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German Classical Music Scene 2017
Visionaries rekindle German opera

Boulez Ensemble & Daniel Barenboim 2017
Boulez Ensemble & Daniel Barenboim 2017 | Photo (detail): © Peter Adamik

In 2017, the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals staged some radical productions by a new generation of young, unconventional directors, including a Meistersinger by Barrie Kosky that hit Wagnerians like a bolt from the blue. Meanwhile, some new concert halls were put to the test, and German opera houses showed solidarity with film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov after his arrest in Moscow.

2017 was a year in which grand visions and dreams came to fruition on several German stages. The two highest-profile music festivals set off towards a new future with plenty of verve and vigour. Markus Hinterhäuser, the new head of the Salzburger Festspiele, organized his first season there. A Salzburger by choice for many years now, Hinterhäuser knows the festival inside and out. Together with Tomas Zierhofer-Kin, he founded and for many years directed the Zeitfluss Festival, an ambitious event closely associated with the Salzburg Festival. He served later as concert master and then as interim director of the Salzburger Festspiele until Alexander Pereira took over in 2012. Above all, however, as the house pianist, director Hinterhäuser is not a managerial type, but an artist who genuinely thinks musically. And it is vital for institutions like the big, opulent festivals, which thrive on their exceptional status and exclusiveness, to be helmed by such artistic visionaries rather than shrewd managers. For their privileged position needs to be not only intelligently administered, but legitimized by presenting truly extraordinary ideas. Hinterhäuser showed creative flair, composing a richly associative concert programme, bringing out thematic lines and astutely combining tradition with novel approaches and new artistic alliances. In his first opera production, he flouted Salzburg’s hallowed customs and, instead of engaging the Vienna Philharmonic as usual, he brought in the musicAeterna Choir and Orchestra, along with their controversial maverick conductor Teodor Currentzis, all the way from Perm, Russia. This premiere of Mozart’s last opera, La clemenza di Tito, was staged by the veteran American director Peter Sellars.

Though its artistic directorship remained unchanged, the Bayreuther Festspiele likewise showed the courage to try something new. Festival director Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, took an important and long overdue step towards coming to grips with the festival’s Nazi past. The Australian Barrie Kosky, chief director and manager of the Komische Oper Berlin, brought a witty staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg to the Bayreuth Festival Theatre that dreams up Wagner’s biography and the genesis of his work, making sparks fly and homing in on Wagner’s infamous anti-Semitism in hard-hitting images. The festival also started up Diskurs Bayreuth, a long-cherished artistic and scholarly project involving symposia and an accompanying programme of music addressing the fraught history of Wagner’s influence. This accomplishment is in no way diminished by its similarity to concepts previously outlined by Nike Wagner (Katharina’s cousin) in her unsuccessful bid to helm the Bayreuth festival in 2001. On the contrary: Katharina Wagner is now at last opening up the festival to ambitious contemporary approaches. The curator is Marie Luise Maintz, project manager  for contemporary music at Bärenreiter Verlag. In 2018 Diskurs Bayreuth is even planning to hold a music theatre premiere at the historical Margravial Opera House. Furthermore, the Villa Wahnfried has put together a small exhibition about Wieland Wagner, Richard Wagner’s grandson and initiator of the “New Bayreuth” after the war. For the centenary of his birth, the Deutsche Oper Berlin organized a two-day symposium on Wieland Wagner, who was closely connected to the Berlin opera as well.

New and remodelled concert halls

Visions also materialized in the long-awaited inauguration of new or revamped venues, with some promising and some slightly disappointing results. The bold towering new edifice of the Elbphilharmonie looks quite spectacular, both outside and inside, but the inaugural concerts were sobering – acoustically as well as compositionally with Jörg Widmann’s Arche oratorio, specially written for the grand opening, which foundered on its own overblown ambitions. More convincing are the fabulously transparent acoustics, likewise designed by grandmaster Yasuhisa Toyota, of Pierre Boulez Hall in Berlin, the “public face of the Barenboim-Said Academy”. With its creative and multi-faceted programme, this venue is rapidly becoming a new hub of the performing arts in the German capital.

The Kulturpalast (Palace of Culture) in Dresden reopened last year with a brand new auditorium. The Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera) was completely overhauled and finally reopened last year too, after seven years of construction fraught with scandals and repeated delays. The discrepancy between the initial estimate of €239 million and the final cost of €400 million has even prompted an investigation by a board of inquiry. So as not to pass up the opportunity to reopen on such a symbolic occasion as German Unity Day, the opera house opened its doors for a week of pomp and pageant, replete with a televised livecast from Bebelplatz – after which it closed again for two months. Shortly before the permanent opening with a gala concert and two premieres on a single weekend, the building contractor handed the building over to the opera company, even though it’s still not quite fully functional. The acoustics have been slightly improved, but the view from a number of seats in the auditorium is still obstructed. In this day and age, one cannot help doubting the wisdom of re-opening an opera house that cost a fortune to renovate if concertgoers can’t even see the stage from some of the seats.

Changing of the guard, newcomers and departures

Robin Ticciati, a 34-year-old British conductor of Italian extraction, is the new principal conductor of the German Symphony Orchestra (DSO) in Berlin. His youthful enthusiasm calls to mind the young Simon Rattle, who was one of his mentors along with Colin Davis. Ticciati has been principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since 2009 and music director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera since 2014, both of which responsibilities he will keep alongside his Berlin engagement.

Ticciati’s charismatic predecessor at the Glyndebourne Festival was 45-year-old Vladimir Jurowski, a scion of a veritable dynasty of Russian musicians. Jurowski, in turn, took the place of long-serving Marek Janowski as principal conductor of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra), whilst retaining his position at the head of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He gave his first concert as RSO Berlin’s principal conductor at last year’s Musikfest Berlin: in association with the International Isang Yun Society, it was largely devoted to the Korean composer, who died in 1995 and would have turned 100 last year. In fusing elements of traditional Korean music with the Western avant-garde, Yun was an important figure in German 20th-century music.

In 2017 Simon Rattle began his final season at the Berlin Philharmonic and his post as the London Symphony Orchestra’s new music director. And Mariss Jansons’ outstanding pupil Andris Nelsons, a Latvian conductor previously tipped to take Rattle’s place at the Berlin Philharmonic, becomes the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester’s new Kapellmeister instead on New Year’s Day 2018.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned eccentric Teodor Currentzis, orchestrating a veritable messianic cult around himself, caused a sensation with his musicAeterna ensemble not only in Perm, Russia, and divided listeners and critics alike with his radically subjective, though masterfully executed, renditions. He is to take over as principal conductor of the new SWR Symphony Orchestra at the start of the 2018/19 season.

The terrifically gifted Israeli-American conductor Yoel Gamzou also got off to a rousing start as the new music director of the Bremen Opera House with a breathtaking production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Though not even 30 years old yet, he showed what city opera can do and promises to provide not only fresh musical impetus, but also exciting new thematic impulses, for example through regular collaboration with theatre director Armin Petras. Gamzou won last year’s ECHO award for “Newcomer of the Year (Conductor)” for his recording of Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony with the International Mahler Orchestra, an ensemble he founded himself.

Another ECHO-winning newcomer last year was French pianist Lucas Debargue. The Siemens Music Prize went to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, an intelligent pianist and fabulous performer of Ligeti with an unflagging commitment to the future of piano music.
 
The music world mourns the loss of violinist, teacher and longstanding Berlin Philharmonic concert master Rainer Kussmaul, an unpretentious master of his instrument with an ever-attentive and inquisitive mind, who died on 27 March at the age of 70. And Wilhelm Killmayer, a pupil of Carl Orff’s and an unconventionally old-fashioned composer who remained an important outsider his whole life long, died on 20 August, the day before his 90th birthday.

High points and a cause célèbre

Memorable moments last year include multi-talent Barbara Hannigan’s sensational aerial and vocal acrobatics as Lulu in Christoph Marthaler’s Hamburg production of Alban Berg’s eponymous opera, and Achim Freyer’s vertiginously suggestive staging of Parsifal, also at the Hamburg State Opera. Both were conducted lucidly as well as sensuously by GMD Kent Nagano, who was also awarded an ECHO. Since the arrival of its new director, George Delnon, the Hamburg State Opera has made its way back to the forefront of the German scene.

Over in Berlin, the Deutsche Oper’s world premiere of Aribert Reimann’s L’invisible will long be remembered too, as will Götz Friedrich’s legendary 33-year-old Ring, set in a so-called “time tunnel”, whose dilapidated scenery was disposed of for good after the cycle’s very last performance in March. The Komische Oper celebrated their 70th anniversary with Barrie Kosky’s compellingly austere production of Fiddler on the Roof (called Anatevka in German), an address by the German Federal President… and a gigantic cake! Hungarian pianist András Schiff enthralled listeners with his oneirically nuanced renditions of Bach, Bartok, Janacek and Schumann.
 
Kirill Serebrennikov, Russian stage and film director and artistic director of the Gogol Center in Moscow, was arrested in August for allegedly embezzling state subsidies, which triggered a chorus of outrage in the international arts scene. The accusations are regarded as a trumped-up pretext to gag a critic of the Kremlin. In solidarity with Serebrennikov, German opera house directors donned “Free Kirill” T-shirts and the Stuttgart Opera premiered his Hänsel und Gretel production in his absence: Serebrennikov is still under house arrest in Moscow.
 
Beethoven 2020, the upcoming celebration of the 250th anniversary of the great composer’s birth, already casts its long shadow before. The innovative Podium Esslingen has already launched an international three-year fellowship project, with €1.5 million in funding from the Federal Cultural Foundation, to giving young musicians an opportunity to develop their own music formats.

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