Classical Scene 2011 A brave new concert world?

Between concert hall debates and Liszt’s bicentenary, small-town festivals that pricked up ears and some personnel changes, the German concert world was on the go last year. Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich on classical drifts and developments in 2011.

Sommerliche Musiktage Hitzacker, „Labor-Orchester“, begehbares Orchester mit Publikum; Sommerliche Musiktage Hitzacker, „Labor-Orchester“, begehbares Orchester mit Publikum; | Foto: © Kay-Christian Heine The 2011 music year in Germany ended on a surprising note in Hamburg. Unfortunately, not on a festive note in a sumptuously inaugurated Elbphilharmonie, the Hamburg concert hall whose completion had been promised by the end of the year.

This prestige project launched back in 2003 by then mayor Ole von Beust is turning out to be more and more of a political can of worms, if not an outright scandal. But the people of Hamburg are hardly inclined to see it that way. In fact they're amazingly gung-ho about the project, especially seeing as the site, which (if ever completed) is to resemble a monumental ship's bow, is already, in its unfinished condition, rated a tourist attraction. Only sporadic sightings of building activity have been made there this year to date. There were reports at the end of 2011 that instead of costing €77 million as initially envisaged, current estimates have soared to €323 million, even half a billion according to some. And the venue isn't likely to be up and running till 2014 or 2015. It is not inconceivable that the construction of Munich's concert hall in the middle of the Isar River, now looking a more and more likely prospect, will overtake the painfully protracted completion of Hamburg's temple of the Muses.

On the other hand, the Hanseatic City did draw an interesting new chief conductor into its fold in 2011: at the NDR-Sinfonieorchester, traditionally one of Germany's leading orchestras, the baton passed last year to Thomas Hengelbrock, originally a specialist in Early Music, but latterly an all-round man like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and a widely acclaimed Tannhäuser conductor in Bayreuth.

Musikland Deutschland: still hot after all these years

Though some balk at this vision of a "brave new concert world" in Germany, aspiring musicians from abroad, especially from the Far East, see nothing to be sarcastic about here. And that trend continued unbroken in 2011. After the Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, more and more Chinese music students (who will later be musical jobseekers here) are now thronging the German music schools, which still boast an excellent worldwide reputation for solid training. At certain conservatoires, foreigners dominate the student body to such an extent, in terms of numbers and accomplishment, that some regard the situation as cause for concern.

Be that as it may, there is something intensely reinvigorating about the internationalization of music training and performance in Germany. The influx of keen competition has long since significantly raised technical standards of musical execution. 80 years ago, only one, maybe two, top-notch orchestras could be counted to do a good performance of, say, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Nowadays, student orchestras from Mannheim or Freiburg tour with this piece. The Koblenz city orchestra in 2011 (it did after all put out respectable recordings of the four Brahms symphonies last year) doesn't sound quite like the Berlin Philharmonic 50 years ago, but easily as good as, say, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra back then.

Small-town festivals

Germany's music industry, heir to the country's past regionalism, still remains far more decentralized than, say, its French counterpart. That goes not only for the consistently vibrant music scene in such different cities as Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, Stuttgart and Freiburg, each of which is impressive in its own right, but also for music festivals in the so-called provinces.

A glance at the small-town scene in 2011 will suffice to prove the point: last year's summer music festival at Herrenchiemsee Palace in Upper Bavaria, associated with romantic festivities held in Bavarian King Ludwig II's element and with the charismatic personality of conductor/choral singing teacher Enoch zu Guttenberg, presented a restaging of a spectacularly "progressive" and self-reflexive semi-concertante version of The Magic Flute.

The autumnal Alpen-Klassik festival in Bad Reichenhall last year, programmed by Klaus Lauer, was more about making ingenious thematic connections between modern and older music.

At the 2011 edition of the Sommerliche Musiktage chamber music festival in the little town of Hitzacker on the river Elbe, Markus Fein, with his penchant for unusual programme formats, wrapped up his final season before joining the Berlin Philharmonic as music dramaturg.

The Heidelberger Frühling ("Heidelberg Spring") launched its new, ambitious Lieder Academy, which goes to show that this genre, every so often written off as dead and gone, is still very much alive and thriving. And the 2011 Kasseler Musiktage, under the artistic direction of Dieter Rexroth, confronted personages of the present with one of the great musical innovators of the 19th century, Franz Liszt, whose bicentenary was celebrated last year.

Outstanding musical jubilarian Franz Liszt

Liszt had the good fortune of taking pride of place amongst last year's jubilees, none of whom could upstage his greater claim to fame: neither the stuffy North German master organist Georg Böhm (born 1661), nor the pre-Classical Viennese composer Ignaz Holzbauer and his coeval composer Ferdinand Hiller (both born 1711), nor Heinrich Marschner (died 1861) either. The centenary of Gustav Mahler's death amounted to little more than an echo of the previous year's celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of his birth, and was hardly necessary anyway given this symphonic composer's tremendous abiding presence in our day. Liszt, on the other hand, could definitely do with a revival: nearly all of his orchestral works, which exemplify the "programme music" genre with such panache, and the bulk of his brilliant and scintillating piano works stood far too long in the half-shadow of others and deserved to be rediscovered. So event organizers and the recording industry really splashed it out. The most riveting discographic Lisztiades of 2011 included recordings of the Symphonic Poems – structurally clear-cut and devoid of any rumbling and booming – by the Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck.

Besides all those anniversaries, the composer Hans-Werner Henze turned 85 in 2011. His coeval Hans Zender is likewise unabatedly active as a composer, as well as being one of the most illustrious conductors of his generation.

Notable obituaries in 2011 included Brazilian pianist Roberto Szidon, who often performed in Germany; opera and concert singer Sena Jurinac; oratorio singer Robert Tear; conductors Yakov Kreizberg and Klauspeter Seibel; Swedish pianist Hans Leygraf, who made a name for himself in Germany primarily as a piano teacher; musicologist Alfred Dürr; and music critic Friedrich Hommel.

Small labels make it big

If you look at corporate sales figures and publishing policies, the classical sector's showing last year looks rather bleak indeed. Classical fans can console themselves in the thought that, at stagnating levels of around 5% of total turnover, so-called "serious" music can't compare to "light" or "popular" music in terms of sales, which is why decisionmakers take so little interest in the sector. What is indeed perceptible at the multinationals, however, is the dire shortage of "classical" manpower and the desperate clinging to old and long-obsolete recipes – such as pushing purportedly profitable star artists and launching dubious crossover programmes.

Meanwhile, small labels are showing what a dynamic musical culture still has to offer in spite of the booming information and distribution capabilities on the Internet. Firms like Tacet, ECM and cpo are basically one-man operations, sustained by the musical enthusiasm and editorial competence of individuals who also act as adept business strategists.

Burkhard Schmilgun (cpo), for example, manages to defray costs by pooling forces with concert organizers and radio stations. And Manfred Eicher (ECM), who started out in free jazz and later extended his repertoire deep into the "classical" domain, has attained considerable international standing from his base in Munich. A fairly large clientele got positively "hooked" on his editorially unmistakable lovingly designed products (which some entertainment groups promptly tried to imitate).
One of the most beautiful ECM releases of 2011 is a Schubert CD featuring violinist Carolin Widmann and pianist Alexander Lonquich. Alongside a great many other musical rarities last year, cpo put out the very first recordings of Ernst Krenek's 4th Symphony and the symphonies of the amiable and all but forgotten opera composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.

Two different German record prizes reflect the prevailing differences in current practice in the recording industry.

The Echo Prize awarded by the big entertainment groups themselves (or rather the Phono Academy, a non-profit fig-leaf association set up by the industry to promote musical talent and award prizes) was for a long time the better known of the two.

But it has since been outstripped by the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (German Record Critics' Award), decided by an independent panel of 150 German-language music critics. In 2011 this award (presided over by music critic Eleonore Büning) got greater public exposure than the Echo Prize, and so did the Quartett der Kritiker, a radio show in which four critics from that panel discuss music recordings. The work of all these selection committees and established music institutions in general will soon be reconfigured by the use of new media in an increasingly digitized world.