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Bonn's Beethoven Festival for 'All the People'

Gaby Reucher
August 26, 2022

The new Beethovenfest in Bonn aims to be young, dynamic and eclectic. Featuring unexpected acts such as a queer collective and young Colombian street artists, cultural diversity plays a key role.

Person dressed in costume holding up arm to a blue-and-black background.
Bonn-based queer collective 'Chin Chin' is part of the Beethoven Festival programImage: CORVUS-aperture.com

Rehearsals for the festival have been going on in Bonn for weeks. Colombian youths have worked with the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn on a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Students are planning concerts at secret locations and the Ukrainian Youth Orchestra is rehearsing its pieces for a planned solidarity concert.

The pandemic is not over yet, but musical life in Germany is almost unrestricted again.

Nevertheless, the ensembles of the Beethoven Festival have one or two COVID-19 cases, so that they have had to reschedule at short notice.

In addition, the Beethovenfest (as it is called in German) also addresses the war in Ukraine. "It is not a carefree festival, but one that we are very much looking forward to celebrating," says artistic director Steven Walter, who is hosting the Beethovenfest in Bonn for the first time.

Steven Walter of the Beethoven Festival half-smiling into the camera.
Artistic director Steven Walter wants a festival that's contemporary and future-orientedImage: Neda Navaee/Beethovenfest

Opera concerts and swimming pools

Walter and his team have a great deal lined up. More than 100 events will take place from August 25 to September 17. These will include classical orchestra concerts in the opera house, but also unusual formats such as concerts in the dark, in LGBTQ-friendly establishments or in an abandoned swimming pool.

The Beethovenfest wants to position itself broadly and, true to the festival's motto "All the People," wants to appeal to as different kinds of people as possible. "All people become brothers" is a line of text from Beethoven's famous Ninth Symphony. 

Bringing everyone together

In the lead-up to the official opening concert on August 26 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer, artistic director Walter decided on a spiritual, sensual church concert in Bonn Minster Cathedral. The concert will feature Ludwig van Beethoven's "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity" for string quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, which he wrote after recovering from a serious illness.

This string quartet will be framed by music on the theme of suffering and redemption from the Baroque period to contemporary works by US. composer Caroline Shaw and by Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine composer of Jewish descent with Eastern European roots. "It addresses a range of different cultures and sound languages," Steven Walter told DW. "That's where we'll make our motto 'All the People' sound for the first time."

A contemporary Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven is the festival's spiritual guardrail, Walter explains, highlighting in particular the composer's political positioning. "The 'Eroica,' his third symphony, which will be played at the opening concert, is strongly political and a work of contemporary history," Walter said, alluding to the fact that Beethoven once dedicated the work to Napoleon Bonaparte because he shared the French Revolution's goals of "liberty, equality and fraternity." When Napoleon later had himself crowned emperor, Beethoven took back the dedication.

Taking a political and social stance and looking at the world through classical music is important to Steven Walter. "That contemporaneity, that you see art as something that has to do with the world, is particularly interesting to me."

Beethoven is moving

"Beethoven Moves" is the name of one of the social projects to which the Beethoven Festival offers a platform. "This is a wonderful project in which Colombian street children, many of them former child soldiers, artistically create Ludwig von Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn. They use urban forms of expression such as hip-hop dance and graffiti," says Walter. Together with young people from Germany, they address central issues such as freedom, power, courage and revolution.

A project of the Don Bosco Mission Bonn and the Beethoven Orchestra also targets helping in a very concrete way and giving the young people better educational opportunities in their home country.

Person jumping head-over-heels in an urban street.
'Cool Moves' for Beethoven: Colombian street artists will perform to Beethoven's music in BonnImage: Judith-Doeker

Deutsche Welle as a partner

Deutsche Welle is not only the media partner of the Bonn Beethoven Festival, but also a shareholder.

Six of the festival's concerts will be streamed via the "DW Classical Music" YouTube channel. Another five concerts will be recorded for the radio series "DW Festival Concerts" for English-speaking partner stations worldwide.

"The Beethovenfest 2022 is something special for us as a media partner in several respects: On the one hand, we are pleased about the great cooperation with the new direction and management and the spirit of optimism that went with it," says Rolf Rische, head of DW's Culture and Documentaries department. On the other hand, one feels more than ever the influence of world events on culture. "And I'm convinced that culture, and music in particular, can have a noticeable impact beyond a specific day and location. That's why I'm particularly hopeful that Beethoven's message of humanity can be heard everywhere," Rische added.

Deutsche Welle is also involved in the solidarity concert at the opening Beethoven Festival weekend: The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (YSOU) will perform under its founder, Oksana Lyniv. "I have always dreamed of coming back to Bonn with this orchestra," the conductor told DW. "However, under different auspices. But especially in view of the terrible war, it is all the more important to send a signal that Ukraine plays a central role in the context of European culture!"

In addition to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 and music from Ukraine, the YSOU will perform a work commissioned by DW. "Bucha. Lacrimosa" is the name of the piece by Kyiv-based composer Victoria Poleva. Impacted by image of the destroyed village of Bucha near Kyiv, she composed her piece about the souls of tortured Ukrainians rising to heaven. "Writing this work was the only way of survival for me," Poleva told DW.

Eastern Europe at 'DW Campus'

Ukrainian youth are also taking part in the "Campus Concert." The joint Campus project of Deutsche Welle and the Beethoven Festivalhas been bringing together young artists from all over the world and from Germany for 21 years.

Oksana Lyniv heading up rehearsals with the Ukrianian Youth Orchestra; she conducting, with pupils practicing.
Oksana Lyniv heading up rehearsals with the Ukrainian Youth OrchestraImage: Serhiy Horobets/Jugendsinfonieorchester Ukraine

This time around, musicians from Belarus, Ukraine and Germany will perform a program based on Ludwig van Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, the "Eroica." Ukrainian composer Maxim Kolomiiets has created a modern arrangement of part of the classical work.

A DW commission went to the Belarusian composer Olga Podgayskayage, who fled from Minsk. She dedicated "The Sky of Mary" to her childhood friend Maria Kalesnikava, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for her protests against the Lukashenko regime.

The whole thing is melded by the charismatic young conductor Vitali Alekseenok. "We wanted to make a statement here in Bonn about the current world situation using the means available to us, namely, music," the conductor told DW. "Our concern is that Eastern Europe also remains present as a unique cultural landscape."

A sustainable Beethoven Festival

Political commitment, diversity and sustainability are to shape the Beethoven Festival not only this year, but also in the years to come.

Each year, it sets a different focus. In 2023, the focus will be on how we treat our planet, climate protection and sustainability.

This text was originally written in German.