Over 2,000 artists dealt with the idea of "fate," which was this year's motto at the Beethovenfest in Bonn. Despite a varied and exciting program, sales for the festival could have been better.
The closing concert of the Beethovenfest featured two pieces that were worlds apart.
The movements of conductor Michael Boder were revealingly discreet and precise as he directed the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in their interpretation of Morton Feldman's "Coptic Light" from 1986. The piece is designed to allow the musical tones of different groups of instruments to emerge without changing how loud they play, or the way they are emphasized.
Bruckner's unfinished Ninth Symphony
By contrast, for Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony in D minor, Michael Broder's movements were expansive, allowing the orchestra to extract every dimension of the piece: powerful string passages that end in pleasant melodies or disharmonious chords that pile up and abruptly end in harmonious sonorities.
The quiet passages in both Feldman's and Bruckner's piece required extreme concentration from the bass section. Their performance was honored with special applause.
At the reception following the concert, Beethovenfest director Nike Wagner admitted that she wasn't a great fan of Bruckner's work; it was only after hearing a recording of Bruckner's Ninth conducted by Boder that she was convinced it should be featured at the festival. "He is the ideal interpreter to combine modern music with the classical repertoire's heavy legacy," she said of the conductor.
Music affected by fate
Bruckner dedicated his last and unfinished symphony to his "dear God." The severely ill composer should additionally have asked him for more time on earth to complete his work... That was however his fate, or "Schicksal," which was the slogan of this year's Beethovenfest.
The festival highlighted music that was influenced by the destiny of its composers, whether through their experiences of war or exile, of grief or illness.
The central work embodying this motto was Beethoven's Fifth, known as the "symphony of fate."
Ludwig van Beethoven was already going deaf when he composed it. However, he didn't simply accept his fate but fought against it by composing new works. This enlightened interpretation of the concept of fate was the one Nike Wagner aimed to embrace during the Beethovenfest.
"For three weeks, we have been seizing fate by the throat," said Wagner on the last night of the festival, referring to one of Beethoven's famous quotes while pointing out that 57 concerts were presented during the event. The program was well-received by the audience, she added.
Lower attendance in 2018
However, festival attendance did not exceed 70 percent of capacity. As its traditional venue, the Bonn Beethoven Hall is still undergoing restoration, meaning events were held in the World Conference Center Bonn (WCCB). Measures were taken to improve the acoustics there, even for smaller ensembles.
The final concert took place in the large hall of the WCCB, but was not sold out this year. People were perhaps hoping for another Beethoven piece for the conclusion of the concert, while the turnout also reflects a broader failure to attract younger audiences to classical concerts.
Special programs for students
Still, the Beethovenfest is involving students in a program that featured various events for younger people under the motto "Ludwig and You" — for example, 1,000 students played on stages in the Bonn city center for the opening of the Beethovenfest.
The concert "Music:Eyes – SymFusion" involved students aged 15-18 who conceived and organized the event on their own. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was enriched with electronic sounds and presented with 3D visuals.
The different musicians of the Beethovenfest also went to visit classes and organized workshops, or discussed the pieces they were performing at the festival with children.
Bringing Beethoven to the people
Like last year, the different concerts took place in 25 venues in and around Bonn. Chamber orchestras and small ensembles shined in old castle halls, churches or museums.
The string ensemble Camerata Bern, led by barefoot-playing violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, thrilled concert-goers with old and new religious works. The ensemble managed to combine all the different-sounding pieces into one seamless work.
The piano duos Jost & Costa und Gerwig & Gonzales also offered a spellbinding performance. There are only very few compositions for eight hands, but some arrangements are available, including Beethoven's Fifth for two pianos and eight hands by Carl Burchard. The piano version makes the symphony more transparent, said musician Yseult Jost: "You get a better idea of the structure, the motives of the work and the way Beethoven dealt with the theme."
The four virtuosos also provide an example of a lucky fate. The two duos met 10 years ago at a piano competition in Norway. "It was destiny that we both won first place in Norway and we were probably predestined to play together here at the Beethovenfest," said Efrain Gonzales.
Along with the major events and series of the festival, the discoveries, smaller concerts and experiments of the side program also informed the Beethovenfest's appeal.
Read more: Beethoven: Made in the Rhineland
2020 Beethoven anniversary approaches
Among the festival's highlights was the Piano Sonatas weekend with the celebrated pianist Andras Schiff and his former student Denes Varjo.
The emphasis on the Rhineland region and the historical pieces that could have influenced Beethoven in his time were another well-received addition.
By the end of the festival, the motto for the next Beethovenfest taking place from September 6 to 29, 2019, was also revealed: "Moonlight" — drawn from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata — will guide the upcoming program.