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Jazzfest Bonn 2020 Klaus Doldinger
Klaus DoldingerImage: Peter Hönnemann

Jazzfest Bonn 2020 in the key of Beethoven

Rick Fulker
November 27, 2019

Beethoven's spirit lives on through jazz improvisation: Till Brönner, Klaus Doldinger and Jan Garbarek are just some of the highlights of the month-long festival in May.


All year long in the Beethoven anniversary year, world-famous orchestras and soloists such as Till Brönner,Klaus Doldinger and Jan Garbarek will give the most diverse interpretations of his music. There are infinite possibilities for that, yet the exercise takes place within narrow parameters. After all, they're all playing the same notes.

It's often forgotten that "classical" composers in Beethoven's time and earlier were active improvisers — and that spontaneous musical inspiration was often the source of their formalized compositions. That applies very much to Ludwig van Beethoven himself. The art of improvisation, once a matter of course in music, degenerated and mostly disappeared, but lives on in modern jazz.

That idea is the point of departure for next year's program of the Jazzfest Bonn. 

Read more: How musical improvisation works


In its 11th year, the festival held from April 30 to May 30 has grown to 30 concerts. The 2020 season explores areas where genres overlap, such as in the performance of two young "classical" musicians — the violinist Tobias Feldmann and the pianist Frank Dupree, who will perform repertory pieces spiced by jazzy moments. Later that evening, Dupree and his jazz trio will give an original twist on Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32.

Jazzfest Bonn 2020 Frank Dupree
Frank DupreeImage: Sebastian Heck

More than just jazzy moments can be expected from the US pianist Richie Beirach, a master of improvisation who often bases his flights of fancy on classical models. Beirach will give his own take on Beethoven together with the Sirius Quartet. Another string quartet, the Auryn Quartet, will appear with Roger Hanschel, a member of the Cologne Saxophone Mafia.

Although performance venues in Bonn such as the chamber music hall in the Beethoven House, the Volksbank House and the Brotfabrik (Bread Factory) are comparatively small, the playbill features big names that also regularly fill big halls. They include the iconic Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who developed his unique style back in the early 1970s.

Jazzfest Bonn 2020 Jan Garbarek
Jan GarbarekImage: Bremme Hohensee

The really big names

The two German jazzers with the highest name recognition are Klaus Doldinger and Till Brönner, and both adorn the Jazzfest's playbill this time. Doldinger will give the downbeat to the fest at the Telekom Forum — April 30 also being International Jazz Day.

Demonstrating the appeal of jazz across the generations, the Jazzfest's artistic director Peter Materna scheduled the 83-year-old master right after Germany's National Jazz Orchestra, consisting of young musicians. Many of Doldinger's compositions — they now number about 2,000 — are well known in Germany, including the theme music to Tatort, a  popular crime show on television and the music to the 1980s film Das Boot (The Boat). At the other extreme, the National Jazz Orchestra regularly performs brand-new compositions as commissioned works.

Jazzfest Bonn 2020 Till Brönner
Till BrönnerImage: Ulla Lommen

Another double concert has Germany's most successful trumpeter Till Brönner and his band appearing after a new discovery: Now 21, the Cologne jazz musician Simon Oslender was considered a child prodigy.

The name Kühn is familiar to jazz lovers in Germany, and the performance of the brothers Rolf & Joachim Kühn, 90 and 75 years old, will contain echoes of the history of jazz since the 1940s.

Another name certain to attract attention is the Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala, who will perform in the Beethoven House, first as a soloist, then with the Galatea Quartet, a classical string quartet from Switzerland.

Jazzfest Bonn 2020 Iila Rantala
Iila RantalaImage: ACT/Gregor Hohenberg

Glances across the border and a supplementary program

Another classically-inspired evening is titled "Beethoven Variations" and is performed by Christopher Dell, Christian Lillinger, Jonas Westergaard and Peter Evans. The Jazzrausch Bigband is offering what it calls a "concert spectacle" with the title "Beethoven's Breakdown." The band gave an intoxicating performance at the Bonn Opera during last year's fest; its brand of music can be described as "jazz techno."

The gigs of the Mathias Eick Quintet from Norway and of the 20-year-old female Polish bassist Kinga Glyk will afford a glance at the current jazz scenes of two of Germany's neighbors to the north and the east.

Peter Materna
Peter MaternaImage: Heike Fischer, Köln

A symposium on improvisation and a musical procession through the onetime government district in (West) Germany's former capital city round out the program, which is being subsidized in part by the BTHVN2020 Anniversary Corporation. A new feature is the JazzBeet competition, in which young trios are invited to compose and play in the spirit of Beethoven. The winner will then perform at the final concert. 

Double-barreled concert evenings are the trademark of the Jazzfest Bonn, with famous and lesser known musicians performing back-to-back in densely-packed, roughly hour-long stints. Often the acts are highly contrasting.

The festival's concerts are regularly sold out, and 85% of its financial requirements are covered by ticket proceeds. Most of the visitors come from Bonn and Cologne, but others from further afield, says Materna, even from the US.

As the Jazzfest Bonn's media partner, DW will record a number of concerts and post them on these pages.

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