Schmiel: ″Full Risk-taking″ | Music | DW | 02.01.2014
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Schmiel: "Full Risk-taking"

Outgoing artistic director of the Beethovenfest Bonn Ilona Schmiel has achieved much in her ten years in the post. As she told DW, her recipe for success is a willingness to take risks and to treat artists like people.

Deutschland Beethovenfest Ilona Schmiel

DW: Your tenure as artistic director of the festival has seen it grow in many respects; there are more events, greater resources and its importance has increased internationally. What do you have to thank your predecessor Franz Willnauer for, and what wishes do you have for your successor, Nike Wagner?

Ilona Schmiel: I am grateful to Franz Willnauer for the level of international artistry that he established after five years. As for the future, it's important to maintain contact to the many people we have already reached. And I don’t think we should lose sight of the idea of a "Festspielhaus" in Bonn. What’s missing here is a place we can really identify with.

We all know only too well the opinions of some critics, that sleepy little Bonn doesn’t tolerate growth and that classical music isn’t a tenable business. How do you react to those opinions?

I was quite young when I started here - 35 - and I said to myself that I can overcome the skeptics with sheer enthusiasm and a fast pace. The days when we started here were extremely good, and we had a wonderful platform to establish a national and international network from. That's been possible thanks to support from the media, not least DW. But it's hard work. You have to win over audiences every year.

A man combing the hair of a bronze Beethoven

Maintaining the master

What’s the average age of festival visitors?

It was about 52 at the beginning, now I would say it's 54. Actually that's good. We're all ten years older now. The point is: you have a core audience that you grow with, and you have to do a lot of work at the bottom to keep the average age at the same level. Actually the average age of a classical music audience is around the late 50s, early 60s. It shows that a festival can develop its own appeal.

How have you achieved that?

We broke away from traditional rituals and introduced other musical styles sometimes far removed from the classical sphere. Thanks to our sponsors we brought in concepts like "For 8 at 8": eight euros for a ticket to a concert at 8 o'clock. It's the price of a movie ticket. And we opened up our backstage area to young people. Lots of students work with us here.

In addition to attracting new crowds, you also have to satisfy the existing audience and somehow attract some of the biggest classical music names to "sleepy little Bonn." Do you manage that through agency contacts or personal persuasion?

The Beethovenfest brand is strong enough to attract the big names. Of course you have to follow the greatest conductors around, but it's a pleasure to see them in different places and with different orchestras.

The score to Beethoven's Seventh symphony

The score to Schmiel's favorite Beethoven symphony: the Seventh

What is the essence of a music festival?

The live experience! People really enjoy coming together for a ritual. They need myriad opportunities and music of the highest quality. But if they should see something on stage that's beautiful but doesn’t move them, it gets boring. They'll tune you out then.

How do you foster an artist's ability to touch people?

Even the biggest soloists tend to live out of a suitcase and quite often live rather lonely lives. So they need a sense of home and need to feel that the people around them care. We go to great lengths to set up everything backstage so that the artist feels comfortable and can give a good performance onstage.

Be honest, do you ever long - even for a few minutes - for a Beethoven-free zone?

I've got one already! But I have to say Beethoven is one of the very few composers I never get tired of hearing. There's always something new to discover with him. With the campus projects, for example, we've heard Beethoven interpretations from Vietnam, Iraq, Brazil and Turkey that were both fascinating and touching. The kind of variety you hear in different renditions of Beethoven's music doesn't happen as much with other composers.

If you had the chance, what would you ask Beethoven?

I'd be interested to know what music he'd compose today and how he would deal with the variety and permanent availability of music. Would he invent totally new instruments? I’m sure he'd still be ahead of his time.

Beethoven lived within the context of a certain musical culture, which he was able to absorb and then further develop. Today however there's a plurality of music cultures. Perhaps that's something he couldn't develop nowadays because it's all so fragmented?

Moritz Eggert

Moritz Eggert is one contemporary composer who has found his own voice

Well the question is: how do you establish an individual style within that plurality? Composers like Moritz Eggert, Peter Ruzicka and Helmut Lachenmann have managed it, albeit for a niche audience. Unlike Beethoven, they don't attract the masses. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Were you satisfied with audience attendance at the 2013 festival?

Absolutely. 82 per cent of available tickets sold isn't a bad result! And if 300 seats are empty in a hall holding 1600, I just say, "So what?" People go to certain events to see certain artists. We've taken it about as far as we can in Bonn, as long as there’s no new festival hall.

model of the Bonn Festspielhaus by architect Zaha Hadid

At present, only a model: Bonn's Festspielhaus

Well you're certainly going to take a hefty contact book with you when you move to Switzerland to take over the management of the Tonhalle Zurich. What else will you take along?

My experiences in Bonn can't be transferred one-to-one to single venue and orchestra. But it is Switzerland's best orchestra, and the principal conductor there, Lionel Bringuier, is only 27. The musicians chose him themselves. I thought to myself, yes that's the place for me because it's a challenge and a risk. I love that. And I need it.

Born in Hanover in 1967, Ilona Schmiel studied music education, classical philology and culture and media management in Berlin and Oslo. After a spell at the Donaueschingen Music Days and "Ny Musikk" in Oslo she became a guest lecturer in culture and media management at the Hanns Eisler music academy in Berlin. Following four years as artistic director of "Die Glocke" in Bremen, Schmiel assumed the same role at the Beethovenfest Bonn in 2004.

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