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Classical music's echo at ECHO Klassik

Rick Fulker
October 30, 2017

Classical is alive and well, is the message of Germany's major awards ceremony, the ECHO Klassik. For those bemoaning the "same olds," there were some moving moments this year - also for DW.

Deutschland Echo Klassik Trophäe
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Bilan

"The classical music industry is at the turning point," said host Thomas Gottschalk, a familiar face on German television, citing the country's 18.2 million visitors to concerts and operas last year, as compared to 13.2 million attendees at games of the national soccer league. Gottschalk quipped that hosting the ECHO Klassik awards gala had given him the chance to finally see Hamburg's glittering new Elbphilharmonie concert venue from the inside, as tickets for the invariably sold-out venue wouldn't be available "during my lifetime."

The awards are the music industry's celebration of itself, the jury consisting mainly of representatives of the big labels. Thus it came as no surprise that the category "Bestseller of the Year" came up first. The distinction went to German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, collecting his eighth ECHO over the years, this time for a CD of popular Italian songs.

DW documentary included

The 22 prize categories also included Music Education - recognizing an innovative project named "Tonali" - and Music Documentary. The latter went to a film that showed how Vienna's venerable "Musikverein" concert hall became the scene of clashing worlds of music. In the end, those worlds came together when Chinese pianist Lang Lang teamed up with the late Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt to interpret two piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Film director Christian Berger of DW was present in the Elbphilharmonie to collect his ECHO for "Mission Mozart," accompanied by producer Bernhard Fleischer. The film was made under the supervision of Rolf Rische, Head of DW's Culture and Lifestyle Department. 

Bernhard Fleischer, Christian Berger and Rolf Rische with the trophy in the Elbphilharmonie
Producer Bernhard Fleischer, director Christian Berger, and Rolf Rische, head of DW's Culture and Lifestyle DepartmentImage: DW/P.Limbourg

Lifetime achievement

Whereas in past years the parade of familiar faces could be almost monotonous, this year's ceremony offered some twists on the theme. Back in 2002, Italian pianist Mauricio Pollini took home the Lifetime Achievement Award and later won a prize in solo performance. In 2017 he was back to collect another ECHO in that category, proving that lifetime achievement can be open-ended. "For over 50 years he's brought works of music to new life," wrote the jury. To prove the point, Pollini gave a fully mature and considered, yet edgy and captivating live rendition of a Chopin nocturne.

This year's Lifetime Achievement Award went to a woman who as an operatic soloist, stage director, author and instructor has experienced nearly every side of the music industry. Never at a loss for words, Brigitte Fassbaender opened her acceptance speech with "Don't worry, I'm not going to sing." Then a glint of emotion shone through her skeptical demeanor, indicating how moved she was to hold the trophy.

Maurizio Pollini
Chopin is a centerpiece of Maurizio Pollini's half-century careerImage: ZDF und Schnitger

Trying to capture a younger audience

With Sarah Willis – horn player in the Berlin Philharmonic and familiar to DW's television audience as the host of "Sarah's Music" – interviewing prize winners backstage for the online presentation of the event, users could opt for a 360-degree stream. One felt that the program makers designed these features to break up the tedium of sitting through music performances one might not like. With the range of styles and aesthetics in classical music too wide to appeal to all, every effort was made to package it appealingly in one of the most widely-watched classical music events on German television.

That included the presentation of some sensational young talents, including Aida Garifulina, who took the top prize for solo aria vocals. "Words cannot express what we can hear and experience when we experience her music making," enthused the ECHO jury over the 30-year-old Russian soprano. She then sang an achingly clear passage from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi."

ECHO KLASSIK  2017 Aida Garifullina, Thomas Gottschalk und Pretty Yende
Aida Garifullina (l.), Thomas Gottschalk and Pretty Yende (r.)Image: ZDF und Schnitger

Garifulina was followed by the Young Artist of the Year, another soprano, this one 32, from South Africa and blessed with "a voice that can reach to the stars," to quote the Washington Post. Pretty Yende had her first-ever contact with opera at age 16 and in the second half of her life thus far has gone from triumph to triumph, including a prize at this year's International Opera Awards in London. Yende's robust vocal gifts were on full display when she performed "Je veux vivre" from Charles Gounod's opera "Romeo and Juliet."

Then both young singers, splendorous in their shoulderless gowns, teamed up in a duet of "Tonight" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." A more vibrant presentation of the art could hardly be imagined.

Another late-comer to the business, French pianist Lucas Debargue, recently celebrated his 27th birthday but received his first formal piano instruction only at age 20. Before then, he was self-taught, mainly as a jazz and rock pianist. After taking his ECHO, he plunged into an edge-of-the-seat improvisation on Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress" ranging from atonal to jazz to ragtime – and made one wonder: had he taken music lessons at a much earlier age, would he have ended up that original?

An impassioned plea

With another offbeat performance showcasing two prize-winning instrumentalists – French cellist Camille Thomas and Latvian accordionist Ksenija Sidorova – in a quirky arrangement of melodies from Bizet's "Carmen," it might have seemed that the evening would be mostly gimmickry, had it not been for Joyce DiDonato.

ECHO KLASSIK  2017 Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato is a "great storyteller," said German actress Meret Becker, before she handed over an ECHOImage: ZDF und Schnitger

The world-class American mezzo-soprano released the album "In War & Peace" in reaction to the terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015 in Paris. In recognition, the ECHO jury awarded her the prize "Singer of the Year." For the audience in Hamburg, she performed the death aria "When I am laid in earth" from Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" followed by an impassioned plea to artists everywhere. Her makeup stained by the flow of tears, she called on all "to sing and perform louder and with more passion, for that is the only thing that makes sense." Tears were also in the eyes of many in the hall.

Whereas Orchestra of the Year went to the Boston Symphony Orchestra under its principal conductor Andris Nelsons — both absent from the gala — the Conductor of the Year was on hand, Hamburg's own General Music Director, Kent Nagano.

All of the performances of the evening can be heard on a double CD release, and here is the complete list of all 54 prize winners of the ECHO Klassik 2017.