Classical scene 2015 On the brink of the sea change

Munich Philharmonic Orchestra after a concert at the Philharmonic Hall in the Gasteig, Munich, February 2008
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra after a concert at the Philharmonic Hall in the Gasteig, Munich, February 2008 | Photo (Detail): Andreas Praefcke, CC BY 2.5

People in Dresden have been demonstrating against refugees, who have been streaming into Munich. The social ramifications are bound to change the classical music scene in Germany, where traditional and innovative forces look pretty much irreconcilable. 

Hot spot Dresden

Since 2015, if not before, even Germany’s tone-deaf know the Dresden opera house. Every Monday xenophobes and enemies of the press gather here to chant their chauvinist mantra “Wir sind das Volk” – “We are the people”. Almost all the opera house staff complain that these demonstrations have become an increasingly insufferable nuisance over the course of the year. Only the music manager of the house, Christian Thielemann, opined in the weekly Die Zeit early last year that we ought to listen to what these people have to say.

Perplexity in Berlin

This appeal didn’t seem to have an all too positive effect when the Berlin Philharmonic shortly thereafter set about choosing a successor to Sir Simon Rattle, who is resigning in 2018. Many fancied Thielemann the favourite, even though he’s conservative, difficult and relatively limited in repertoire, especially after Mariss Jansons and Daniel Barenboim, the most promising elderly candidates, begged off. During the first round of voting, the press besieged the orchestra’s assembly point, namely the Jesus Christus church in Dahlem, Berlin. Even after eleven hours the musicians were still unable to agree on a successor. When they adjourned the meeting, the press were visibly more disappointed than the orchestra members themselves. After all, this is a highly coveted post in one of the world’s best orchestras.

Russian rising star ascendant

Almost a month later the Berlin Philharmonic brought off a coup and got their pick: Kirill Petrenko. Yes, the same Petrenko whose unexplained early departure six months previous had forced them to call off a concert at the last minute. But Petrenko has had one of the world’s most meteoric conducting careers since Leonard Bernstein. Born in 1972 in the Ural Mountains city of Omsk and trained in Austria, he has conducted operas in Vienna, Meiningen and Berlin and now directs the Bavarian State Opera. Next stop Berlin!

Petrenko et al.

With Petrenko, the Berlin Philharmonic are opting out of the mainstream once again and for innovation and a new departure instead, as they did with Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle. This decision also signals a historic reconciliation, now that the Berlin orchestra, which was once rescued from bankruptcy by the Nazis and subsequently had two principal conductors with Nazi ties, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, has opted for a Jewish bandleader. This is a courageous decision in light of the fact that Petrenko has not conducted that many concerts yet. And yet it’s the right decision because there is no better contender around for the ensemble’s highly Romantic repertoire. In fact Petrenko fires up musicians and audiences so much that the real worry is whether he won’t burn out on all these emotional mega-eruptions in the long run. But he is also an extremely meticulous craftsman who often comes out with flabbergasting and yet readily persuasive renditions of well-known pieces. That is something only the really great musicians can do, and in that he outdoes all his peers, including Thielemann, Jansons, Barenboim & Andris Nelsons. The latter, by the way, who was also a good bet to succeed Rattle, committed shortly after the Berlin decision to direct Leipzig’s Gewandhausorchester, whilst continuing to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Holding several posts at a time is common practice in classical music circles – though here again Petrenko is an exception. As is the very young Robin Ticciati (b. 1983), who is soon to take charge of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin, a troupe traditionally as curious and venturesome as their peers over at the Berlin Philharmonic.

Dresden again

Getting back to Dresden: Thielemann is staying on, to be succeeded in 2018 by Nuremberg opera’s current artistic director Peter Theiler, a man with an open mind ready and willing to explore new avenues. Will Theiler harmonize with Thielemann? In February 2014 Theiler’s predecessor there in Dresden, Serge Dorny, an imaginatively progressive manager, was fired even before taking office owing to differences with Thielemann. In late 2015, however, the courts found the dismissal unlawful, so the State of Saxony is probably going to have to foot the bill for a hefty severance pay settlement. Now they can’t afford another debacle of the sort.

Glimmer of hope in Hamburg

There are two kinds of opera house directors. Those who treat the public to big voices and scenographically appealing productions, on the one hand, and those who view opera as an enduringly relevant and occasionally unsettling art form, on the other, combining classical music that is suspicious of popular acceptance with avant-garde mise en scène. The latter type includes Munich State Opera director Nikolaus Bachler, who is going to lose Petrenko. Some years ago, Bachler parted ways with Kent Nagano, who couldn’t be enthused at all for the hands-on musical side of his job and with whom he hardly had any aesthetic common ground. Nagano has now found a manager and director with whom he shares a great deal more, including a passion for French: Georges Delnon. As of the current season, the two of them have been working together at the Hamburg Opera, which had previously drifted off the artistic radar under the hapless Simone Young. It remains to be seen whether the duo Nagano & Delnon have the stature to usher in a new era of their own, like those the Hamburg opera experienced under Rolf Liebermann and later Ingo Metzmacher.

On the Ruhr and the Red Main

The Ruhrtriennale has a new director too. Johan Simons, ex-director of Munich’s Kammerspiele theatre, has yet to stand out as a genuine music man, unlike all his predecessors, including founding director Gerard Mortier. This may be why his music program for the annual music and arts festival in the Ruhr seems more traditional than those of his forerunners, who often thought more radically in terms of music than in terms of drama. At Bayreuth, the second-biggest German festival, consolidating is the order of the day after Frank Castorf’s grandiose staging of the Ring, which rubbed many a conservative operagoer the wrong way. The lady of the house, Katharina Wagner, tells her Tristan unspectacularly from a withdrawn emancipatory perspective. For the first time ever, in addition to the small circle of live spectators and radio listeners, the performance was also made publicly accessible as a cinematic experience. Bayreuth is following the trend set by the Metropolitan Opera of popularizing classical music, which includes livestreaming such major opera events.

Musical wallpaper or highbrow culture: classical online

Like the live classical scene, online classical is on the move. Whereas live classical music is an expensive treat invariably concentrating on individual works, classical music on the Internet still has to find its place between providing a constant stream of background music, on the one hand, and highbrow culture, on the other. All too much is to be had all too easily, and whereas in the live scene a manager’s planning hand steers the public, online listeners are left to their own devices. So they need to know a lot about music to find their way around there. Bayerischer Rundfunk offers them a web site that is very well designed, but not convincing in terms of musical and editorial content. Meanwhile, the recently launched free streaming platform Idagio tags its musical offerings with trite descriptives like “Exciting”, “Radiant” “Happy” or “Festive”, which may strike highbrows as woefully illiterate, but is ideal for neophytes and listeners who rarely tune to classical.

Munich glimmers

While protests against foreign newcomers were held regularly in Dresden, more and more refugees began pouring into Germany from last summer on. In the first months of the influx up to the start of the Oktoberfest, Munich was the prime destination. It was soon clear to everyone in the arts that this is a social phenomenon that will have ramifications for the classical scene here. Is classical music, which is primarily music of the antiquated past, capable of reacting to such upheavals? Or is it the last comforting refuge for a shrinking bourgeoisie that won’t admit to itself that classical music is sinking into utter social irrelevance? Bavarian Minister-President Horst Seehofer’s unimaginative answer to these questions is simply to provide more of the same. After years of debate, he declared his willingness to build another concert hall in Munich, which already has three large classical auditoriums (Philharmonie, Herkulessaal, Prinzregententheater). The new venue is to serve mainly to house Bayerischer Rundfunk’s hitherto homeless Radio Symphony Orchestra. Even if the envisaged solution seems quite pragmatically modest, the city, though already saturated with conservative music, did brighten up a little last year. Or was it only supposed to be an afterglow, a fading glimmer?