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“A Classical Experience”

The first Berliner Philharmoniker Easter Festival in Baden-Baden

by Alexander Dick

Great events are often preceded by a legend, such as that of their creation. In Salzburg, the legend is closely associated with the name of the great theatre director Max Reinhardt who arrived on the scene in 1917, towards the end of World War I, and played with the idea of a new theatre “away from the bustle of big cities”. And of course, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who, in all its symbolism, saw the town on the Austrian-Bavarian as the ideal setting for a spiritual renewal after the devastating war. The result is well known.

What happened in Baden-Baden, when the idea arose of a new Easter Festival of its own with the Berliner Philharmoniker at its heart right from the beginning in 2013? Was there also a decisive impulse, a spark that ignited a spiritual firework? Perhaps a walk on the world famous Lichtentaler Allee, one of the most beautiful promenades in the world, where the 19th century aristocracy strolled and chatted in the shade of its mighty oaks? Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser smiles and shakes his head. The birth of the new Easter Festival occurred elsewhere: about 800 kilometres south, in Aix-en-Provence, and some 700 kilometres north-east, in Berlin. To be more precise, in the room of the chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. It was about seven years ago, says the director of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, when Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker were beginning their Ring in Aix-en-Provence. He and Simon Rattle were thinking of a full performance of the cycle following the four individual performance in Aix – in Baden-Baden in 2010. After all, it would be a waste for Wagner’s tetralogy to be performed only in its individual parts. As we now know, it never happened, “But somehow,” says Mölich-Zebhauser, “that was the starting point for our idea of joint opera projects.”

Erlebniswelt Klassik

The historic centre of Baden-Baden

Now the premiere on 23 March 2013 is almost upon us. The opening work will not be Wagner’s Parsifal as originally planned – the ideal work in the context of the Holy Week – but a no less perfect and perhaps the only historical counterpart to the “Bühnenweihfestspiel”, the sacred festival drama, in terms of its esoteric dimensions: Mozart’s Magic Flute. The respect, even reverence, is palpable when Simon Rattle talks about this work. He says the opera is a dialogue with God, and asks questions such as “Is there a heaven? Am I part of it?” Rattle emphasizes the “worldly spirituality” which is reflected in the music of Mozart and in Emanuel Schikaneder’s text and which encompasses a wide range of styles, from Viennese popular theatre with its simple comic characters to oratorio. The perfect environment for a magician of visual language such as Robert Carsen. With stars such as Simone Kermes, Anna Fleischer, Kate Royal, Michael Nagy, José van Dam and Magdalena Kožená in this Magic Flute, the Canadian director will deepen our thinking about this masterpiece with a new production. So much we already know: The – as we would say today – sensationalist tendencies in Schikaneder’s libretto will certainly not be ignored. But something different, higher, will dominate the production concept: The question of the meaning of life in all its finiteness.

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Chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle and Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, director of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Photo: Jochen Klenk)

“... each beginning bears a special magic that nurtures living and bestows protection,” says Hermann Hesse in his poem Stufen. Magic – Magic Flute: The symbolism of this new departure of the Berliner Philharmoniker in Baden-Baden is evident: The change of location from the river Salzach to the Oos is of course more than just a change of venue for the flagship orchestra. It is also a reorientation of its coordinates. And not only in the sense of a far greater flexibility in producing musical theatre – from the more adaptable rehearsal conditions to the greater number of performances and possible co-productions. In particular, it is the sense of an assertive redefinition of the organism of the orchestra that goes far beyond the traditional image of orchestras that has existed since the 19th century of demigods in tails. Consequently, although opera and symphony concerts form two traditional pillars of the new festival, they are by far not the only ones. Not only will the audience come to the musicians, but also vice versa: they will go to the people. For example, with a huge music festival in the Festspielhaus, where numerous top ensembles from the ranks of the Philharmoniker will perform, readily switching between styles and periods. Then there are the Master Concerts which will be held in a variety of – often historic – locations in Baden-Baden, where the members of the orchestra can indulge their great love of chamber music. Then there is also the outreach work which has gained in importance in recent years in the world of classical music – and will continue to do so, something on which Sir Simon and Andrew Mölich-Zebhauser are in complete agreement. “Our job is to give as many people as possible the opportunity to experience classical music,” says Rattle. And Mölich-Zebhauser supports him in this: “Young people are the future. Our youth work will certainly not become any less in the coming years.” Not surprisingly, parallel to the full-scale version, there is also a “Magic Flute for children” with students from music colleges in Baden-Württemberg and members of the Philharmoniker.

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In front of the Theater Baden-Baden: Sir Simon Rattle, Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser and Martin Hoffmann, general manager of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation (Photo: Jochen Klenk)

Clearly, planning for the Easter festival extends far beyond 2013. Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (2014), Strauss’s Rosenkavalier (2015) and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (2016) will form the backbone of the festivals in the next three years. However, the 2013 festival is still in the future, and roots still have to be set down in the new venue which, despite its fame, has always stood in the shadow of glamorous Salzburg. Not least in this respect, a look at the history of the spa town with its 55,000 souls on the western edge of the northern Black Forest shows that it has no reason to put itself down. Not only because traces of the first human settlement go back to the Mesolithic age, or because it was a place of paramount importance to history of the Margraviate of Baden. But because, given the importance of its thermal springs – which the Romans took advantage of – , the spa industry also developed a pronounced cultural following, especially in the 19th century, when Baden-Baden grew into a European centre of distinction. “I spent many happy hours there and wrote some pretty music, sad and funny – which had no effect on the happiness of the hours,” wrote Johannes Brahms, himself a regular guest in the spa town on the Oos, to a friend in 1878. Many others in his field did the same – both before and after. From Hector Berlioz, who organised summer festivals in Baden-Baden for many years, to Pauline Viardot, whose salon opera Cendrillon is given a rare production at the Easter Festival, to Valery Gergiev, for whom Baden-Baden has become a “new summer residence”.

The reason for this is the Festspielhaus, built in 1998. Its early years however denote a dark period in the town’s history, as after only a few months’ operation, the institution found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. The turning point was the switch to privately financed opera and concerts – and shows the hand of Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser. This experienced cultural manager is perhaps the best example that the virtues of the good old 19th century impresario – entrepreneurial spirit combined with a knowledge and love of music – occasionally still survive. By establishing a cultural foundation and numerous sponsors and patrons, he managed to make the Festspielhalle independent of public subsidies – thus making it the most attractive classical venue in the south west of Germany.

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Auditorium of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Photo: Jochen Klenk)

This is the fertile soil that awaits the Berliner Philharmoniker in Baden-Baden – not least because of the potential offered by the Festspielhaus as the main venue of the Easter Festival: with 2500 seats and a huge stage with a 21.5-metre-wide proscenium arch, it provides optimal conditions. And an acoustic – something the critics agree on – which allows the great symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries to be heard at its best. The three symphony concert programmes of the Philharmoniker can be seen in that light, to provide a magnificent framework for the orchestra’s sound, from Wagner, Brahms and Bruckner to Debussy and Ravel. Of course, Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (the Resurrection Symphony) deserves a special place in this context. Firstly, its gigantic forces of 120 musicians, chorus and two vocal soloists (sung in Baden-Baden by Kate Royal and Magdalena Kožená) demand extreme dimensions. Secondly, its syncretic stance – combining art and philosophy – sets something of an example for the Easter Festival. And finally because it was the Berliner Philharmoniker itself, who gave the work its first performance in its five-movement form in 1895.

Talented performers, magnificent music and a glorious location: All the ingredients for a successful festival – but success is not guaranteed. What makes the organisers so certain that it will work in the south west of Germany with an orchestra from Berlin – and then still at affordable festival prices? The answer is as simple as it is complex: The mix. “You must not offer people a dish that is indigestible,” says Simon Rattle, adding “It should be a good menu.” And Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser again points to the framework: Everyone will pull together, and the city of Baden-Baden in the early springtime can show its best side. Moreover, the “super brand Berliner Philharmoniker” can, for the first time, show all its facets in one place in festival garb. And not just in quantity, but also in terms of quality. And then the director predicts: “I’m sure we can offer a classical experience that has never been seen before.” Material for new legends abound.

The author is a music journalist, and writes for publications such as Opernwelt and is editor of the culture section and magazine of the Badische Zeitung in Freiburg

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