“Before one can portray something, one must embody it,” Beethoven once said. Beethovenfest director Nike Wagner seems to take the saying seriously. This year’s festival program is all about change.
In musical terminology, the German word “Veränderungen” (changes) has a dual meaning: “variations,” a compositional technique strewn throughout Beethoven’s oeuvre. Works with musical variations are invariably audience favorites, invoking, as they do, the faculty of memory. Music researchers have found that recognizing a familiar tune or motif in altered form flatters the ear and stimulates feelings of happiness and satisfaction.
Music history serves up countless works with theme and variations. A number of them are on the festival program, beginning with “33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli.” On an extra-long “Diabelli Weekend” from September 10-14, Hungarian András Schiff will play this key work by Beethoven on a modern grand piano, with that sound and rendition contrasted in a repeat performance given by Schiff’s Dutch colleague Ronald Brautigam on a historic fortepiano.
The composition was Beethoven’s response to a publisher’s call to composers of the day: that they write variations on a theme by Diabelli. But in true Beethovenian fashion, he devised something on a far greater scale. Lesser known is the fact that 49 other composers heeded the call as well. The complete variations by all 50 are scheduled for the “Diabelli Weekend” – a stretch of endurance thoroughly in the spirit of Beethoven, who liked to test his audiences.
The old and the new
Beginning in 2015, the Beethovenfest is commissioning a new work each year and specifying that it refer back compositionally to one by Beethoven. The old and new pieces will then be paired off in concert, the contemporary one performed twice, giving the ear and the mind a chance to better grasp it.
The project leads up to 2020, when all of the new music will be showcased to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino was awarded the commission for the current season. His work will reference Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.”
Listening itself will be the subject of a symposium on September 5-6 titled “Music/Hearing: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” with composers, artists and researchers from various fields on the panel.
Name dropping permitted
On the strength of its much-acclaimed recording of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, Anima Eterna Brugge was chosen as this year’s Orchestra-in-Residence. The period instrument group will give its historically informed rendition of three Beethoven symphonies along with works by undeservedly lesser-known contemporaries including Franz Berwald from Sweden and George Onslow from France.
Works with theme and variations are scheduled to be performed by top orchestras, including the Berlin Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim on opening day, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra with conductor Philippe Jordan.
Anticipating Nike Wagner’s ambition of inviting all of Germany’s radio symphony orchestras to the fest for the 2020 jubilee, two of them are already on the 2015 playbill: the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by principal conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra Baden Baden and Freiburg, led by Lothar Zagrosek.
Day Two of the festival presents the season’s arguably most famous orchestra: the Israel Philharmonic, led by Zubin Mehta in Mahler’s “Ninth Symphony.”
Chamber music is also generously represented at the overall 54 events, including appearances by the Yaara Tal/Andreas Groethuysen piano duo, cellist Sol Gabetta and – beginning a three-year project with all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s cello sonatas – cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and pianist Alexander Lonquich.
Beyond core repertory
The festival also ventures off the beaten path, for example in an evening with Dutch language artist Jaap Blonk, a genre-bender who stretches the bounds between spoken word and song.
The Beethovenfest will also test interdisciplinary waters this year. When choreographer Stephanie Thiersch joins with the Asasello Quartet, dancers and musicians share the stage as protagonists in a rendition of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” complete with electronic sounds. And – in yet another variation on the “variation” theme – jazz combos, including that of star artist Jan Gabarek, will give their cover versions of works by Beethoven.
In the Beethovenfest’s Student Management Project, high schoolers can test the waters of concert organization. This time they’ll manage the “Caribbean Showdown” with multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger. Seeking to attract young audiences to classical concerts, the festival has its “For 8 at 8” feature, where students can snatch a ticket for eight euros just ahead of the concert.
This year’s orchestral campus – co-sponsored by the Beethovenfest and DW – revolves around Chinese composer Zulan. Her new work, commissioned by DW, references Beethoven and will be performed on a tour of China by the German National Youth Orchestra before being presented to the Bonn audience on September 25.
As main media partner, DW will be reporting on the festival for television, online and radio. Fifteen of the season’s concerts will be recorded for post-production in the radio broadcast Concert Hour. Ten concerts will be available as audio on demand on these pages in the coming weeks.
Other sponsors of the Beethovenfest, which has an annual budget of 1.6 million euros, include the City of Bonn and two of its largest employers, the Deutsche Post (with 8,000 employees in Bonn) and Deutsche Telekom (which employs 20,000 locally).
All in all: outward appearances matter, so the Beethovenfest Bonn has a new logo. Substance is another issue, yet there doesn’t seem to be a chasm between style and substance in the first season shaped by festival director Nike Wagner.