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Summer in Germany
“I play ‚Lohengrin‘ in shorts and flip-flops.”

The cellist Matthias Schreiber is a guest musician every two years at the Bayreuth Festival
The cellist Matthias Schreiber is a guest musician every two years at the Bayreuth Festival | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner

When his colleagues in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra go on summer break, the cellist Matthias Schreiber will be sitting in the orchestra pit of the Bayreuth Festival. Instead of a holiday, a Wagnerian treat.

Von Ula Brunner

This summer Matthias Schreiber can safely leave his white tie and tails in the closet. Not only because the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig will be taking a six-week break: for almost forty years, the cellist has been a permanent member of what is probably the world’s largest professional orchestra. But also because every two years he, a “dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian”, goes to Bayreuth. While his Leipzig colleagues are on holiday, Schreiber sweats along with around 200 other musicians from all over the world in the Bayreuth orchestra pit. This is located below the stage, and in summer the temperatures there are almost unbearably hot. That’s why a casual clothing etiquette prevails among the musicians. “I play Lohengrin in shorts and flip-flops; I don’t change my clothes. It’s my way of relaxing, so to speak”, says Schreiber.

Actually, he confesses with a small smile, he needs his vacation, even a certain amount of time without music, to clear his head. His everyday life as a musician in Leipzig is determined by rehearsals, performances and tours. Schreiber has been a member of the orchestra since it moved to the Neue Gewandhaus on Augustusplatz in 1981. When the tall man rushes jauntily down the aisles of the concert hall, his instrument strapped loosely on his back, you feel how naturally he is part of the place.

Quick steps through the Gewandhaus Quick steps through the Gewandhaus | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner Matthias Schreiber, born in 1958, grew up in Wernigerode in the Harz and comes from a family which still played music together at home. The oldest brother played the piano, the middle brother the violin, the younger brother the viola, and he chose the cello. He owed his professional career to the repressions of the GDR regime: “I wasn’t allowed to finish high school because my father was a pastor. But I was allowed to study music.” In retrospect, Schreiber adds, this seems to him to have been a happy turn of fortune. His wife is a violinist and two of their four children study music. “I've never forced them, but music is an enrichment of life, and it’s nice to see how a passion is transformed into a profession.”

In the empty concert hall In the empty concert hall | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner He is often on the road with the Gewandhaus Orchestra: “We’re an orchestra that gives many touring concerts all over the world; I’ve been almost everywhere – except for Africa.”

And then Bayreuth! From the beginning of the rehearsal to the last performance, the festival takes ten weeks. That sounds exhausting. Schreiber waves the thought away: “Despite everything, it’s a relaxed atmosphere”. His family often accompanies him; he doesn’t play every day, so there is time for excursions and hiking. He likes to use the one-hour break between acts for a walk in the forest or for a visit to the neighboring Kneipp bath.

Matthias Schreiber has been playing the cello for almost his entire life Matthias Schreiber has been playing the cello for almost his entire life | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner Of course, Schreiber admits, it is important to him to have a “real” family holiday and spend more time together with his family again next year. Especially since family members are no longer allowed to listen to the orchestra rehearsals according to a new festival regulation. But he can’t imagine giving up the Wagner Festival. First of all, he says, it is of course an honor to be invited. The most important thing, however, is the sense of community and the exchange amongst colleagues: “Bayreuth works because everyone goes there voluntarily and is a passionate Wagnerian. It’s a treat to play there.”