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Beethovenfest

Nike Wagner: After 'Revolutions,' next Beethovenfest to celebrate 'Love'

The Beethovenfest director Nike Wagner casts a look back at a season of "Revolutions" - and a look into the near and mid-term future, with the "Distant Beloved" paving the way to "Beethoven 2020."

Deutsche Welle: How do you feel now at the end of this year's festival?

Nike Wagner: Invigorated and enjoying it: concerts every evening for four weeks, countless public appearances - it's like a big sports event.

Are you satisfied with the way the "Revolutions" motto worked out?  

I was a bit hesitant at first to use that theme in a city like Bonn, where musical tastes tend towards the conservative. But then I was astonished at how willing the audiences were to absorb works of music they'd never heard before. Prokofiev's grand cantata on the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution was a big success - and you may never hear it again. The public also applauded Méhul's Mass on the Coronation of Napoleon. Altogether, I was pleased at how the motto played out. 

Beethovenfest Bonn - Ural Philharmonisches Orchester (Beethovenfest/Barbara Frohmann)

A big sound from the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Dmitri Liss

Is there something this year you're particularly proud of?

I'm actually proud of the little things - such as the "Day of Bagatelles" with Siegfried Mauser, a prominent musician and musicologist - explaining and performing Beethoven's Bagatelles and those of other composers, showing that these pieces are anything but trifles and demonstrating once again that Beethoven is simply better than most. Another thing was a sound installation on the grounds of Poppelsdorf Palace in Bonn, with an inflatable "pianodrom," a transparent cone with a grand piano and a pianist inside. For three days, this was my favorite: they'd perform for people walking by or sitting on cushions. Rearranging the artist and the viewers/listeners changed the sound experience. People loved it.

Nike Wagner, director of the Beethovenfest Bonn (DW/T. Schmidt)

Nike Wagner in interview with DW's Rick Fulker

The theme of "Revolutions" can be pursued in ways either obvious or subtle - beginning with Beethoven himself, whose life's story has to do with a personal sense of liberation…  

Yes, Beethoven was always a revolutionary spirit. We can see it in his music: giving fresh energy to traditional musical forms, pushing nearly every genre to the limit. If you transfer this progressive spirit to his political thinking, you find similar patterns. He was a consistent advocate of freedom and human rights. And freedom is a concept understood everywhere, so Beethoven is very pertinent whenever human rights are abused today. He was also strengthened by his own personal concept of resistance - that of "through darkness to the light." When he realized that he was growing deaf, he didn't give up... 

This year's program cast a spotlight on two historical events, the French and Russian revolutions. Looking at how they turned out - or in fact, even a modern revolution such as the Arab Spring -: are you personally optimistic or pessimistic on the role of revolutions in human history?

We explored the issue in panel discussions with historians and learned that a revolution is always future-oriented - unlike a revolt, which is a reaction to a prevailing condition. A revolution is untamable and has a new order as its goal. But revolutions are followed by a phase of stabilization - as in restoration or dictatorship. One thing is clear though: after a revolution, the world is a different place, even if there are temporary backlashes. 

Lucinda Childs Dance Company (Sally Cohn)

This director likes to include dance in her festival, such as a guest appearance by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company

This year's festival opened with a Czech orchestra and ended with one from England. We also heard one Russian and two French orchestras. But Germany has many superb orchestras of its own. Why do you feature so many from outside the country?

With this year's focus on French and Russian history, it was logical to invite orchestras from those two countries. But each year I commission a new work by a European composer, and it's premiered by a German broadcasting orchestra. Nonetheless, if a festival is called "international," it has to serve up major orchestras from outside the country to an audience that comes mostly from the region. We'll open the 2017 season with Russia's Mariinski Orchestra.

Do I notice a slight shift towards chamber music at the Beethovenfest?

Beethoven wrote more than just the nine symphonies! In quantitative terms, there's much more chamber music from his pen, and we want to hear chamber works by other composers too.

And actually, chamber music has more intense content.

It's different, in any case, more intimate than the broad-based symphonic form. True music lovers are usually friends of chamber music!  

What awaits us in the years to come?

Beethovenfest Bonn 2016 Mottomotiv Revolutionen

Next year's theme with be less combative

Next year, after this heavy "Revolutions" theme, we'll proceed to something lighter: "The Distant Beloved." It's based on Beethoven's biography - and is a reference to a song cycle by him. I think it's nice to follow Revolutions with Love, don't you? But of course, we're also leading up to 2020, the big Beethoven anniversary year. 

Yes, Germany's president even designated Beethoven a "national assignment," targeting the 250th birthday. I can't think of many other countries where a composer would be declared a national priority! Is the government also weighing in on the preparations?

The government is making funds available for this "national assignment." Bonn will certainly be prioritized when it comes to distributing those funds, but other cities will also be looking for support for their own Beethoven projects. We'll know more in mid-November after the parliament's Budget Committee meeting. 

So you don't have bureaucrats in government ministries telling you what to do?

I hope there will be only minor amounts of that. But bringing it to the level of the state and local governments, other cities and institutions in the region will also be submitting project proposals - and I don't know how funds will be apportioned locally. Ideally, a jury consisting of artists will be there to give structure to the various Beethoven commemoration activities. It would be good to bundle these in blocks of festivals. That's how Salzburg does it. The Beethovenfest is planning a second, smaller series of events in March of that year along with the regular event in September. Those are two mosaic stones in the big picture.

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