Classical Scene 2016 A musical paradigm shift

Gürzenich-Orchester Cologne
Gürzenich-Orchester Cologne | Photo (detail): © Matthias Baus

Concert halls were completed last year, theatres merged and the digitization process continued apace.

It was a dark year marked by the loss of some leading lights in classical music, as elsewhere in the arts. Avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez, who had begun a second life as an allround conductor and exerted far-reaching influence on the music world as an initiator and organizer at IRCAM, died on 5 January 2016. Two months later, on 5 March, cellist and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the founding fathers of historically informed performance, followed suit. Harnoncourt and Boulez, leading figures of the so-called Early Music movement and of contemporary music, respectively, made their mark on the musical experience and musical thought of several generations in the 20th century. Actually, the fronts of their opposing camps, each of which was resolutely geared towards special musical interests, had already been breaking up for years. But how profoundly this shift in musical values has affected the current-day music scene and the theory and practice of classical music did not become clear until 2016 in the wake of the loss of these two great mentors.

Paradigm shift

So it is justified in many respects to call this not just a generation change, but a veritable paradigm shift. Terms like “musical progress” and “experimentation” now carry negative connotations in the ears of intuitive young musicians and improvisers, who, like the practitioners of what’s known as “Echtzeitmusik”, emphatically set themselves apart from the old avant-garde. Which, in turn, prompted the Vienna Klangforum to provocatively announce their Festliche Tage Alter music (“Festive Days of Early Music”), where “old” means composers like Luigi Nono, Olivier Messiaen, Henri Pousseur et. al. It already goes without saying that the parameters of Klangrede (“tonal speech”), phrasing and Farbvaleur (“colour value”) developed by historically informed performance have now become the lingua franca of even traditional big symphony orchestras. In Cologne the Gürzenich orchestra’s new conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth, combined the best of both camps in his brilliant first season in 2016: most recently he was running the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Germany’s last public “premiere-performing orchestra”; in parallel, Roth still serves as music director of his Les Siècles ensemble, which performs on period instruments.

Woman power

The world of German classical music underwent other changes as well last year. Old fronts and habits and apparent certainties went by the board, including well-cultivated preconceptions, like this one: conducting is a man’s job and the handful of prominent female conductors would be well advised to act decidedly manly. When it transpired on 5 February 2016 that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (29) was appointed to succeed Andris Nelsons as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, concert organizers and festivals, including the Lucerne Festival and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, suddenly put the old feminist issue of “women and music” back on the agenda. In June 2016, Erfurt renewed the contract of its music director Joanna Mallwitz (29). Conductor Alondra de la Parra (36), the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s music director, took charge of the National Youth Orchestra of Germany for its performances at summer festivals in 2016.  


Another thing hardly anyone thought could happen so soon: in early November 2016, YouTube relented in its legal dispute with the German collecting society GEMA and declared its willingness to pay “voluntary royalties”, even retroactively. This is not only the first time the artistic author appears as a service provider on the web. The technological reproducibility of music is also entering into a new era as a result. By the end of 2016, the growth rate of streaming services and download shops in Germany was approaching the fifty per cent mark. Conversely, sound carriers like CDs are down for the count. People under thirty stream. Mostly pop music, according to the music industry’s statistics, but the trend among classical music listeners is steadily veering in the same direction. 

Concert halls

And, surprise: Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is completed! After 16 years of construction, the new edifice was handed over to the City of Hamburg on 31 October 2016. Cost: €866 million. And on 4 November the Elbphilharmonie Plaza, a 37-m high observation deck, was opened to the general public – who are advised to take public transport: the underground car park, which, unlike the rest of the project, is somewhat too sparingly planned, has 422 parking places, enough for only about a quarter of the 2100 concertgoers at any given time. Just before that, the City of Bochum had showed an even slightly more public approach. Within walking distance of Bochum’s city hall and main station, the Anneliese Brost Musikzentrum Ruhr, built by architects Bez & Kock, was inaugurated in late October to serve as the new home for the city’s symphonic orchestra. The heart of this new music centre is an auditorium that seats 960, rounded off by a chamber music hall. The secularized neo-Gothic Marienkirche in front serves as a foyer. Construction took four years and cost €41.3 million. Ticket sales also began in October for the new Kulturpalast (1800 seats) in Dresden, whilst another venue in Berlin was completed on schedule: Pierre Boulez Hall of the Barenboim-Said Academy in the midtown Mitte district. Designed by Frank Gehry, 622 seats. Curious detail: this private music school is subject to Berlin’s Higher Education Act, but its construction and operation are cofunded out of the budget of the State Ministry of Education and the Arts under Monika Grütters.


This concert hall construction boom, culminating in 2016, debunks what some local politicians still regard as a foregone conclusion: that classical music, according to the argument for budget cuts, is a luxury good chiefly for the benefit of an older, well-heeled segment of the population. In 2016 Mecklenburg-West Pomerania made further cutbacks in basic cultural services and went ahead with further mergers of public theatres. In November, Dresden’s Socialist and Green Party-dominated city council reduced the budget for the Dresden philharmonic hall by €250,000 that had already been allocated for productions in the new auditorium – and then reversed its decision in December. Cultural policy in Dresden proved ham-fisted elsewhere as well. On 27 August 2016 the regional court of appeal upheld the lower court’s ruling that Serge Dorny, general director of the Semper Opera, was unfairly sacked in 2014. Now he is entitled to back pay, severance pay and damages.

Awards, personnel changes

Last year’s Ernst von Siemens Music Prize was awarded to Danish composer Per Nørgård, the Heidelberg prize went to Munich baritone Christian Gerhaher, and the 2016 German record critics’ Nachtigall (Nightingale) prize was conferred on Nikolaus Harnoncourt posthumously. The best personnel decisions in 2016: Andrea Zietzschmann was appointed general director of the Berlin Philharmonic. So she’s leaving the NDR Orchestra, which changed its name in February 2016 to the “Elbphilharmonie” Orchestra, even though it’s still a public radio ensemble and has to rent the new auditorium just like other orchestras. Jakub Hrůsa took office on 20 September as chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphonic Orchestra. Cornelius Meister became Stuttgart Opera’s new general music director alongside Viktor Schoner as its general manager. The most controversial personnel picks: Sasha Waltz is to helm the Berlin State Ballet, Bogdan Roščic the Vienna State Opera as its new general manager, and Jaap van Zweden has been tapped to serve as the New York Philharmonic’s new music director. Meanwhile, Lionel Bringuier is leaving the Tonhalle Orchestra after only four seasons.
As for the four great composers commemorated last year, Max Reger, Erik Satie, Steve Reich and Ferruccio Busoni, unfortunately they remained in 2016, as in the past, extremely underrepresented in concerts, and only tepid attempts were made to break away from their lopsided reception as an excessive, a funnyman, a drummer and an epigone, respectively.

What we’ll remember

The all-too-early death of the great heroic tenor Johan Botha on 8 September. Parsifal conductor Andris Nelsons’ last-minute cancellation in Bayreuth on 30 June. The subsequent triumph there of stand-ins and Bayreuth newcomers Hartmut Haenchen (Parsifal) and Marek Janowski (Ring). The merged SWR Symphony Orchestra’s expectably lacklustre first concert on 31 October in Stuttgart. And last, but not least: Angela Gheorgiu’s worldwide acclaimed because belated entrance in Act 3 of Tosca at the Vienna State Opera on 16 April, whilst her waiting partner, Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi, stalled for time, to the delight of over 80,000 YouTube viewers, with the extemporized cantilena: “Ahhh, non abbiam‘ il soprano!”