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

German Fund of Musical Instruments A Treasure Trove for the Strings Elite

The cello master Nicolas Altstaedt checks some possible new instruments for the German Foundation for Musical Life.
The cello master Nicolas Altstaedt checks some possible new instruments for the German Foundation for Musical Life. | Photo (detail): DSM

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.

For more than half a century, the German Foundation for Musical Life has supported highly gifted young talents. Particularly coveted are the treasures from the affiliated German Musical Instruments Fund: rarities made, for example, by Stradivari, Guarneri and Guadagnini attract performers as competition prizes.

Anyone who plays a string instrument and has the makings of professional soon needs a top-class violin, viola, cello or double bass. Such an instrument will become the performer’s mentor, school his or her ideas of sound and enable appearances at major concert halls. The German Musical Instruments Fund (GMIF), which is administered by The German Foundation for Musical Life, provides the often so urgently needed instrument and has therefore become the top address for the young German strings elite: every year the selected talent makes the pilgrimage to Hamburg so as to compete for a new instrument or to extend the loan period of their present instrument with a convincing performance. Musicians up to thirty years of age may enter the competition. The press of applicants is so great that the bar for participation is always being set higher: prizes at other major competitions and the best references are now prerequisites.

Talents need instruments

Julia Fischer, well known violin virtuoso, together with Irene Schulte-Hillen, President of the German Foundation for Musical Life at the 6th Competition of the German Musical Instruments Fund in 1998. Julia Fischer, well known violin virtuoso, together with Irene Schulte-Hillen, President of the German Foundation for Musical Life at the 6th Competition of the German Musical Instruments Fund in 1998. | Photo: DMIF / Kurt Will Among former competition winners are current classical music stars such as the violinists Tanja Becker-Bender, Isabelle Faust, Julia Fischer, Baiba Skride and Frank Peter Zimmermann and the cellists Julian Steckel and Nicolas Altstaedt. If you talk with these musicians about the experiences made possible through the Fund, their eyes become bright: the instruments frequently open new worlds. Altstaedt, for instance, played for ten years a cello made by Lupot, the French Stradivari. “I did my first orchestra concerts and CD recordings with it”, he relates. “The instrument fulfilled my every wish. It’s robust, reliable, uncomplaining and projects marvellously well. It can whisper with a big orchestra and still be heard in the entire concert hall. A dream.”

The fund currently comprises 184 instruments, including mainly historical pieces from Italian masters such as Stradivari. In Germany there is no comparatively large fund of this sort; the sum of its insurance payments moves within tens of millions. About half the instruments come from private persons and are held in trust by the German Foundation for Musical Life, which means above all that the Foundation must find the right musicians for the right instruments.
A fantastic moment in the life of the scholarship holders, when they can keep their instruments for another period. A fantastic moment in the life of the scholarship holders, when they can keep their instruments for another period. | Photo: DMIF / Tobias Gloger People who have once decided to loan their instruments (for example, grandfather’s violin) to the fund, often leave the precious piece there for a long while, says Irene Schulte-Hillen, President of the German Foundation for Musical Life. “It’s amazing how rarely someone comes and says: Now I want it back again. Most of the donors find it quite pleasant, because it has very practical advantages: the instrument is insured and taken care of. And they get to know a gifted young person whom they would otherwise never have met.” From time to time the prize winners give private concerts at the donor’s house. “That makes the owner of the instrument proud”, says Schulte-Hillen. “The biggest inner obstacle for most is that they can’t determine who will get the instrument. Nor can we at the Foundation. The jury of the competition has the final say. We strictly refrain from intervention and so far that has worked quite well.”

Steps forwards

Irene Schulte-Hillen has directed the fortunes of the German Foundation of Musical Life in honorary capacity since 1992 and has been instrumental in ensuring that the work is not exhausted in acquiring donations. The Foundation has supported highly gifted musicians between the ages of twelve and thirty on all instruments and in singing since 1962. The support is as individually tailored as possible and rests on three pillars: the scholarship holders can gather performance experience in the concert series “Young Artists Foyer”; scholarships and sponsorships accompany them on their way (for example, defraying travel expenses and registration fees); and instruments loaned by the Musical Instruments Fund open new worlds of sound for the young string players.

On 1 July 1993 Schulte-Hillen sat at the table in the Federal Ministry of the Interior in Bonn where the charter for the German Musical Instruments Fund was signed. The dedicated President had previously knocked on the door there when she had heard about the plans of then Chancellor Helmut Kohl to found a special fund under public law to give good instruments formerly in imperial possession a home. “The plan fell through, but an idea was born”, she says, remembering. “We here at the Foundation decided: We’ll do it! I simply drove to Bonn, made the proposal and said that we had long been loaning instruments. Even if this was something of fraud – we came to an agreement. I was told: You remain in honorary capacity and undertake to obtain for every instrument in possession of the federal government at least one instrument of equivalent value in private possession”. This requirement has more than been met by Schulte-Hillen and her team: the Fund now has 37 instruments from federal possession and 147 from private donors.

And the Fund has developed further: for several years the German Foundation of Musical Life, with its headquarters in Hamburg, has regularly been giving commissions to well-known contemporary instrument-makers. A live-cell therapy for the heart of the Foundation’s work.