrial city under the Nazis, who planned to turn it into a major cultural centre.

This year, an exhibition titled “The Führer’s Capital of Culture” lays those plans open to critical examination and provides insight into the Nazis’ impact on art, music and literature in the region.

Linz and Vilnius take over from Liverpool in the UK and Stavanger in Norway, capitals of culture in 2008.

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