Podium Festival Much More than Bach on the Dance Floor

Young and independent – the Podium Festival in Esslingen.
Young and independent – the Podium Festival in Esslingen. | Photo (detail): Podium-Festival / Marc Engelhart & Steffen Müller

Chamber music in the disco, Stravinsky Soldier’s Tale as a mixture of music and animation film, theatre and dance. These are two examples of how the Podium Festival in Esslingen has also sought in 2013 to conceive the boundaries of classical music events more broadly and so, in its fifth year of existence, to sharpen its unusual profile.

“The reason young people don’t listen any more to classical music isn’t the music. It still has great power today. It’s rather that we need new forms of events and different venues to introduce a younger audience again to the music”, says Steven Walter. Inspired by this conviction, the then 22 year-old cellist, the medical student Minh Schumacher and numerous like-minded volunteers set in 2009 in Esslingen to pave a way into the future for chamber music. Walter and Schumacher had organized a meagre 15,000 euros in order to realize their dream. Mainly via the Internet, Walter in turn inspired twenty young musicians from eight countries, most of whom had won many awards in international competitions, with his idea and invited them to Esslingen. It was an experiment, and it worked.

Rapid rise of an idea

For the fifth edition of the festival in 2013, the organizers were able to work with a budget of roughly 200,000 euros and with forty musicians. For many of the artists it was a repeat performance, given primarily out of conviction, for most of the money flows into the realization of ideas. Fees move, according to Walter, “in the realm of the symbolic”. Still, about twenty-five musicians are now part of the permanent core of the festival. Most organizers and volunteers work on an honorary basis and round the clock. This comprehensive commitment is the basis for the special personal atmosphere of the festival, which one notices in the identification of the participants with their project.

In times when the relationship between culture and money is mainly about cuts, the Podium Festival is therefore a remarkable success story. The organizers were surely spurred on by winning the 2010 Echo award in the category of “special prize for the promotion of young talent”. The jury of the award praised the “exceptional forms of presentation and ideas and the unconventional concerts”. More awards followed: the Red Dot Award for Communication Design and the Promotion Prize of the Stuttgart Region for the festival’s overall concept. In 2013 the Art Innovation Fund of Baden-Württemberg put 50,000 euros at the festival’s disposal for the music theatre project Stravinsky Animated – The Soldier’s Tale.

Private and public commitment

The results of strong personal artistic commitment are projects like the ChamberDance in 2012 with the National Youth Ballet and music of Franz Schubert and Peteris Vasks. The results of strong personal artistic commitment are projects like the ChamberDance in 2012 with the National Youth Ballet and music of Franz Schubert and Peteris Vasks. | Photo: Podium-Festival / Daniel Barth The results of strong personal artistic commitment are projects like the ChamberDance in 2012 with the National Youth Ballet and music of Franz Schubert and Peteris Vasks, photo by Podium Festival / Daniel Barth For the 2013 edition of the festival, forty musicians from all over Europe came to the city on the Neckar River. In the meantime the local dignitaries are also enjoying the growing popularity of the festival, which now extends far beyond the boundaries of the city of 90,000 inhabitants into the greater Stuttgart area. Even a foundation consisting of private persons from Esslingen has been founded to provide Podium with a stronger financial footing and to forge a long-term bond between it and the city. For the presence of musicians has an effect on the cultural life of Esslingen beyond the concerts themselves. Rehearsals sometimes take place in private homes, and many musicians assume a sponsorship for children and young people, accompany them to concerts and keep in touch with them throughout the year. The influence is many-facetted. On the one hand, the citizens of the city have come to identify more and more with “their” festival; on the other, later stars are glad to return to places where they were well-received as young artists. The effect may be also seen in the figures for 2013: almost all sixteen concerts of the “Young European Music Festival” were sold out.

New audience

“Young” is the key word. On many evenings it was predominantly young, and even very young, concert-goers who embarked on the adventure of classical music. Even at the rather traditional opening of the 2013 festival in the venerable Citizen’s Hall of the Esslingen Town Hall the prevailing mood was relaxed. The organizers described the programme as “bright, loud and incredibly close”, and with a selection of works by Rachmaninoff, Frank Martin, John Adams und Jean Françaix did not choose the acoustically simplest path. For example, the twenty-two year-old Israeli clarinettist Nur Ben Shalom, now the winner of many awards, who performed in Esslingen for the fourth time and artistically inspired many of his colleagues, was a special experience. And the creative range of the concerts that was to appeal to the audience was remarkable: it spanned from a candle-illuminated night concert in the Franciscan church and a promenade concert over three epochs and three storeys in the original buildings of Germany’s oldest producer of sparkling wine, Kessler, to a concert at which the audience could enjoy works by Benjamin Britten, Gerard Pesson and Johannes Brahms lying in deckchairs.
Podium Festival 2013, source: Podium Festival / Youtube

Unusual projects, special projects

That the festival organizers modify their ideas in accordance with their experiences of the audience was shown again by this year’s Classical Club Concert in the Esslingen discotheque One. At the event’s premier two years ago, the attempt to bring Bach to the dance floor had its longeurs. This time there was no lack of Bach, but instead of a chewy club night there was a compact club concert with lasers, dry ice and fog, applause and an imaginative journey through the history of chamber music, ranging form Bach to John Adams and George Enescu’s brilliant String Quartet in C major as the finale.

A string quartet in the club “360 degrees“ at the Podium Festival. A string quartet in the club “360 degrees“ at the Podium Festival. | Photo: Podium-Festival / Oran Greier The highlight of the 2013 festival, however, was the project Stravinsky Animated. Four artists from the Ludwigsburg Film Academy created an animated film to illustrate the music performed on stage. The actors Isa Weiss and Uwe Toppmann told the tale of the soldier and repeatedly slipped into the role of the main characters. This combination of music, animate film and theatre, in which the various art forms were interwoven in a captivating manner and resulted in a conceptual total work of art, was a fascinating project, clearly pointing to the future. For the Podium Festival wants to continue to grow, and unusual concerts such as Stravinsky Animated will help attract attention to it far beyond the borders of the region.