Concert halls of the future Spaces of possibility

Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future.
Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future. | Photo (detail): resonanzaum

Country’s youth ensembles The Avant-garde of Tomorrow

The ensemble musikFabrik performing in Berlin;
The ensemble musikFabrik performing in Berlin; | Photo (detail): musikFabrik / Stefanie Scheu

Statistics say that concertgoers are becoming older and older. Initiatives such as 'resonanzraum' in Hamburg counter this with new concepts and lure the younger generation into concerts. A model with prospects.

Before, of course, everything was better and a lot was also easier for the concert organizer. He set a time and a classical program, without outliers from other genres, took care that there were enough subscribers present, and then the music was performed and after the applause someone dutifully switched off the lights. Although things still function this way in many classical concert halls, and although some rising new buildings have the ambition to do it better than the top dogs, one question worries the industry: what should we do and omit today and all the more tomorrow so that we don’t show ourselves to be, out of a pure sense of duty to the tradition, expendable and from yesterday?

Concert halls as spaces of possibility

There is only one way to remain contemporary and relevant in the balancing act between entertainment and serious music: venues must transform themselves into spaces of possibility, away from traditional formats, away from rigid evening slots. For a musical snack a little concert would do as well. Away from stiff subscriptions structures, which smack of compulsory attendance. Away from “chalk and talk” instruction in emotion. Away too from some cherished formulas for concert menus, particularly the now stale sandwich model with the indigestible avant-garde between more popular pieces of music. Instead: use what you have, do as much as you can with the site and the site-specific options. New concepts and longer-term, tailor-made artist residencies.

No other new concert house construction in recent decades has caused so much turmoil as has the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. It can be considered as Hamburg’s attempt consistently to re-group itself and to derive a commitment to musical excellence from its own tradition, from the Gänsemarkt Opera of the Baroque to the beer-showering punks of the Electro / Hip Hop band Deichkind. In the autumn of 2012 a performance of tremendous symbolic power already showed the hanseatic audience how much seductively creative energy can be generated in a place when you exploit its unique character. Ironically, it was not Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the general director of the Laeiszhalle and the the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, but the Hamburg Theatre Festival that imported from the Radialsystem in Berlin Jochen Sandig’s Human Requiem. The music of the Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, a son of Hamburg, staged as a theatral spatialization in the Philharmonic’s so-called plaza. Thirty-seven meters above the Elbe, the Berlin Radio Choir performed the piece, thrice sold out.

Model: resonanzraum

In October 2014 an ambitious alternative concert house experiment was started in Hamburg. With a great deal of luck, bold capital injections and the backing of the Hamburg cultural policy, the Ensemble Resonanz (ER) found a new home in Europe’s largest high-rise bunker in the Feldstraße. The brutally chunky concrete block stands between the Reeperbahn and the trendy quarter Karolinenviertel and the also near Schanzenviertel. It is filled with, among others, creative companies, the studio of the internet radio station ByteFM and the club Uebel & Gefährlich (i.e. Bad and Dangerous). And the resonanzraum (i.e. Resonance Chamber): a mini-concert hall with a well-concealed orchestra infrastructure behind the large swinging doors. Its design is a far cry from noble and classic, and is instead rough and hip, there is a bar directly next to the seats. The resonanzraum is a classic club for a clientele of twenty-somethings and late-thirty-year-olds.

Here this age group is quite natural to stop by a concert of the “urban string” series for a cold beer and some late Beethoven. There are drinks and short concerts, DJ sets in between, and the word “subscription” comes from a parallel universe. At the opening ceremony, the members of the ER could hardly believe, after years of roving through the city, how well this 650-square-meter location fit their intentions, much more their target group. First they played Bruckner, then lounge music from a laptop, after that early classical by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In the dim light of the bar a barmaid, with a revolver tattoo on her forearm, stopped serving. She wanted to listen.
“urban string” at resonanzraum, source: Ensemble Resonanz / Youtube

Cooperation instead of demarcation

Since then things have gone well for the ER. The concertgoers are as young as they are consistently excited. There are a dozen “urban string” concerts a year; the percentage of seats sold, with 230 to 250 visitors per evening, is one hundred. And then there are the concert series of other organizsers, including even the public service radio broadcaster NDR. Through a cooperation with ByteFM, the ER has gained a fine little information platform.

The resonanzraum is a “giant step”, thinks the ER manager Tobias Rempe, “for the city, to a whole new audience, to ourselves. The combination of good acoustics for chamber music and the club atmosphere is unique and ensures an overwhelming response. On the basis of this experience, we’re very much looking forward to the next big step: the opening of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall and our residency in its Chamber Music Hall. In the tension between these poles – the residency at the Philharmonic and the home base in St. Pauli – lies a fascinating opportunity for us in the music city Hamburg.”

Can Hamburg in general and the concept of the resonanzraum in particular serve as models? That is a difficult question. After the forbidding planning and cost disaster of the Elbe Philharmonic, municipalities barely still dare to plan new concert halls. The debate about the construction of a concert hall in Munich takes a long time, in spite of purported decisions. The new Music Centre in Bochum contains, as befits a new building, a multifunctional hall; but the decisive thing will be what is done with it.

For the Ensemble Resonanz, on the other hand, this is the beginning of exciting times, because the Chamber Music Hall of the Elbe Philharmonic will become their new home in January 2017. This is a clever move in several ways. On the one hand because it executes an image transfer from an off venue that could give the Elbe Philharmonic, a grave of alleged billions, a good dose of coolness. On the other hand because the string ensemble then will be in the enviable position of being able to tailor-fit even better its offerings and concepts in the dazzling freestyle grey zone between repertoire and risk to the respective venue. A win-win situation for classical music, which could hardly be more classical.

A fresh wind is blowing. For the first time the country’s youth ensembles for Contemporary Music have met in Berlin to listen to one another, to exchange ideas and to talk. And sometimes too to encourage one another. What was, what is, what is coming – a brief overview of an agile scene.

To this day, the music scene in Germany has been stamped by discreetness and its structure: by forgoing the perspective of a centralized state at the founding of the Federal Republic, there emerged an autonomous, multi-layered landscape of higher education, but also an agile and active media world with the largely independent broadcasting services of the states. These can afford their own opera-independent orchestras whose tasks include serving contemporary music. The world’s leading Contemporary Music festival, the Donaueschinger Music Festival, would be inconceivable without the Baden-Baden Southwest Radio Orchestra (today the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg). The International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, the Munich concert series Musica Viva and the Cologne series “Musik der Zeit” (i.e., Music of the Times) all lived and live from the participation of the broadcasters and their orchestras.

Alternative ensembles

But the wealth of avant-garde events also called forth competing initiatives. Both composers and younger musicians were disappointed by the some of the large institutions: they were too conservative and comfortable, and too restive towards the unusual. Thus came together in 1985 in Frankfurt the Ensemble Modern, one of the larger groups of highly competent and motivated younger instrumentalists, who work without hierarchy, a principal conductor and intendant; at most with a manager. In 2003 the International Ensemble Modern Academy was also founded, where younger composers and interpreters profit from the immense experience of the group with the latest concepts, scores and performance techniques – since 2006 in cooperation with the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music, a cooperation in which students and professionals interact as equals.

National match of Contemporary Music in Berlin

Precisely this was the reason that Hesse and its International Ensemble Modern Academy were not represented at the first meeting of the State Youth Ensembles for Contemporary Music. For at the Berlin “National Match of Contemporary Music”, which took place in November 2013 in Berlin, the main emphasis lay on the presentation of young talent, where the age-groups ranged from fourteen to twenty-one and comprised both schoolchildren and students: a pleasingly mixed bag, containing remarkably many musicians. There are now six State Youth Ensembles for Contemporary Music whose work is oriented to the talented young: in the Rhineland-Palatinate/Saarland (since 1991 as a project of the State Music Council), in North Rhine-Westphalia (founded in 2006 as the State Youth Ensemble for Contemporary Music and since 2009 as the Studio musikFabrik sponsored by the State Music Council and the musikFabrik Ensemble), in Lower Saxony (founded in 2008 and since 2012 sponsored by the State Music Academy of Lower Saxony), Thuringia (founded in 2009 at the initiative of the association via nova – contemporary music in Thuringia, e.V., which is also its sponsor), Schleswig-Holstein (since 2009 under the auspices of the Chiffren - Forum for Contemporary Music) and quite recently in Berlin (since 2013 as a project of the State Music Council).

Imagevideo of the State Youth Ensemble for Contemporary Music of Schleswig-Holstein, Quelle: LJE Schleswig-Holstein / YouTube

For some years now the Cologne professional ensemble musikFabrik and its academy, the Studio musikFabrik, have assumed a kind of pioneering role (they initiated, for instance, the Berlin meeting). As teachers and leaders, the Cologne avant-garde instrumentalists, not least the oboist Peter Veale and the tuba player Melvyn Poore, make sure that these gatherings pass on special qualities, skills and knowledge. The insightful performance of contemporary works requires know-how that has to be learned: unusual notations must be deciphered, previously unimaginable playing techniques and tonal effects explored. The inevitable complaint of the older routiner – “This can’t be played!” – all too often reveals itself to be nothing more than mere smugness or an intimidating defence strategy.

Working with young talents towards a goal

The aim of the training activities of the state Youth Ensembles for Contemporary Music is to create opportunities not so much for the performance of Contemporary Music by specialists for specialists as to inspire the desire in young people to listen to and above all to play this music. That state and federal institutions take part in funding these young ensembles is a good sign. And in Berlin you could observe with amazement how confidently the youngsters treated the highly complex structures and sound technologies of the avant-garde, quite without the routine disgruntlement with which even renowned orchestras submit to this task. That all the ensembles in Berlin worked together, and Berlin school classes even jointly produced a piece with slightly anarchic gusto, had a very refreshing effect.

And this quite apart from the astonishing certainty with which the young musicians played the difficult scores of Ligeti, Hespos, Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Feldman, Henze, Tenney and Schenker. That this is not possible without corresponding guidance goes without saying. And a new type of conductor has emerged: one who fears neither the new nor the young, who can not be got at with authoritarian posturing and the droning reference to the highest values. Because this work is about curiosity, understanding and élan. And this seems to have come together when you see how easily the young musicians enter into the strange performance instructions and unfamiliar sounds. For if what they are doing were not fun for them, they would hardly have let themselves in for demands and challenges.