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Punk rock meets 12-tone music

Germany's most famous punk band 'Die Toten Hosen' joined forces with the symphony orchestra of Düsseldorf's Robert Schumann School of Music and Media to speak out against xenophobia and racism.

"Get out!" Campino's rough voice nearly barked the words out. In a flash, he switched from English to a sharp German commander tone: "Achtung! Stillgestanden! Na wird's bald." ("Attention! Stop! Hurry up.") The lead singer of the band Die Toten Hosen used his index finger to follow along the text passage as he stood at the music stand. The shrill sounds of wind instruments punctuated the frightening text. In front of Campino, sitting in a half-circle, were the young musicians of the symphony orchestra of Düsseldorf's Robert Schumann School of Music and Media.

The auditorium was brightly lit. There was tension in the air as the musicians rehearsed Arnold Schönberg's dramatic 12-tone work "A Survivor from Warsaw for Narrator, Men's Chorus and Orchestra." It's a work the Jewish composer wrote in 1947 while in exile in the United States - in memory of those deported from the Warsaw ghetto. A difficult piece, full of dissonance and note leaps. All of the musicians were concentrating intensely on the musical notes in from of them as they rehearsed earlier this month, gearing up for a series of concerts - that matched Die Toten Hosen with the symphony orchestra - in Düsseldorf's Tonhalle.

The concerts looked back to 75 years ago, when Düsseldorf hosted the Reichsmusiktage - under the auspices of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It was part of the larger "entartete Kunst" (degenerate art) program by the Nazis that denigrated artistic works by Jewish artists, while praising those by "the Aryan race."

Turning the tables

Die Toten Hosen takes on 12-tone music. The punk band and the symphony orchestra joined forces in three concerts to recollect the Nazis' degenerate art program. Copyright: DW/Heike Mund

Die Toten Hosen takes on 12-tone music

Campino had his work cut out for him during rehearsals. After all, as lead singer of the punk band Die Toten Hosen, he's always been boss. In this series, he had to take his cues from conductor Rüdiger Bohn.

But here, Campino could "converse" with the powerful male chorus, with Bohn telling the singers to "Stick to it, without sucking the energy out of the orchestra!"

Interdisciplinary approach

Thomas Leander, professor at Düsseldorf's Robert Schumann School of Music and Media, stood in the background all the while, watching how the students worked through the difficult music pieces. He came up with the idea of this crossover project in 2011 - a memorial concert linking symphonic music with songs by Die Toten Hosen, performed in the Tonhalle, a most unusual place for punk concerts. It was right next door, in the "Ehrenhof," that the Nazis held the "Entartete Musik" exhibition.

Singer Campino (right) with Keno Brandt from the Robert Schumann School of Music and Media

Singer Campino (right) with Keno Brandt from the Robert Schumann School of Music and Media

Die Toten Hosen didn't have to think about it too long when Leander approached them with the idea. "We thought it was important to recall this horrible exhibition," Campino explained. The band members said it was also a musical challenge to work in a classical arena.

Campino, for his part, already had experience performing as Mackie Messer in the "Three Penny Opera." And the band has initiated other projects to raise awareness about xenophobia and racism. Their 1993 piece called "Willkommen in Deutschland" ("Welcome to Germany") was written in response to the arson attacks on shelters for asylum seekers in Germany. That song title ended up becoming the title of the concert project.

Excursion into German history

With only one week to rehearse together, the band and the symphony orchestra had a demanding program. First-semester students were faced with particular challenges. They included symphonic film music by Hollywood composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, poems by Erich Kästner and Hermann Hesse set to music - arranged for punk band and orchestra, to Schlager melodies by the "Comedian Harmonists," who had to disband in 1935 following the prohibition of its Jewish members from working.

Symphony orchestra students gave it their all during rehearsals Copyright: DW/ Heike Mund

Symphony orchestra students gave it their all during rehearsals

For foreign student members of the symphony orchestra, such as Mircea Gogoncea from Romania, who studies guitar in Düsseldorf, the concert project was also an excursion into German history. Only few of the students knew concrete details about the fates of the ostracized and murdered composers and lyricists. "It's essential that the students internalize what the concert is really about," said conductor Bohn.

But he was satisfied with the hard work by both the student of the symphonic orchestra and Die Toten Hosen. "I'm optimistic that we'll be able to achieve this mixture of memorial and retrospect, and of course sense of mourning, while also attaining this vitality that the band itself radiates," the conductor said.

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