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A House for Beethoven?

Kate BowenApril 27, 2007

A new concert hall of world-class proportions is to be built in Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven's birthplace. Granted the composer's name does have selling power, but is there room in the region for another classical venue?

The new Beethoven Hall is to be built next to the existing one

"It will be a one-of-a-kind concert hall," said Karin Hempel-Soos, spokesperson for Bonn’s Culture Council and driving force behind the plans for a new festival concert hall in Germany’s former capital.

The estimated 60 to 80 million euro ($81-108 million) hall is meant to draw top-notch performers and put Bonn -- and Beethoven -- in the big leagues, along with Salzburg and Mozart, and Bayreuth and Wagner.

Beethovenhaus in Bonn
Beethoven's birth house in Bonn is now a museumImage: DW

It may be completed as early as 2011, well in time for the composer’s 250th birthday in 2020. A design contest for the building is said to be in the works, and according to Bonn’s daily General-Anzeiger, the who’s-who of architecture are being taken into consideration: Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Thomas van den Valentyn, for example.

Critics, however, are wondering whether the glamorous hall, top artists and a big-name mascot will be enough to attract the most important ingredient -- enough music lovers to fill the planned 1,400 seats. “There’s a lot of competition for the concert hall in Bonn,” wrote the city’s daily paper.

An oversaturated music market?

Within the past few years, western Germany’s Rhine and Ruhr Valley regions have invested millions of both public and private funds in constructing new classical music venues and renovating older ones. All of them are within an hour’s drive from Bonn.

In Duisburg the Mercatorhalle has been transformed into a massive 150 million-euro ($204 million) complex that includes a 1,750-seat concert hall as well as a shopping mall, casino and conference center. It opened on April 21.

Dortmund, minutes away from Duisburg, opened a new 50 million euro, 1,550-seat concert hall in 2002. Essen renovated its Philharmonic in 2004 and Düsseldorf modernized its world-renowned Tonhalle in 2005. Bochum, also in the Ruhr Valley, is planning to complete a 29.3 million euro concert hall in 2010 in honor of the region’s distinction that year as Europe’s Culture Capital.

Beethovenfest 2006 Bonn Beethovenhalle
Bonn's existing Beethoven Hall, built in 1959, is wanting in acoustics and aestheticsImage: Beethoovenfest/B. Frommann

The Cologne Philharmonic, considered to be one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, is barely a half-hour drive from Bonn.

"Per year, 90,000 tickets to the Cologne Philharmonic are sold to Bonn residents because they don’t have anything like that in Bonn," said Hempel-Soos. She also estimated that there were around a million potential concert-goers in the area directly surrounding Bonn.

They won’t go to Dortmund or Duisburg, she said, because Bonn will offer something completely different -- world-class in everything from the building to the performers.

Questioning priorities

For her, it’s matter-of-fact that the composer should be honored in his birthplace -- and with much more than the less-than-modern Beethoven Hall, built in 1959, the smaller chamber music house, museum and numerous monuments that already adorn the city.

Still, some are asking whether it’s wise to build an additional venue instead of using a fraction of the money to pay for renovations to other cultural institutions. Bonn’s theater, for example, where operas, ballets and some plays are performed, could use a 20 million euro overhaul, according to the daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

It’s not the city of Bonn that will be cutting a check for the new venue, however. Though nothing has been put in ink quite yet, three major German companies headquartered in Bonn -- Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Post and Postbank -- are on deck to finance 100 percent of the construction costs.

After the project is completed, a partially public foundation will be set up to ensure that the level of artistic quality remains high. After all, big-name musicians aren’t cheaper by the dozen.

Employee benefits

Ludwig van Beethoven Denkmal in Bonn
This statue on Bonn's central square reminds passersby of the city's connection to BeethovenImage: dpa

As a sponsor, the Postbank is counting on the magnetic power of the legendary hall to-be. "It is important to the company that Bonn is an attractive city for its employees," said Postbank spokesperson Joachim Strunk, who added that it’s a way to encourage employee retention.

Telekom’s commitment to the elite project, however, coincides with the current negotiations over cutting pay and increasing work time for 50,000 of its employees, who may not necessarily be enthusiastic about the multi-million euro deal.

With Beethoven as the helm, organizers have set their sights way beyond Bonn, however. "It is critical that the artistic program is at a first-class level, in order to make an international name for Bonn as the city of Beethoven," said Strunk.

For Hempel-Soos, the formula for making Bonn the city of Beethoven is simple: "When the best musicians in the world come to Bonn, the audiences will come too."