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Downbeat to the Beethovenfest

Rick FulkerSeptember 5, 2015

Under the motto "Veränderungen" (Changes), Daniel Barenboim conducted in a star-studded downbeat to the festival, with more notable moments ahead.

Deutschland Beethovenfest 2015 Daniel Barenboim EINSCHRÄNKUNG
Image: Holger Kettner

"It's only a matter of time. Some day, perhaps in fifty years, people will leave the concert halls whistling my melodies." That statement attributed to composer Arnold Schoenberg still sounds unrealistic, considering his sometimes unpalatable music. But his Variations for Orchestra op. 31 as performed at the opening of the Beethovenfest Bonn almost made it seem like a true prophesy. They were rendered by the Staatskapelle Berlin under its principal conductor, Daniel Barenboim.

Schoenberg's melodic patterns aren't exactly catchy. The twelve-tone compositional method seems abstract and mathematical even a century after he developed it. Yet under the baton of Barenboim - who, incredibly, conducted without a score - the motifs, runs and eruptions were clear and palpable. The colorfully iridescent, roughly half-hour work of the year 1928 is filled with episodes both calming and disturbing. The audience, moved by the surprising lightness of the rendition, gave warm ovations.

"Beethon" sculpture in front of the Beethoven Hall in Bonn
Bearing that trademark grim look, the "Beethon" sculpture recalls Bonn's famous sonImage: Beethovenfest

The familiar and the new

Appealing to the faculty of recognition are compositions with theme and variations - thus the motto of this year's fest: "Veränderungen" (which can translate to "Changes" or "Variations"). At the opening performance, Schoenberg's music sounded out next to Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Elgar's First Symphony.

Egmont, a medieval Dutch freedom fighter, was immortalized in a tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - and even more so in the corresponding stage music by Ludwig van Beethoven. "Political music" was the description offered by Bonn Mayor Jürgen Nimptsch in his opening address. That was contrasted by Edward Elgar's thoroughly romantic symphony reminiscent of Johannes Brahms, who himself was strongly influenced by Beethoven. In fact, "None of the composers who followed was unaffected by Beethoven," stressed festival director Nike Wagner in her address to the audience in the sold-out Beethoven Hall.

Rows of people costumed as Beethoven
Forty times the composer: Bonn can't seem to get enough of himImage: picture alliance/H. Lohmeyer/Joker

Wagner points the way to Beethoven

Seen that way, it wouldn't be difficult to fill the playbill for a Beethoven festival. The composer was so influential that with nearly every other composer that followed, a Beethoven connection can somehow be found. Yet Nike Wagner has clearly given much thought to the over fifty events on this season's lineup from September 4 until October 4, each one clearly referring to the composer or the motto.

The convincing downbeat to the fest pointed towards more highlights, said DW Director General Peter Limbourg, describing it as "magnificent, technically brilliant. I think it's wonderful for this city that this festival has such a great audience and great musicians, and I'm looking forward to the coming weeks."