In a country with a highly subsidized culture scene, Germany's Rheingau Music Festival stands out — it doesn't depend on public funding. The managing director explains how that works.
The Rheingau Music Festival is one of the largest festivals in Europe. This year, there will be about 140 classical, jazz and world music concerts performed at a host of venues along a 38-kilometer-long wine-growing region between Wiesbaden and the Middle Rhine Valley, an area with a wealth of castles and palaces. Participants include this year's Artist in Residence — the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov — German soprano Christiane Karg and the Orchestra in Residence, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen."
The motto this season, which runs from June 22 to August 31, is "Courage," profiling artists who think outside the box, work under difficult conditions or are socially committed. This section includes South Africa's Bochabela String Orchestra, scheduled for July 7. The young artists, most of them from townships, will perform music by Joseph Haydn and a "Nelson Mass" in honor of Nelson Mandela, who was born 101 years ago. Festival co-founder and artistic director Michael Herrmann spoke to DW ahead of the first concert.
DW: This is the 32nd edition of the Rheingau Musik Festival that you founded in 1987 without any public funding whatsoever. In Germany, that is unusual. Are other festival organizers envious?
Michael Herrmann: On the contrary, they admire us. In fact many festival and opera house directors are constantly urged to "do what Michael Herrmann does at the Rheingau Music Festival!" Perhaps they don't like to see us because we are trotted out as a good example for something that wouldn't work for them anyway, especially not for opera houses.
What are the advantages of your business model?
It makes me completely independent. The sponsors have no influence on the program. If, on the other hand, I had public funds, maybe an official would say they have this "connection with this region in Italy that has a an excellent choir" and ask us to invite them.
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and its artistic director, Paavo Järvi, are the focus of two Deutsche Welle TV documentaries
That would put me in a bind because if I said no, they might remind me that "tomorrow is our budget meeting, think it over!"
How is your program put together?
We have 80% classical music, about 10 % jazz, world music and musical cabaret, as well as contemporary serious music, for instance the portrait of a living composer. We actually schedule quite a few contemporary music concerts.
Anything in particular you'd like to point out in this year's program?.
There is a focus on jazz with Curtis Stigers: And in the classical field, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, which is being awarded the Rheingau Music Prize this year. There will be major oratorios at Eberbach Monastery, including the Mozart Requiem, Haydn's "Creation" and Handel's "Messiah." Great works like those draw an international audience.
Are you out to broaden people's horizons, or is it enough to just entertain them?
We offer many programs for children and young people, as well as the Treffpunkt Jugend, a concert series that hosts young artists in the early stages of their careers. The introductions we give before the concerts are also very popular. You could call that a kind of music education even if we don't have an educational mission as such.
You've had a media partnership with DW since last year, what does that mean to you?
Broadcasting is quite important to us. The European Broadcasting Union has made us known to an international audinece as the concerts are broadcast across Europe. Deutsche Welle is even more interesting because it has a worldwide reach.
If you look at the many music festivals currently existing — what is special about the Rheingau Music Festival?
Our target group is interested in the combination of architecture — for example performances at lovely Eberbach Monastery or Johannisburg Palace — and top-class music. We are situated in a wine-growing region, and local wines are available at all of our concerts. Even the season plays a role: when the concert is over, it's still light out until 10:00 p.m. That's a big difference to what regular concert organizers offer.
Have there been unusual, unique programs?
We performed all of Chopin's piano works, all of Bach's works for keyboard, all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and the complete Schubert. Over the course of three evenings, we scheduled all of Beethoven's violin sonatas with Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the performances were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. A festival can afford to do things like that.
By definition, a festival is supposed to be out of the ordinary. How is the audience response?
Every year, we sell more than 90% of the available tickets, which is partly a credit to the fact that we organize ticket sales ourselves and give advice. If someone wants to go to an Anne-Sophie Mutter concert that is sold out, we have other violinists to offer, say Frank Peter Zimmermann or Arabella Steinbacher. I can certainly sell such a concert to two or three out of ten people originally wanting to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter. A regular advance booking office won't do that, so the fact that we manage our own sales is a great advantage.
How is your financial situation?
The costs are from €8.2 million to €8.5 million ($9,3-$9.6 million) annually. About half of that is covered by ticket sales, sponsors cover the rest.
Sponsors who do not want to have a say.....
Maybe they want to — but they can't!
Michael Herrmann is co-founder of the Rheingau Music Festival and has been its artistic director and managing director since its foundation in 1987. The idea for the festival was born in the early 1970s, when Herrmann sang in choral concerts at Eberbach Monastery in Eltville am Rhein. Today the monastery is one of the festival's approximately 40 venues.
Interview: Rick Fulker