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

Ten Years Pop Academy Play Me the Song of Structural Change

Action is part of the business – a vocal student on stage.
Action is part of the business – a vocal student on stage. | Photo (detail): Pop Academy

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.

An experiment celebrates its anniversary: in 2003, the Mannheim Pop Academy opened its doors to offer young musicians henceforth comprehensive and professionally-oriented training. It sees itself less as a substitute for a university than as an alternative to it, with a high degree of reference to reality and plenty of network nodes for the start of a career.

The long building in the Mannheim industrial harbour is a monument to structural change. No raw materials trader or shipping company uses the cube with the façade of bright colour fields. Until a floor was added to the building, “Pop-Akademie” and, somewhat smaller, “Baden-Württemberg” stood on the edge of the roof, visible from afar – a white-orange illuminated sign for one of the most dazzling higher education start-ups of the last decade. The founding of the Academy in the summer of 2003 was looked upon as quite an experiment: can street culture, which stands for both charts and commerce, rebellion and artistic experiment, be translated into an orderly training programme? After all, its quality can be measured only in difficult-to-evaluate criteria such as credibility and coolness. Can “pop” consort at all with “academy”?

Pop meets academy

But the founding team around artistic director Udo Dahmen refused to be deterred. They designed a two-track curriculum. One focus is musical training and advanced training, here called “Pop Music Design”. Then there is the more commercial offering, addressed to future label makers, agency managers and other service providers. In a joint project workshop, musicians and music marketers realize concrete projects under start-up conditions. Flexible teaching materials take into account the movements of a rapidly changing market. In the early years, the major Berlin label Universal Music supported the Academy financially and sent its junior employees to Mannheim to be trained.

The teachers, in turn, came almost exclusively from the music industry. Practice was foremost. Academic discourse was left to others. At the same time, it was intended that the appeal of pop music should not only give new prospects to the neighbouring Mannheim district of Jungbusch, but also re-define the look of the industrial region. Since then, trend terms such as “creative industry” and “exploitation chain” are making the rounds at the mouth of the Neckar. Unforgotten is the nationwide advertising campaign of 2004, which modelled its posters on the famous Abbey Road Beatles cover, using the main figures of the Mannheim Academy.

Continuity of change

So it was no wonder that those responsible were quite satisfied at the tenth anniversary of the Pop Academy in July with what had been achieved. From the makeshift solution in quadratic downtown Mannheim with just fifty-four students in its first year, the Academy has become a functioning educational institution for over 300 B.A. and, since 2011, M.A. students. Around 500 graduates have successfully completed a pop music training. Including the song-writers Maike Rose Vogel and Konstantin Gropper, who, with his complex arrangements and his band Get Well Soon is also on the move internationally. From the music business section comes Konrad Sondermeyer, whose Berlin management company Guerrilla Entertainment discovered the charts balladeer Tim Bendzko. Or Sebastian Schweizer, head of the Stuttgart Chimperator label, who markets the mask rapper Cro. Part of the pragmatic Mannheim approach is the imparting of functioning business models. The Academy in the industrial harbour has less the star system in its sights as the unglamorous middle-range, where graduates can land jobs as tour or studio musicians.
Networking break Networking break | Photo: Pop Academy

Regional vs. national focus

This certainly doesn’t make Mannheim into “the new Jerusalem” that Xavier Naidoo, in one of his usual unctuous songs, postulated it to be shortly after the turn of the millennium. So far the Academy has strengthened the regional scene, which Naidoo and the versatile band collective Söhne Mannheim (i.e., Sons of Mannheim) also promote to the best of their abilities. Only recently the twenty-two year-old Jules Kalmbacher, an Academy intern, made good as a co-producer of the current Naidoo album Bei meiner Seele (i.e., By My Soul). He simply passed on the ideas, says Kalmbacher. It is stories like this that feed the Rhine-Neckar myth. The city is currently beefing up its infrastructure. The Mannheim Musikpark has been established in two buildings in the harbour zone, near the Pop Academy. It is a business incubator in the form of a public-private company, which can offer affordable rents to creative companies. About sixty smaller companies, ranging from merchandising providers to law offices specializing in copyright are using the park as a launching pad. The Southwest Broadcasting and the youth channel Dasding have their local editorial offices here.

In this way, a creative feel-good zone is being expanded through which raw Mannheim is seeking connections to the metropolises. The Pop Academy itself has striven for ten years after the transition to becoming a full-fledged university. As part of the restructuring of musical training in southwest Germany, it is planned that the Academy be fused with the Mannheim Conservatory, which would then, for its part, completely drop artistic and educational training in the area of classical music and focus exclusively on jazz, pop music and dance. It would be an upgrading for the Pop Academy, whose head Dahmen has long desired to strengthen the institution’s scholarly orientation. There are also plans for internationalization, an archive for the documentation of pop music in Germany and a Chair for pop music, which could also supervise doctoral students. The classical conservatory, however, has vehemently resisted the cutting of 300 study places. A turning point in Mannheim.