On the Culture Front: A Day in Leipzig

03/09/2015 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

As I was discussing the riveting new doc "Citizenfour" with friends recently, I was reminded of a day I spent in Leipzig a couple of summers ago. The off-color brightly distorted halls of the East German city's former Stasi Headquarters are etched in my mind. Less a museum than a portal to one of the darkest moments of the 20th century, Museum in der Runden Ecke (named in reference to the building's round shape) stands as a memorial to the people who's lives were ruined by a paranoid, surveillance state that prized security above all else. While their technology is now antiquated almost to the degree of kitsch, their actions echo as loudly as ever in the shadow of Ed Snowden's extensive reveals about our own surveillance program - the NSA.

Rooms upon rooms are filled with filing cabinets, desks and the minutiae of office life - the banality hiding the obscene intrusion. The building is so pristinely kept up that it was used to film the brilliant German thriller, "The Lives of Others," an unflinching look at the day-to-day lives of Stasi officers and the people on whom they were spying.

The Bach Museum, a short distance away, displays rare artifacts from the great Baroque composer's life, including an organ from 1743 that he was invited to test and many original scores. A neat interactive feature lets visitors examine closely, notes and bars that Bach scribbled by hand. The sharply renovated building stands in stark aesthetic contrast to the Stasi museum but evokes a similarly powerful connection to history. Instead of being a testament to what's been stifled though, it's a celebration of man's creativity. A man who held a regular job (as the organist of the Lutheran church across the street) but had something immensely beautiful to say.

His output is nothing short of astounding and some of his melodies, particularly the Goldberg Variations as interpreted by Glenn Gould, feel utterly modern and bursting with a raw energy - I've always thought of Bach as the most punk of the grand classical composers. Gould recorded the piece twice, first in 1955 at breakneck speed and then in 1981 at a more contemplative pace. Ethan Hawke's intimate new documentary "Seymour: An Introduction," captures the esteemed pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein analyzing Gould's technique. He notes that during performances Gould would sit so close to the ground that the keyboard would almost be in his face - a manic quirk for sure but also an insight into the mechanism of his creativity. It's hard to imagine Bach in such a manner and yet the two share a bond through this composition - if time is merely a human construct as string theory posits, could music be the connective thread that bonds people together through centuries of history?

About 90 miles south of Berlin and with half a million people spread out through charming and winding cobblestone streets, Leipzig feels more like an enchanted village than city. Intimate beer gardens and elegant restaurants fill neighborhoods alongside historical landmarks and treasured cultural institutions. The Gewandhaus concert hall (founded in 1781) is renowned for having some of the best acoustics in the world and yet it doesn't feel stuffy. On the night I attended, there were paintings depicting Jimi Hendrix hung in an airy reception space. Across town, the festive cavernous restaurant Auerbachs Keller pays tribute to Goethe's Faust with lavishly prepared meals and a live performance that conjures the morally dubious character's spirit.

Most of the city is easily accessed by trams, but a short cab ride is rewarded with a treasure trove of contemporary art. Spread across two-dozen spaces on a former industrial site, Spinnerei contains a comprehensive rotating collection that captures the pulse of the art world, from updates on classics nude portraits to politically fueled video installations and all the abstraction that exists between the two. It feels like the lovechild of Mass MoCA and the Whitney Biennial - raised near the graffiti murals of East Berlin but tiring of the confines of the city migrates south to spread her wings.