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

Ruhr Triennial The Meaning of Conventions

Criticism in the language of the music theatre: Rimini Protokoll's “Situation Rooms”
Criticism in the language of the music theatre: Rimini Protokoll's “Situation Rooms” | Photo: Ruhr Triennal / Pipi Psimenou

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.

From 23 August to 6 October 2013, the “Ruhr Triennial – International Festival of the Arts” enters its next round. Under the direction of artistic all-rounder Heiner Goebbels, it has developed into a festival of sustainability, for which innovation is as important as closeness to the audience. An overview.

With its unusual and spectacular venues, whose theatrical settings are wrested from the past of heavy industry, the Ruhr Triennial is not a festival that can set its sights on the artistic mainstream. Part of its conception has always been that the incumbent intendant mounts an at least three-year cycle bearing his personal signature.

The theatre artist Heiner Goebbels, in his second year as managing intendant of the Ruhr Triennial, is pursuing the idea of presenting art that demonstrates a tremendous innovative aesthetic potential and plays a comparatively too marginal role in public awareness. If his conception has a meta-theme, then it is the demanding work of perception on the part of the audience, which is given a far more active role than is usual in the conventional art, music and theatre worlds. This always also includes the interleaving of various genres of performing arts into a many-levelled dramaturgic complex. It questions the meaning of aesthetic conventions and perceptual habits; the combination of music, stage and movement yields nothing like customary theatre; margins and centres of action switch places.

Premieres with surprises

Because Goebbels’s ideas about theatre are not without their history, the festival programme raises from the depths half-forgotten repertory treasures. In 2012 the recovery work was devoted to Europeras by John Cage. This year Robert Wilson is staging Helmut Lachenmann’s Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl), an opera in a highly independent, unprecedented musical form, which links motifs of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale to texts by Gudrun Ensslin. And Goebbels himself, together with the Cologne ensemble Musik Fabrik, will bring Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury for the first time to a European stage. The composer Harry Partch is a singularity in music history. In the first half of the last century he developed his own order of sonic space, his own world of sound, a corresponding arsenal of instruments and thoughts and concepts for music theatre.

Heiner Goebbels about Harry Partch, source: Ruhrtriennale / youtube

Recordings of Partch’s music aroused some attention in the 1980s, including that of Goebbels: “He said already in the 1940s and 50s much of what I thought in the 1980s and 90s and tried then to formulate. He demanded, for example, that musicians play by heart – after all, singers and actors do. There’s nothing aesthetically so deadly for the artistic illumination of a work as music stands and desk lighting. These are difficulties I’ve had to do with for twenty-five years”.

More than theatre

Another work that falls under the category of music theatre in the programme of the 2013 Ruhr Triennial is Goebbels own Stifters Dinge (i.e., Stifter’s Things), which makes do without actors and musicians and will be shown in parallel as a performance and as an installation. In the “concerts” department of the programme are the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, the WDR Symphony Orchestra, the Chorwerk Ruhr, improvisers and chamber musicians with a repertory that eschews premiere ephemera and seeks instead more permanent and weighty contemporary music, which it finds in works by Gavin Bryars, Luciano Berio, Alban Berg, Jonathan Harvey and others.
A rehearsal of the dance theatre piece 'The Last Adventure' A rehearsal of the dance theatre piece 'The Last Adventure' | Photo: Ruhr Triennal / Hugo Glendinnig
The dance department this year will acquaint the audience with new works by Anne Teresa de Keersmaker, Meg Stuart and the Grupo del Rua of the Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrao. A clear focus here is on works that have the audience take centre stage or make them the actors. These include Nowhere and Everywhere by William Forsythe, Ryoiju Ikeda’s test pattern, the Last Adventures with Forced Entertainment and the sound artist Tarek Atoui, and the new performance by the group Rimini Protokoll. The title of the last is Situation Rooms and its idea is to enable experiences with people whose lives have been shaped in the most different ways by the international arms trade. The title refers to the photo that went around the world in May 2011: a snapshot of the faces of 13 people, including that of Barack Obama, who were watching the execution of Osama Bin Laden live on a screen in the White House. Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms equips the audience with mobile screens and headphones and sends them into a labyrinthine simultaneous cinema of pursuit and being pursued, constituting a political theatre of and for people who mistrust politics in the theatre.