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Music

The Beethovenfest Bonn - modern and influential

The festival has grown in the 10-year era of director Ilona Schmiel's leadership. This year's series of concerts and events ended on October 5 with a two-hour concert program in the Beethoven Hall Bonn.

The closing concert of the 2013 Beethovenfest was good for a surprise. Following Igor Stravinsky's ballet music in "The Firebird," a choir streamed onto the Beethoven Hall stage to serenade outgoing festival director Ilona Schmiel. Together with the London Symphony Orchestra, they performed "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Many of the visitors were moved to tears.

All grown up

Ilona Schmiel won over audiences in Bonn with her spontaneous and sincere manner, but also with her successes. After a decade at the festival's helm, she leaves it in a state of growth both in terms of its international reputation and its budget. The latter stands at 4.1 million euros ($5.56 million), with 34.8% of it coming from public donations.

There was no shortage of obstacles along the way. People dismissed the host city, Bonn, as a small and sleepy civil servants' town, and classical music as a declining market.

Ilona Schmiel seen smiling in the BEethoven Hall in Bonn opyright: Barbara Frommann

Ilona Schmiel in the Beethoven Hall in Bonn

But that didn't shake Schmiel's confidence, as she revealed in an interview with DW: "I started out young here, at 35 years old. At that age, I knew that with my tempo and my enthusiasm, I could charge right past those obstacles."

The most recent Beethovenfest concluded on October 5 after featuring 67 main events and 95 further happenings in its side program. Around 75,000 visitors attended - compared to the 40,000 in 2004. As such, the search for new groups of concert-goers can be called a success. Efforts on that front could be observed in the introduction of public viewings for certain festival events and the invitation of younger artists to perform, such as American electronic organist Cameron Carpenter, who - very much in the spirit of Beethoven - does away with the clichés and routines of the classical music world.

Furthermore, the festival organizers have shown a knack for finding artists who are going places, such as giving the conductor Gustavo Dudamel or percussionist Martin Grubinger a podium long before they became world-famous artists. With 54 premieres in the last 10 years, the Beethovenfest has undertaken risks when it comes to contemporary music.

The same young faces

The "Young Beethovenfest," a sub-program in which artists perform in schools or young people are tasked with managing a concert, was started with the clear intent of drawing youth to Beethovenfest events. It has done little, however, to shift the festival audience's age, which was at an average of 52 in 2004 and has now risen to 54.

On the other hand, that's still a relatively low average for a classical music audience. After running at 82 percent capacity and with 24 sold-out concerts this year, Beethovenfest organizers seem content.

The Borodin Quartet performing at the Beethovenfest Copyright: Giovanni Ausserhofer/Beethovenfest

The Borodin Quartet sets a high standard. They are shown performing here in the Arp Museum in Rolandseck

That certain something

Beyond the numbers, a festival has to measure up to a less concrete standard. It's about creating an atmosphere in which audiences feel like they're taking part in something special. Ilona Schmiel puts it this way, "The live experience, the desire for that situation of gathering together, experiencing a silence all of a sudden and a ritual: that connects."

A stellar concert that excites or provokes - it's what every concert organizer is after. "If you don't generate a certain atmosphere of 'Okay, today everything's at stake again!', then it gets boring, and we do ourselves in," said Schmiel, who will now go on to serve as artistic director at the Tonhalle Zurich.

And it's possible to create that atmosphere even in the Beethoven Hall, a concert venue that now very much shows its age. Hopes for a new hall in Bonn have thus far been disappointed. World class performing groups like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields appeared there this year. But others, like the Berlin Philharmonic, didn't - to Schmiel's disappointment.

The Beethoven Hall is, however, just one of 26 venues in and around Bonn that hosted concerts in the current season.

A scene from the staging of Fidelio at the 2013 Beethovenfest Copyright: Barbara Frommann/Beethovenfest

Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" was on the 2013 program

Setting a standard

It's to be expected that a Beethoven festival will feature cyclical presentations of its star's works. Over two festival seasons, Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff performed all of Beethoven's piano sonatas. And in 2014, the Russian Borodin Quartet will round out a three-year cycle of Beethoven's string quartets, paired with quartets by Russian composers.

The style of classical music interpretation is in flux, and both performance cycles are quite timely. The same could be said of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, which was the festival's orchestra-in-residence for a decade. The group set a standard against which every orchestra that performs Beethoven symphonies must now measure itself.

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