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Steven Walter to direct the Beethovenfest

Anastassia Boutsko rf
May 4, 2020

A German-American in his mid-thirties, Berliner by choice, cellist and visionary music manager, Walter is to become the Beethovenfest Bonn's new artistic director in 2022.

Deutschland | Beethovenfest | Steven Walter
Image: Daniel Barth

As announced on May 4, Steven Walter, currently director of the festival PODIUM Esslingen, will head the festival in the city of Beethoven's birth beginning November 1, 2021 and will support the festival staff until then. The 2021 season will be managed by the current director, Nike Wagner, whose term has been extended for an additional year.

Giving new life to music

After months of deliberations, the choice for Walter by the search committee — in which Deutsche Welle is represented — came as a surprise to many but was warmly greeted in Bonn. The choice is seen as daring, perhaps not risk-free but certainly future-oriented.  Edging out nine other candidates, Walter stood out for his radical advocacy of unusual and innovative forms of music presentation. With many festivals seeking different approaches, he has a proven history of taking them.

Ashok Srikharan and Nike Wagner at riverside, holding a bottle of champagne suspended on a rope
Bonn's mayor Ashok Srikharan with the current Beethovenfest director Nike WagnerImage: DW/R. Fulker

Born in 1986 near Stuttgart in a German-American family, Walter told DW that he is proud to "combine both influences," although he culturally identifies with Germany "first and foremost."

His parents were not musicians, but an ambitious teacher ignited his passion for music. Studying cello in Oslo and Detmold, he founded the festival Podium Esslingen in 2009, which began as a students' project but has grown to European stature.

The Beethoven year became the coronavirus year

Two hundred and fifty years after the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, two festival editions in Bonn had originally been planned for 2020, one in the spring and one in the autumn, but both had to be called off due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fall edition has now been scheduled to take place one year later, from August 20 until September 10, 2021.

Beethoven statue in Bonn
There's no escaping Ludwig in BonnImage: Bundesstadt Bonn/M. Sondermann

With the first festival taking place in 1845, Bonn's Beethovenfest presents world-class artists each season. The programs center on Ludwig van Beethoven's works but also span the relationship between Beethoven and other composers, up to contemporary music. 

Music for the "Post-Pandemic Festival"

Walter has co-founded various ensembles. In recognition of his work as an innovative music promoter, he was awarded an ECHO Klassik in 2010 and named Cultural Manager of the year in 2011. He frequently gives speeches on concert design and cultural management.

"I've always viewed my role as a musician and music mediator as an active one," explains Walter, who sees his strength in "working creatively with unusual performances spaces." That ability could prove decisive for the Beethovenfest, which during the restoration of the Beethoven Hall has had to seek out other venues. Work on the Beethoven Hall could continue for years.

Building site with crane and scaffolding, hiding a structure with a rounded ceiling
Under reconstruction: the Beethoven Hall on the River RhineImage: imago images/Rainer Unkel

Another core responsibility, says Walter, is caring for the many musicians now stranded by the coronavirus pandemic. "Who will make the music for the post-pandemic festival? Who will strike up a note when we're all able to return? We need reliable perspectives for music-making now. Otherwise there won't be any left, and the damage to the musical landscape will be immeasurable," he writes on his Facebook page.

"If music isn't performed, it doesn't exist," Walter continues. "Musicians lose their livelihoods, institutions and structures collapse. Of course, the air that carries sound waves is the same air that carries the virus. In a pandemic, we are responsible for our audiences. But we also bear a lasting responsibility for music. Every era can be measured in how it treats its artists."

"If you can make it there..."

Finding unusual presentation and distribution forms for classical music in the concert hall and online, and attracting a youthful audience are counted among Walter's achievements in Esslingen. His innovations there have included a "disco opera," music theater to a party with dance, a multimedia evening on Robert Schumann, and a combination of musical theater and orchestral installation.

Steven Walter in Bonn
Steven Walter in BonnImage: DW/A. Boutsko

Showing a delicate touch in navigating the fragile margins between the digital world and the real one, Walter has proven that he experiments with careful consideration and is known to own up to his mistakes. Curating the fellowship program #bebeethoven, he teamed up with 12 composers, performers and music producers across Europe to give the composer's music a 21st century twist for the anniversary year. 

In an interview for the daily Stuttgarter Zeitung, Walter emphasized that while offbeat events can be easily staged in a city like Berlin, being able to capture the attention of the rather conservative public in Swabia and growing audiences there proves these ideas can work anywhere. That, clearly, is what the Beethovenfest's exploratory committee also hopes for Bonn.

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