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

Joachim Kühn World Wanderer – On his 70th birthday

Joachim Kühn: pianistic world wanderer, musical philosopher and still a kind of freak.
Joachim Kühn: pianistic world wanderer, musical philosopher and still a kind of freak. | Photo: ACT / Steven Haberland

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.

The pianist Joachim Kühn is considered a progressive and trend-setting individualist of modern jazz. His winding path through life has led him from East Germany to the warm Mediterranean island of Ibiza and from free jazz to improvisational freedom. On 15 March 2014 he will be seventy years old – a good occasion to put a few questions to him.

You fled the GDR in 1966. How did you gain a foothold in West Germany?

In the GDR then there was no such thing as the profession of a jazz musician. Everyone had to play dance music, including Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, considered the best and the coolest jazz saxophonist of East Germany. For me it was over with dance music in 1964: I wanted to run my head against the wall and play only free jazz. When I then came to Hamburg via Vienna, my brother Rolf [a well-known jazz clarinettist; author’s note] got me my first job as a pianist in the West: in the band of the saxophonist Hans Koller for two weeks in the Berlin club Jazzgalerie. After that, my international career skyrocketed.

You played for many years in a trio with Daniel Humair (drums) and Jean-Francois Jenny-Clarke (bass). What was special for you about this German-French cooperation?

The group with Daniel and Jean-François – that was the trio of my life. The three of us formed a unity. Although we never rehearsed. I always wanted to, but the other two didn’t like it at all. We used to go through new pieces at the sound check before concerts. Jean-François could read everything off from the sheet music and play it straightway on the double bass. And Daniel has always been a fox. I heard him for the first time when a concert of Rahsaan Roland Kirk with Daniel on the drums was shown on East German television. I said to myself then I simply had to play with Daniel if ever I were to live in the West. And now we’ve been working together a good forty years. Even after Jean-François’ death in 1998, Daniel and I can’t do without each other. Since then we’ve tried out many bass players, but only in Bruno Chevillon did we find the direction that, like Jean-François’ playing, had something all its own, something special. Bruno is one of the world’s best bass players.

What does your “second home” France and Paris mean for you?

I went to Paris for the first time in 1968 and was received with open arms. Unlike in Germany, France accepted my way of playing free jazz at once. In Paris I also got my first record deal: with the French label BYG, which releases exclusively free jazz. I also then got to know the saxophonist Gato Barbieri. In 1972 Gato fetched me to work with him on the film music for The Last Tango in Paris; incidentally with Jean-François and Daniel. Later I lived again in Paris for ten years. Paris is full of music. Above all, Paris is for me the centre of jazz.

Why did you move to California for a while in the mid-1970s?

I had to break out of the scene in Europe and moved to the American West Coast; first for a year to San Francisco, then to Hollywood. This was for me the time of the first keyboards, when I played rock-jazz (emphasis on “rock”, not “jazz”). I liked it on the West Coast: you could still feel distinctly the hippy era; life there was much freer and footloose than life here in Europe. And I got my first big record deal with Atlantic Records. After my free jazz album I wanted to know how it feels when you actually sell records. But at some point I had to decide: go on with electric keyboards or go on with acoustic piano? Because I wanted to play real jazz again after five years, I decided for the piano. At the end of my time in America I recorded an all-jazz record in New York: with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez and Billy Hart. This album and this band marked my return to acoustic jazz.

You’ve been working for some time in a trio with Christian Lillinger. What distinguishes this young drummer from the mass of good jazz musicians in Germany?

Christian is as I was in my younger days: always running his head against the wall. Even now, though so young, he’s absolutely independent, a real musical personality. It makes no difference whether you hear him on his own album or as the sideman in other bands: you recognize immediately when he’s sitting at the drums. Christian is perhaps one in a thousand musicians who will be able to shift for a living as a jazzman. I’m absolutely certain he’ll go far, without having to make compromises. Someone like him – that’s the next generation.

At the beginning of his fifties, Joachim Kühn decided he did not want to have any more downs in his life. The pianist, who was born in Leipzig in 1944, thereupon moved to Ibiza. There, on the Spanish Balearic island, he has since then found the leisure to design and develop the stylistically multifarious projects that have made him one of the most important jazz pianists of our time – as, for example, his current Dessert Jazz Trio with the Moroccan guembri player Majid Bekkas and the Spanish percussionist Ramón López. At the same time, Ibiza is his refuge and retreat, where he can relax from his life on concert tours and in sound studios. And for a jazz pianist of his quality especially important is that he has the time, in his house on the island, to practice the piano several hours a day.