Can artistic activities transform the world? The answer lies in the realm of individual feelings, says Wolfgang Niedecken. Musicians of every genre performed in his honor in Bonn.
When asked what an artist can achieve in a world beset by crises, musician and activist Wolfgang Niedecken has an answer — and a strategy: "We can keep people from growing insensitive." An emotional appeal is the key for the classical pianist and improviser Gabriela Montero as well. "I think it is criminal if an artist doesn't use his potential to convey empathy and to make people understand what is happening," said Montero. "We should not live in a bubble. We are part of society, and we are citizens of this world. Therefore we should use our voice, as artists and as human beings, to tell the stories of people who can't."
For decades, Niedecken has stood up for tolerance in German society, and he has participated in a societal project in war-torn regions of Africa. For eight years, Montero has spoken out against social injustice in her home country of Venezuela. Both featured in a highly diversified program at the National Art Museum in Bonn to mark the third annual Beethoven Prize for Human Rights, Peace, Freedom, Combating Poverty and Inclusion.
From Africa via the Middle East to Germany
Contributing his singing and piano playing to the event was Aeham Ahmad, awarded the first Beethoven Prize two years ago. The Syrian pianist, who once played on a devastated street in a suburb of Damascus under life-threatening conditions, had fled to Germany only weeks before. Meanwhile granted political asylum, Ahmad has reunited with his wife and children. In 2015, it was his story and background that were in focus; two years later, it's his artistry based on improvisations alternating from melancholic to ecstatic. Ahmad has a full performance calendar.
Melodramas by Franz Liszt and Franz Schubert and songs of the Iranian regime critic Shahin Najafi were among the seldom heard pieces at the prize awarding ceremony. The undercurrent of death, transformation, revolution — and empathy — was also perceptible in the "Hymn to Freedom" by jazz pianist Oscar Peterson as rendered by the Marcus Schinkel Trio. And with nearly unfathomable virtuosity and depth of expression, pianist Kai Schumacher gave his rendition of the song "Killing in the Name" by the rock group Rage Against the Machine.
Performances by the innovative Bonn pianist Susanne Kessel and the legendary Argentine pianist Martha Argerich also contributed to the wide-ranging stylistic mix. The ticket proceeds went to the Beethoven Academy, which finances cultural projects in crisis regions and includes "sustainably promoting courageous art" among its goals.
Taking the ovations (l. to r.): pianists Luisa Imorde and Martha Argerich, Wolfgang Niedecken, pianist Myriam Farid and reciter Annie Dutoit
Asked about his activities in African crisis regions, Wolfgang Niedecken told of a life-changing experience he had there several years ago: "The refugee camps were attacked. They kidnapped the children and taught them how to use machetes. A couple of days later, the children were to sent back to the camps and instructed to kill a relative, a younger sister perhaps, so that their families would reject them. The worst thing was the children's eyes. They were dead; they looked right through me." The experience led Niedecken to join the outdoor sports equipment company Jack Wolfskin and the Christian aid organization World Vision in establishing "Rebound," a project that has successfully fostered the reintegration of war-traumatized children into society.
Confronting mass emigration at the roots
Niedecken doesn't leave it at that, however: "I think we should take more interest in our neighboring continent Africa," he said, "and come to understand what is going on there, in the Mediterranean and in the deserts. If we did, we'd be making other decisions here."