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

Venue Programme Prize A Bit of the Watering Can

Artists like the singer Lili Dahab presented on stage the diversity of today's German pop music world.
Artists like the singer Lili Dahab presented on stage the diversity of today's German pop music world. | Photo (detail): Initiative Musik / Yvonne Kaufmann

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 scene was the Hamburg Club Uebel & Gefährlich (i.e., Bad and Dangerous); the award the first Venue Programme Prize. The recognition it bestows is intended to help the diverse but notoriously under-funded German live club scene finally receive the state funding that interest groups have so long been calling for. A good start, say many; even more is possible, say others. An overview.

The watering can poured and hit some large and many small plants. Among the winners of the first Venue Programme Prize for the German jazz and pop music scene, who were announced and honoured on 25 September 2013, were Unterfahrt in Munich, Brotfabrik in Frankfurt am Main, Alte Feuerwache in Mannheim, A-Trane in Berlin and Moritzbastei in Leipzig, all well-known stages which were entered in the category “venues with several regular live music events per week” and each received 30,000 euros for a commitment that was often built up over decades. Candidates who organized less regular programmes came under the category “venues with an average of one live music event per week” and the category “programmes series with at least ten concerts per year and venues with an average of less than one concert per week” and received prizes of 15,000 and 5,000 euros respectively.

Even smaler concert organizers were honored like Thomas Eckardt from the Jazzfrühling Jena, photo by Initiative Musik / Xenia Xarafu From the 300 candidates, a nine-member jury consisting of journalists, musicians and association representatives chose to honour 55 venues. The Venue Programme Prize, endowed with a total of one million euros (870,000 euros of which goes to the winners and 130,000 euros to defray the costs of the awards ceremony) comes from the pot of the Initiative Musik, a sponsoring institution of the German federal government in cooperation with the music industry, whose co-sponsors include the Collecting Society for Performance Rights (GVL), the Herman Music Council and GEMA / GEMA Foundation. That sounds like the heavyweights of the culture scene, but the annual 1.5 million euro budget of the Initiative Musik in addition to the Venue Programme Prize is, by comparison with many local cultural promotion programmes, of rather slight dimensions. The promotion programmes of the Initiative Musik are therefore often more symbolic or motivational gestures that enhance the standing of the club scene and provide support for particular venues. “It’s about the appreciation of clubs and series of events outside the established scene”, says the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann, explaining the orientation of the Venue Programme Prize, which he did not miss the opportunity of presenting in person.

Winners and the daily round

The signal effect is intended. In the end the prize is also meant to serve as criterion of quality that enables local organizers to negotiate better funding opportunities from, for example, municipalities. Despite the Venue Programme Prize, these subsidies remain fundamental, for the daily round of small stages is hard and has many pitfalls. “Organizers and venues that themselves organize concerts regularly take big risks when it comes to salaries and attendance figures”, explains Simon Wojan of Festsaal Kreuzberg, one of the candidates who was not among the winners. “Often, despite a lot of work, the profit margin is very narrow – you want to remunerate the artists adequately, but have at the same time to keep the ticket prices affordable.” The daily challenges compel venues to make compromises. For example, within in certain limits smaller rock and jazz clubs have the possibility of trying a mixed calculation, in which concerts with already established or hyped underground or emerging artists buffer the entrepreneurial risk represented by presenting non-established artists. The market situation in jazz, where in contrast to the pop sector the middle segment is increasingly breaking away, has led to the closing of more and more clubs. Because jazz in particular depends on live performance, this has decreased the possibilities for building up artists.

Pitfalls for club operators

DJ Sepalot at Uebel & Gefährlich. DJ Sepalot at Uebel & Gefährlich. | Photo: Initiative Musik / Yvonne Kaufmann In this situation the programmatic approach of the Venue Programme Prize is above all a beginning. By emphasizing the qualitative criterion of programme design, it addresses the specifically German peculiarity of dividing culture into two commercial segments: serious culture and entertainment. On this model, popular culture is usually considered a creative industry whose cultural significance takes a back seat to factors of economic location. State and municipal structural cultural funding, in turn, is primarily dominated by high culture and mainly supports theatres, operas and museums. Clubs and event agencies, on the other hand, are looked upon as business enterprises and are responsible for their own finances, from the immense costs for proper sound and lighting systems, noise protection and lump-sums for the copyright agency GEMA to EU directives on the extent of tiling in the loo, regardless whether they orient their programmes according to artistic or marketing strategy considerations.

In European comparison

The concert boat MS Stubnitz is one of the main prize winners in 2013 and was represented through Urs Blaser. Some activists of Hamburg's rock club “Molotow“ took advantage of the situation and protested against the notice of their venue. The concert boat MS Stubnitz is one of the main prize winners in 2013 and was represented through Urs Blaser. Some activists of Hamburg's rock club “Molotow“ took advantage of the situation and protested against the notice of their venue. | Photo: Initiative Musik / Yvonne Kaufmann The concert boat MS Stubnitz is one of the main prize winners in 2013 and was represented through Urs Blaser. Some activists of Hamburg's rock club “Molotow” took advantage of the situation and protested against the notice of their venue. Photo by Initiative Musik / Yvonne Kaufmann Other European countries arrange these things differently. In Scandinavia, for example, there are not only nationwide free music schools that include the genres of jazz and rock/pop, but also funding for rehearsal rooms, performance opportunities and export promotion trips abroad. In France this model for the promotion of pop culture was introduced in the 1980s by then Minister of Culture Jack Lang, even if in the meantime it has been red-pencilled. In these countries popular culture in general is thus classified as worthy of funding, that is, it is given an essential importance in the social discourse. In this respect, the Venue Programme Prize is a signpost pointing in the right direction. The clubs and small stages with more or less regular programmes are of great importance for the cultural life of a city, region, country. It is there that the grass roots work takes place upon which the music scene, and also high culture, draw. They are places of communication, of creative freedom and experiment. For all these reasons there is also fundamental agreement in the music scene that the Venue Programme Prize should be continued, even if a clear commitment after the awards ceremony for 2014 remains to be made.