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Classical, Contemporary and Early Music 2022
Power and Crises

Oksana Lyniv conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
Oksana Lyniv conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. | Photo (detail): © Co Merz / Münchner Philharmoniker

After two years of Covid restrictions, 2022 did not deliver on hopes for a sudden return to normal in the classical music scene. A lot of issues came to a head in the classical, early and contemporary music scenes. And politics became definitively inseparable from the arts – which is pretty exhausting. Though it did bear some remarkable artistic fruits in 2022.

By Rita Argauer

The year began full of hope. In January, the music world saw light at the end of the tunnel. The new German government had announced an easing of the Covid restrictions by late March. In the light of omicron’s proven demonstrably milder effects, it didn’t seem all that far-fetched to hope for a return to normal. And despite the high prevailing incidence rates, some cultural events were held even before “Freedom Day”, i.e. 20 March 2022. That much did pan out. But a full return to pre-pandemic conditions in classical music was not in the cards. Then again, working, performing and taking action in a crisis always requires changing the way you do things, so the odds are actually improving. During the two years of Covid restrictions, the movers and shakers in the still all-too-traditional classical music scene learned to change the structures, formats and forms of music-making. And in 2022, this newfound mutability became more political than it had been for a long time in the arts.

The 41st edition of the annual ECLAT Festival in Stuttgart started in early February 2022. ECLAT’s very name and agenda are about breaking things apart – which is why the tradition here is revolutionary by definition. Upheavals and paradigm shifts – as well as novel musical formats – are par for the course at this New Music festival. Owing to the unpredictable vagaries of the Covid crisis, the 2022 edition had to go hybrid, mixing virtual and in-person performances. But that was nothing new to the folks in Stuttgart. Musical artists from Belarus have been releasing snippets of their work here since 2021, and last year’s ECLAT morphed into a virtual stage for Echoes from Belarus: a wild and eclectic take on what’s going on in a brutally autocratic state not so very far away in Europe.

This was a very timely look at Eastern Europe, as borne out by the Russian attack on Ukraine only three weeks later. After which, post-Covid normality didn’t last long, if at all. The ground shook beneath our feet, but the art world reacted by getting political and showing solidarity. These world events naturally led to a debate about Russia’s past and present contributions to classical music (in terms of both composers and performing artists). Some organizers and orchestras actually struck Tchaikovsky symphonies off the programme (as in Cardiff, Wales) as a bizarre act of political solidarity. Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who’s also general music director of the Bavarian State Opera, took an approach that made more sense: he had his Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra play the Ukrainian national anthem instead of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave at two concerts. And he added a work by a Ukrainian composer, Mychajlo Werbyzkyj’s Symphonic Overture No. 1, thereby shifting the musical focus from Russia to Ukraine shortly after the war broke out.

The Russian invasion has hugely impacted the German classical music scene

The arts in general became increasingly politicized in 2022. Until just a few years ago, the arts, especially classical music, still carried a certain aura of infallibility. But that was over in 2022. Whereas dubious political statements by Russian artists in the past used to be excused on the grounds of their artistic accomplishments, that just wouldn’t wash anymore. Engagements were cancelled, contracts annulled. There was no keeping art and politics apart in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Ukraine.
So, even attending ordinary subscription concerts suddenly became a symbolic political act. The Munich Philharmonic, for instance, opened their 2022/23 season in September with a performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Wrath of God, sandwiched between an elegy by Ukrainian modernist Valentin Silvestrov and excerpts from Wagner’s Parsifal. And the whole show under the baton of Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv – an apolitical symphonic concert for paid subscribers could hardly get more political than that.

Lyniv, Barenboim and Thielemann: Orchestral productions and passing of the baton 

Whether Lyniv might be the Munich Philharmonic’s next chief conductor is still up in the air. But a little later in the year, the prospect of passing the baton did loom large in Berlin. To kick off the new season at the Staatsoper, Daniel Barenboim was planning to conduct all four parts of Wagner’s Ring cycle… in a single week! This opera marathon was staged by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. But Barenboim himself had to bow out for health reasons. So Christian Thielemann filled in for him at the conductor’s stand – and may now be a contender to succeed Barenboim.

But politics found its most intense artistic expression this past year in the New Music scene. After the spotlight on Belarus at the ECLAT Festival in Stuttgart, the Munich Biennale Festival of New Music Theatre opened in May with Songs of Exile and No Return by Bernhard Glander and Ukrainian librettist Serhij Zhadan, a mordant piece about the suffering of (war) refugees. It put its finger on what is still a hot-button issue in Europe – even though this abnormal state of affairs has almost become normal in the wake of the various crises in recent years. 

Later in May, the Bavarian State Opera launched a new festival called Ja, Mai (Yes, May) featuring two operas by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. The first one, Bluthaus, is socio-political horror, a gruesome tale of incest based on the Kampusch and Fritzl cases, two monstrous kidnappings in Austria that came to light in the late 2000s and caused quite a sensation in the media. The second opera, Thomas, is an oppressive analytical look at dying.

Salzburg and Bayreuth are likewise facing tough questions about current crises, diversity issues and social paradigm shifts 

A sense of crisis pervades the major classical music festivals as well these days. The Salzburg Festival is under fire for accepting funding from a Russian bank that’s on the EU sanctions list. And what to do about Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis and his MusicAeterna orchestra, who are sponsored by the same bank? What’s more, the mediasphere suddenly began asking aloud how the performing arts can claim to benefit society as a whole at such astronomical prices for admission. Who is this art for? Are such elites still tenable? 

At least the male elite’s traditional hold on positions of power has been fraying a little lately. Joana Mallwitz conducted Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Nuremberg Staatstheater, for instance, though this is her last season as general music director there: in 2023 she’s going to be the first woman ever to serve as chief conductor of Berlin’s Konzerthausorchester. 
Women conductors are still a minority, and generally don’t have it easy at big venues, as was bemoaned more and more insistently this past year. White men still make up the majority and still usually run the show in classical music. But this is changing too. Up-and-coming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a case in point. A rising star of the classical scene, this young Black musician gained widespread fame when he played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle a few years ago. In 2022, he was a big crowd-puller for the BBC Proms in London, and this little celebrity factor was writ large to promote his early-summer tour of Germany – the usual mainstream marketing mechanisms. But that’s good news, too, because it suggests that diversity is beginning to become the norm in the classical music scene. 

Elsewhere on that front, the Chineke! Orchestra, founded by bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku in 2015, is preparing the ground by giving musicians from ethnic minorities a look-in in the European scene. And Musik Installationen Nürnberg are going for diversity in their programme and productions too. Launched in July 2022, this new contemporary music festival aims to liberate music from the usual linear forms of performance. The idea is to produce music that can be heard and especially viewed like a work of visual art, music that is diverse, political and freed from traditional approaches to performance.

A zeitgeisty Baroque festival 

The Bayreuth Festival presented two new productions: Valentin Schwarz’s Rheingold and Roland Schwab’s Tristan und Isolde. Here, too, Christian Thielemann is being tipped as the new, old music director. But he’s on uneasy terms with Katharina Wagner. Down in Bayreuth, new things tend to come in very old packages. Now that the 18th-century Margravial Opera House has been fully restored, the Bayreuth Baroque Festival was held there in August, providing an opulent setting for monumental Baroque operas which, despite a growing fan base, don’t make it into most current-day repertoires. 

The young Brazilian singer Bruno de Sá debuted in a programme under the artistic direction of countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic. De Sá doesn’t call himself a “countertenor”, however, but a “male soprano”. “A male soprano is a man who actually has a soprano voice,” he explained in his relatively high-pitched speaking voice in an interview with Bayerischer Rundfunk. “That doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it’s just different.” In a Bayreuth show last summer called Roma Travestita, he sang the arias of Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Giuseppe Arena’s heroines in a voice that’s fascinatingly both powerful and soft in the high register. The programme was then promptly released as an album. This old music performed by a male soprano epitomizes the prevailing zeitgeist in present-day Western society: gender boundaries are fluid.