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

The Munich Biennale Innovation and Provocation

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.

Peter Ruzicka – composer, conductor and artistic director of the Munich Biennale from 1996 to 2014
Peter Ruzicka – composer, conductor and artistic director of the Munich Biennale from 1996 to 2014 | Photo (detail): Anne Kirchbach

The composer Hans-Werner Henze founded the Munich Biennale in 1988 to give young, experimental music theatre a forum. As director of the festival from 1996 until 2014, Peter Ruzicka continued this idea and established the Biennale as a major international meeting place of the contemporary opera scene. A look back at an inspiring and significant era.

Even if some years have been more fruitful than others, even if music, text and staging sometimes failed to coalesce into a unity, one or two works from every Munich Biennale have always remained in memory and have, if sometimes belatedly, reappeared in the programme of other opera houses. Among these is the magnificent Holocaust opera Pnima by Chaya Czernowin (2000), which was restaged in 2007 in Weimar and in 2010 in Stuttgart, and Wasser (ie, Water) by Arnulf Herrmann (2012).

It is exactly such productions that Peter Ruzicka underscores in his own résumé of his work: “In the quarter century during which the Biennale has given rise to new music theatre and presented it for discussion with great continuity, the interconnectedness of the world has proceeded at high speed. Cultural traditions have met one another at a tempo and intensity that seem to negate their growth over centuries. Current modernity demands a life lived at two speeds. Since its founding, the Munich Biennale has observed, critically accompanied and artistically responded to this process of asynchrony which is only inadequately described as ‘globalisation’”.

Experiments, exoticism, aesthetics

With Ruzicka’s first Biennale in May 1996, the originally two-year cycle was interrupted and gradually a new aesthetics came into effect: away from the so-called “literary opera”, which Henze favoured in his own work, to experiment: Tan Dun’s Marco Polo and Helmut Oehring’s Das D’Amato-System, music theatre by Michael Obst based on the science-fiction film of Andrej Tarkowskij’s Solaris and Hanna Kulenty’s The Mother of Black-Winged Dreams marked the break. The edition of 1997 went down in the history of the festival as the “fairy tale Biennale”, at which the production of Helle Nächte (ie, Bright Nights) by the Munich composer Moritz Eggert caused a sensation. In 1998 the stage was dominated by exotic themes, as in Sandeep Bhagwati’s Ramanujan, an opera about the eponymous Indian mathematician, and Toshio Hosokawa’s Vision of Lear. Later Qu Xiao-Song’s Temptation (2004) and Lin Wang’s The Source (2010) would continue this line with limberness and originality.

In 2000, Pnima – Ins Innere (ie, Pnima – Within) by Chaya Czernowin enjoyed a great success. In the first chapter of David Grossman’s novel See Under: Love, on which Czernowin’s opera is based, the old man is the confused, believed-to-be long-lost grandfather, who is incapable of remembering the trauma of the Holocaust. The sharp-edged surfaces of the music therefore wound more than they explain; they disturb, gnash, come close to being noise, only gradually gaining contour. Probably the most exciting piece presented at the 2006 Biennale was Gramma by José Maria Sanchéz-Verdú; subtitled Gardens of Writing, it was a fascinating, sensuous spiritual exercise performed in the optically austere-seeming Muffathalle. Like a monk in the quire of a basilica, every listener had placed on a lectern before his seat a square, thread-stitched book bound in white linen, full of delicate drawing, notes and handwritten texts. Perusing this, he could listen to the musicians and singers above, beside and behind him performing an incredibly delicate, filigree, fine, rigorous and yet completely comprehensible music.

Perhaps the best premiere of 2008 was Piero – Ende der Nacht (ie, Piero – End of the Night), a “radio play for a theatre of wandering thoughts and sound” reminiscent of Luigi Nono, as Jens Joneleit and his librettist Michael Herrschel call their free adaptation of Alfred Andersch’s novel Die Rote (ie, The Redhead). Piero – Ende der Nacht is no literary opera, but its title and text are taken word for word from the novel or are condensations of the thoughts of the redheaded main character. Herrschel/Joneleit’s redhead appears as a mezzo soprano in three inserted, inner monologues in Italian that reflect her conflicting feelings and thoughts, part of a fantastically protean and excellently written soloist choir consisting of six men and six women.

Finally, in 2010, Philipp Maintz composed intense music for his Maldoror, based on Les Chants de Maldoror, a novel by the 23 year-old Isidore Ducasse, who called himself the Comte de Lautréamont; beginning tenderly and ramifying, chamber music-like, it swells massively in some images, drills with nervous concentrations of the brass, only suddenly to calm down again in a deep gong stroke and extinguish itself in silence. The ambitious three-part Amazonas project (with music by Klaus Schedl, Tato Taborda and the ZKM Karlsruhe), which sought to present an artistic reflection on the diverse problems of the Amazon basin, failed as grandiosely as it was boldly conceived.

Ruzicka’s last Biennale

Glorious failure, however, is part of the business, and Ruzicka refused to be discouraged from offering as broad a stylistic and aesthetic palette for his last Biennale in 2014 as ever before. The stylistic scope ranged from the controversial, critically slammed biopic Vivier, a chamber opera based on the life of the composer Claude Vivier, who was murdered in his hotel room by a hustler in 1983; to Samy Moussa’s political opera Vastation (Wüstung), in equal parts sensational and cynical; to A Summer’s Day, Nikolaus Brass’s minimalist and suspenseful musical setting of Jon Fosse’s play; to Dieter Schnebel’s Utopien (ie, Utopias); to Detlev Glanert’s cryptic and inscrutable melodrama Die Befristeten (Their Days Are Numbers), based on Elias Canetti’s play, and Hèctor Parra’s The Sacrificed Life, with members of the Freiburger Barockorchester and the Ensemble Recherche. Thus Ruzicka’s finale pointed, as have all the years of work of the outgoing Director of the Munich Biennale, in the direction of creativity and openness. It will be interesting to see how his successors, Daniel Ott and Manos Tsangaris, will continue on this path in 2016.