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Music

Nike Wagner: Handle artists with kid gloves

Festival director and scholar Nike Wagner is leaving her post as director of Kunstfest Weimar to become head of the Beethovenfest Bonn, starting in 2014. She knows the ins and outs of managing big events.

DW: What was the impetus ten years ago to start a festival from scratch in Weimar?

Nike Wagner: It was not very hard to come up with a concept for this city. I zeroed in largely on the 18th century: Goethe, Schiller and such. But the 19th century brought forth the greatest musician in Weimar, Franz Liszt. At first, I wanted to do a pure Liszt festival. But then I changed my mind and decided to play a lot of Liszt but to do the festival more in his innovative spirit and stage a multi-faceted festival. That's what stuck.

Franz Liszt, your great-great grandfather, is a mystery. A socialite, a lover of the spotlight - but also introverted, depressive and with a spiritual side....

I agree that Franz Liszt was a complex and puzzling personality. Making him the "local hero" of my festival, I delved intensively into his works, his biography and the times he lived in. That was a good thing for me. Because I grew up in Bayreuth, Richard Wagner was always in the center of things for me. But the relationship between Liszt and Wagner is a fascinating topic in music history.

Wagner and Liszt are shown with two other people in a drawing (c) picture-alliance

Wagner (l) and Liszt (r) are the two middle figures in this rendering

I've really learned to love Liszt. What I like about him is his free-spirit. He always moved on - I'm speaking here in a more musical sense. Rumor has it that he was an outstanding improviser, and you notice that in his musical creations. He wasn't just a traveler in Europe, but a traveler through many styles.

He's described as a boundary-crossing and absolutely uncompromising artist. Do you agree?

Definitely. For him, it was always about art, art, art. Everything else was secondary. He even tried to establish a kind of social security for artists. It's really fanciful when you look at these figures from the mid-19th century who talked endlessly about art, as if every other aspect of daily life was taken care of by servants. And as if art were the only thing worth thinking about.

In the mind-set of the Enlightenment, art makes people better. But history also shows that people whom we don't particularly like enjoy the same music we do…

Nike Wagner (c) Christin Losta

Nike Wagner stepped down from the Weimar festival in September

I think you're referring here to the abuse of Richard Wagner during the Third Reich. Wicked people were also among the big Wagnerians, and that remains a troubling fact. But even symphonic music can be abused. You know that the Nazis used Les Preludes by Franz Liszt for propaganda purposes, which had nothing to do with the intention of the piece. They could have taken any other fanfare.

Is it a cliché to say that music or art really makes us into better people?

Franz Liszt would have said so, Goethe too. There is that humanistic utopia. Essentially, I believe that as well, but not without ambivalent feelings.

Does this quality still exist today - this uncompromising attitude toward pure art?

I believe so - if we look around at today's composers. You definitely find it. Otherwise, they wouldn't have made it so far.

A word or two about your selection of works and artists for your farewell concert in Weimar?

These are the artists in residence we've had here in the past ten years. I commissioned pianist Andras Schiff for the first four years because he is simply one of the greatest musicians of our age. That's why I kept him and the Cappella Andrea Barca. By doing so, I was also able to absorb a lot of chamber music pieces from his pool. Then I tried to make a shift in instruments. After the piano, why not the viola? There's an immense amount of literature for viola, and Tabea Zimmermann is a brilliant violist, so we had really wonderful concerts with her. Then the pianists came back: Markus Hinterhäuser and Marino Formenti. Both focus on contemporary repertoire, even more so than Andras Schiff. So that was another facet.

Andras Schiff (c) beethovenfest-bonn

Pianist Andras Schiff

The next artists in residence were Carolin Wittmann together with her brother, the clarinetist and composer Jörg Wittmann. I was taken with the idea of siblings. We had violins and clarinets. Then came Pierre-Laurent Aimard, an outstanding pianist with a very broad repertoire that puts a strong accent on contemporary work. At the end, I thought to myself: we need to bring in a chamber music ensemble. I looked for a long time because there are many first-class string quartets. I liked Quatuor Diotima the best because they have the broadest repertoire and are outstanding musicians. That's how the selection unfolded.

What does it take to get along with these very different personalities?

You have to love artists, preserve their sanctity. Handle them with kid gloves, do everything for them. Because they stand onstage in the evening and have to give their all and risk failure. This extreme "hand-holding" that we put into practice proved worthwhile. At other festivals, the artists often didn't even meet the creative director once. Here, it was different.

Nike Wagner is Franz Liszt's great-great granddaughter and Richard Wagner's great-granddaughter. After completing her studies, she wrote scholarly and journalistic articles for symposia, cultural events and broadcasters in Germany, Austria, England and France and also emerged as a book author. In 2004, she became the creative director of the Kunstfest Weimar, an interdisciplinary music festival. Starting on January 1, 2014, she will succeed Ilona Schmiel as the head of the Beethovenfest Bonn.

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