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Classical Scene 2019
The Next Instalment in the Twilight of the Old Boys

General Music Director Joana Mallwitz on tour
General Music Director Joana Mallwitz on tour | Photo (detail): © Ludwig Olah / Staatstheater Nürnberg

The German classical music scene is still preoccupied with #MeToo and what to do about dirty old men. And grappling with badly needed renovations.

By Egbert Tholl

It’s strange how serious problems don’t just go away. The issues preoccupying the classical music scene this past year were basically the same as in previous years, which goes to show that certain social evils, especially sexual harassment and assault, can’t be stamped out just like that. In 2018, James Levine (at the Met), Daniele Gatti (Amsterdam) and Gustav Kuhn (Tiroler Festspiele Erl) resigned from their posts under accusations of harassment and abuse. It was Placido Domingo’s turn in 2019. To be sure, he denies all the allegations, and this is clearly one area in which it’s hard to establish the objective truth. Domingo was ostentatiously lionized by audiences at the Salzburger Sommerfestspiele and, later in the year, at the Elbphilharmonie. And Salzburg wants him back in 2020. But he has given up directing the Los Angeles opera and announced that he won’t be appearing at the New York Metropolitan Opera anymore either.
But even when the truth comes out clearly, not everyone can cope with it. Last October, the German Federal Court of Justice upheld the conviction of pianist Siegfried Mauser, ex-president of Munich’s University of Music and Performing Arts (Hochschule für Musik und Theater) and, after his stint in Munich, rector of the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. Mauser was sentenced to a prison term of two years and nine months for sexual harassment and rape, making him probably the first prominent figure in the classical music scene to be convicted of such crimes. His previous trials elicited some truly bizarre remarks from members of the Bavarian Academy of Arts, whose music department Mauser had directed for 14 years. Shortly after the verdict, a festschrift was published for Mauser's 65th birthday, whose foreword seems to add insult to injury, including euphemisms like Mauser's "world-embracing Eros". This ultimately just goes to show that some of the old boys at the academy failed to understand that one of their own had just been convicted as a sex offender.
This mind-set persists with remarkable tenacity in spite of #MeToo. It’s only a matter of time before the next cases come to light. Daniel Barenboim was also confronted with allegations of impropriety in 2019. And if you read German singer and stage director Brigitte Fassbaender’s autobiography, which came out this year for her 80th birthday, you get the impression that sexual harassment and abuse of women has been endemic to the music scene for several decades at the very least.

Finally: a woman "Conductor of the Year"

So it’s a pleasure to hear that this year a woman was voted "Conductor of the Year" in a survey conducted by Opernwelt magazine. Joanna Mallwitz is currently general musical director at the Nuremberg Staatstheater. She conducts at the Frankfurt Opera as well, to be followed next year by stints at the rostrum for the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra. With her riveting conducting style, she took the Nuremberg State Philharmonic Orchestra to whole new levels of engagement and precision in no time at all. For a long time, the only big name among female conductors was Simone Young, whose worldwide career continues unabated. But now we’ve got Mallwitz, Oksana Lyniv, Julia Jonas in Wuppertal, Anna Skryleva in Magdeburg and Ariane Matiakh in Halle. Women now run opera houses and orchestras, and that’s finally becoming a matter of course. Or rather, female conductors are no longer shrouded in an aura of pure exoticism. A look at the overall ratio, however, suffices to show that the situation is still lousy.
© Staatstheater Nürnberg

Incidentally, Munich’s University of Music and Performing Arts has set up a complaints office. The institution itself by and large assumes that Mauser's sexual offences were not systemic, but committed solely by him in an individual capacity. That’s one way of seeing it.

Cultural edifices crumbling all over Germany

But they’ve got other worries in Munich. The university’s main building, known as the "Führer Building" from the Nazi era, is as run-down as many other opera houses and concert halls in Germany. The Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Nuremberg opera houses need an overhaul, which, all told, is going to cost billions. The renovation of the Augsburg opera house has now at least commenced. Over in Cologne they’ve been staging operas in a convention hall for years, though that actually doesn’t detract from the artistic results and even seems to have opened up Procrustean patterns of opera attendance, since the threshold for entering a convention hall is literally much lower than for an opera house. You don't need to wear an evening gown, not even to the premiere.
There’s a reason why almost all the renovation projects are so costly: for far too long, no money was invested in preserving the buildings. All of them were built or repaired during the post-war period – with one exception: Munich. The Kulturzentrum am Gasteig and the philharmonic hall inside it opened in the 1980s. It has been common knowledge for years now that the facilities are badly in need of a general overhaul, and the acoustics of the unloved Philharmonie could finally be upgraded while they’re at it. The aggregate expense would come to roughly half a billion, including the cost of a temporary home for the concert hall, adult education centre and city library. The project planning is proceeding at a snail’s pace, but hardly a soul now questions the need, and makeshift quarters are already in the works. In Stuttgart, the powers that be are considering giving the city’s residents a say in the astronomically expensive makeover of their opera house.

It’s settled: Munich is to have a new concert hall. Mariss Jansons, who fought for it, is dead.

Getting back to Munich, the city has decided to build a concert hall for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a world-class, but homeless, ensemble. But this project is progressing at a snail’s pace too, and it’ll take at least another six years to complete. From day one of his tenure, Mariss Jansons, who took charge of the BR Symphony Orchestra back in 2003, campaigned tirelessly for a new symphony hall. It would never have materialized had it not been for his unflagging tenacity. Jansons died on 30 November 2019 at the age of 76. A man of peerless empathy and integrity, he was the kindest conductor in the world. His love of music and for making music and for his musicians knew no bounds. Nor would it heed the voice of reason: ever since a massive heart attack in 1996, he knew he had to take it easy. But he didn't. With his passing, the world has lost not only a radiant artist, but a paragon of human decency.
And even if his own concert programmes didn’t exactly break new repertory ground, Jansons understood a lot about the future. The new hall is going to be built in a Munich neighbourhood full of creative young people on the go, with a new shop or bar or something else opening every week. Jansons was delighted about this particular setting because he was confident that it would mix, rejuvenate and expand the concertgoing audience. The area is comparable to that of the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich, a three-year home for Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra till the historic Tonhalle has been refurbished: it’s a hip, young, lively post-industrial neighbourhood. Temporary accommodation is fraught with hassles, to be sure, but it’s a great opportunity, too. And in Munich it’s going to be standard practice in the years to come.
And venues are sorely needed. Things aren’t any easier for independent, experimental New Music in Munich than elsewhere – in fact probably harder than in Berlin (which has its Radialsystem Space for Arts and Ideas). Every attempt to establish an independent ensemble has failed. Munich has no Ensemble Modern, but it could. Munich’s Kammerorchester (Chamber Orchestra) does the job to a certain extent. For the rest, New Music enthusiasts are invariably referred to Bavarian Radio’s Musica-viva series and the Music Theatre Biennale. Despite its sorry state of repair, Schwere Reiter is still the best venue for New Music thanks to its outstanding acoustics, and the city often puts a travelling circus on its doorstep, which rounds out the contemporary music experienced inside with plenty of boisterous dingdong outside.

Excitement about Idomeneo in Salzburg

That aside, the most exciting main attraction this past year was, once again, Teodor Currentzis. At Salzburg’s Sommerfestspiele he took on Mozart's Idomeneo. Together with director Peter Sellars, he got rid of almost all the recitativo secco as well as Idamante’s sacrifice aria, while adding other music by Mozart. Sellars brought in two dancers, a man and woman from the South Pacific and Hawaii, respectively, islands already experiencing the effects of climate change and rising sea levels, to perform after the end of the opera’s story. Not only that, but Sellars also filled the stage with plastic trash. Even in the run-up to the premiere, after Sellars told interviewers he planned to tamper with the score, conservative opera buffs were already outraged. That was not on, they said. Sellars retorted that we are suffering from a "masterpiece complex". Alas, how true, how true. The show itself then caused even more of a commotion. People who spend a couple hundred on an opera ticket clearly don't wish to be bothered with reality, pollution and climate catastrophe.
What a stupid, smug, narrow-minded conception of art! Which, fortunately, is not ubiquitous: at the Ruhrtriennale, for instance, Kornel Mundruczo transformed György Ligeti's Requiem into a fantastic, utopian and, above all, nightmarish triptych, for which he received reverential praise. In this staging, Ligeti's music is initially played straight, unadulterated, and then varied over the course of three scenes, or sound-pictures, like a winged altarpiece. One is stunned by its sheer courage, as well as the uncanny impression that Ligeti composed his profoundly humanist and ecumenical requiem with Mundruczo’s future production in mind. Scene 1 of Evolution, as this production is called, is set in a gas chamber. Three men from a cleaning crew find a baby still alive under a mountain of hair – the scene is suffocating. In Scene 2, the babe who just narrowly survived the Shoah has become an old woman, sitting in her kitchen as her daughter tries in vain to persuade her to accept reparation payments and a tribute to survivors: but she still lives in the past, in the hopeless eternal present of the Holocaust. Scene 3 shows young people entering a tunnel of light in a closing apotheosis. Ligeti's music, recorded beforehand by Steven Sloane and the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, is now played in an electronic version on tape. Begging for mercy has become a ray of hope for humanity. Maybe there is a future after all – and most certainly for music theatre if it is capable of generating such deeply expressive power.