CLASSICAL SCENE 2014 Debts and Chances

Smart singers, new exhibitions, books worth reading, daring productions: The music scene in Germany again affirmed its unrivalled density and diversity in 2014, whilst coming up with creative ways of coping with budget cuts and digitization.

Christian Gerhaher as Orfeo in Munich Christian Gerhaher as Orfeo at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich 2014 | © Wilfried Hösl

Debts upon debts: more and more German states and municipalities were driven to the financial brink in 2014. The City of Wuppertal laid off all its salaried opera singers and one conductor last summer. The State of Saxony-Anhalt withdrew from its commitment to fund the Anhaltisches Theater in Dessau, so the City of Dessau will have to make up the deficit under its own steam, chiefly to maintain the Anhaltische Philharmonic Orchestra. The State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is planning to reduce funding for theatres and orchestras, which would make it impossible to keep them all running independently and full-time at each of the current venues. So last December, Dirk Löschner, manager of the Vorpommern (Western Pomerania) Theatre, came out in favour of fusing his house with the Neubrandenburg Philharmonic and the Neustrelitz Theatre. The number of permanently staffed standing orchestras in Germany, down 37 since 1992, will continue to shrink. German municipalities are deeper in debt partly as a result of financial miscalculations: the cost of renovating the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera), for instance, has mounted from €242 to €400 million since 2010. The cost of building Elphi, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, has soared from an initial estimate of €77 million to €800 million. In the face of these rampant budget overruns, the pressure to economize in Germany has exacerbated the crisis of legitimacy in classical music, and it weighed heavily on the year 2014.

Youth versus classical 

Director of Bayerischer Rundfunk Ulrich Wilhelm announced that in 2018 BR Klassik, the Bavarian broadcaster’s classical station, would be taken off the air and subsequently broadcast online only. As grounds for this decision, he said the classical service had to make room for Puls, a “young people’s station” that needs its own FM frequency. Neither a protest petition, signed by 63,573 opponents of the move, including the German Arts Council and the German Orchestras Association, nor the objections raised by Mariss Janson, principal conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, could induce the Bavarian Broadcasting chief to change his mind. 

A radio station for youngsters is also what lies behind Südwestrundfunk (SWR, Southwest Broadcasting) director Peter Boudgoust’s decision to merge the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Public broadcaster SWR have to economize a total of €166 million by 2020, and yet they’re going all out to achieve their ambition of setting up an online youth television service with public TV broadcaster ZDF. Boudgoust hopes to obtain the requisite funds by shedding permanent staffers in the orchestras. All the ensuing protests failed to ward off the fusion. 

Meanwhile, Baden-Württemberg fought a 2013 “advisory pronouncement” from the state audit office demanding that the state’s five conservatories cut €5 million in annual costs and downsize by admitting 500 fewer students. This would have made the conservatories in Mannheim and Trossingen redundant. Baden-Württemberg’s Minister President Winfried Kretschmann had to step in to reverse the situation: as a result, instead of these cost-cutting measures, €28 million more is now to be allocated to Baden-Württemberg’s music schools over the next six years. All the schools are to be preserved; however, their student bodies do have to be scaled back because the swelling ranks of aspiring musicians are looking at a shrinking number of available jobs in the music industry.


Last year’s round of jubilees commenced on 8 March with the tercentenary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The City of Frankfurt an der Oder (in Brandenburg, Eastern Germany) opened the first permanent exhibition devoted to the 18th-century composer. The RIAS Chamber Choir came out with a much-noticed recording of his C. P. E. Bach’s sacred music, and Ana-Marija Markovina recorded his complete keyboard works on CD. 


The tercentenary of the birth of Christoph Willibald Gluck, too, provided occasion for a controversial opera production at the Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival): director Romeo Castellucci tied the story of Orfeo ed Euridice into the fate of a real-life patient in the coma ward at a Viennese hospital, whilst artistically succeeding, according to many critics, in forestalling any suspicion of voyeurism.

On the other hand, hardly any efforts were made in Germany to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Jean-Philippe Rameau, though Barrie Kosky’s powerful staging of Castor et Pollux at the Komische Oper Berlin did attract notice even outside of specialist circles. 

In contrast, the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birthday sparked various opera productions and concerts as well as a series of books that take the intellectual critique of the composer to a new level. The Richard-Strauss-Handbuch (“Richard Strauss Compendium”) edited by Walter Werbeck, Laurenz Lütteken’s monograph Richard Strauss. Musik der Moderne (“Richard Strass: Music of Modernity”) and Michael Heinemann’s collection of essays Richard Strauss. Lebensgeschichte als Musiktheater (“Richard Strass: Life Story as Music Theatre”) all break with the conception of Strauss as a late Romantic and politically naïve careerist. They see him as an intellectual and a modern artist in his own right, who fought to make a place for himself in his own day and age – by cunning and dubious means. 


The music world lost two great conductors in 2014: Claudio Abbado and Lorin Maazel. Both were highly gifted conductors, universalists in their repertoire, but opposites in their approach. Maazel, who last served as principal director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, centralized his control over all the orchestra’s musical matters, whereas Abbado, artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1989 to 2002, sought to connect up and coordinate independent musicians, including excellent young talents (e.g. Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra). 

Gerard Mortier, posthumously awarded the Goethe Medal, also died in 2014. As an opera director and administrator, he combined artistic sensibility and managerial acumen like few others. Opernwelt magazine and the Ring Award created a new prize last summer in his memory: the Mortier Award.


Peter Gülke became the second musicologist – after Reinhold Brinkmann – to receive the Siemens Music Award. Gülke is an author who shares theoretical reflections with us whilst drawing on his practical experience as a conductor to tell us something about music – and eloquently at that. Much the same could be said of baritone Christian Gerhaher, an outstanding figure in the German music scene not only thanks to his singing, but also thanks to his lectures – on Franz Schubert’s song cycles, for example. In the summer of 2014 he won the German Record Critics’ Nachtigall (“Nightingale”) prize (Ehrenpreis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik).


Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”) in Munich garnered plenty of praise. On the strength of this production and conductor Kirill Petrenko’s outstanding work in 2014, Opernwelt magazine awarded the title of “Opera House of the Year” to the Bavarian State Opera based on a survey of music critics. In music theatre, the world premieres of Adriana Hölszky’s Böse Geister (“Evil Spirits”) in Mannheim and Mark André’s wunderzaichen in Stuttgart were widely acclaimed. The world premiere in Oslo of Berlin-based Este Jüri Reinvere’s production of Peer Gynt sparked controversy in Norway because a slaughterhouse scene was suspected of being an allusion to the 2011 Utøya massacre by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik. But what the composer had in mind was more Europe’s cultural suicide and general anomie.

Personnel changes

The rapid-fire hiring and firing of Serge Dorny by the Semperoper Dresden, which first appointed the Frenchman director of the opera house and then sacked him before he’d even taken office, verged on a farce. Apparently, the two parties had failed to discuss their different artistic conceptions.
Heiner Goebbels retired as director of the Ruhrtriennale, taking leave with a production of his Surrogate Cities, a stylistic collage involving the massive participation of the urban population, with 130 local amateurs (children and adults alike) dancing to the music on stage. 
With Christian Kuhnt as its new director, the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival shifted gears from spotlighting individual countries to composer retrospectives, the first of which was devoted to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
As the new director of the Mozartfest Würzburg, Evelyn Meining set up a “Mozart Lab” to open up the discussion of classical music by holding public talks with composers, scholars and philosophers.
Hans-Christoph Rademann, who in 2013 took Helmuth Rilling’s place at the helm of the Bach Academy, was for the first time given sole responsibility for the Musikfest Stuttgart. The theme was “Herkunft” (“origin” or “background”), with series entitled Perspectives on Bach and From Central Germany, which touched on Rademann’s own biography and his roots in Saxony’s church choir tradition.

Bright prospects of digitization 

While less and less space is allotted to music criticism, especially of instrumental music, in the arts sections of Germany’s national press, a media offensive was launched last summer: VAN magazine will no longer be coming out on paper, but only available online on iPads and Android tablets. Banking on technological innovation, VAN is taking up aspects of classical music beyond mere marketing interests and discussing them with performing artists in a far less conventional way than in the established print media. Thus, digitization does offer some real intellectual rewards here.