Most popular music is clearly about love. Showing that love has also inspired a colorful array of art music is the goal of this year's Beethovenfest in Bonn.
The festival opens on Friday, September 8 with a three-day series of open air events on six stages in Bonn's inner city, including the live transmission of two concerts performed at the World Conference Center Bonn (WCCB).
On Friday evening, the Mariinsky Orchestra St. Petersburg under conductor Valery Gergiev gives the downbeat, followed two days later by the "hr" (Radio Hesse) Symphony Orchestra under its principal conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada. The latter is preceded by a three-hour presentation on Bonn's market square in cooperation with Deutsche Welle.
The soloist originally announced for that evening, Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, had "let the organizers down at the very last moment," said festival director Nike Wagner on Friday in Bonn. Taking her place and "heightening the suspense" is the Spanish pianist Javier Perianes.
All in all, the current season includes six symphony orchestras and three period instrument ensembles. But whether orchestral or chamber music, it's a matter of "tieing every program together with a theme if at all possible," said Wagner.
Distant love, great longing
The historic point of departure for this year's motto, "Distant Loved One," are the years 1814 - 1816, a time of crisis in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. After the great successes of his middle period, the nearly completely deaf and increasingly isolated artist turned inward.
One outcome of this reorientation was the first song cycle in music history: "Die ferne Geliebte" (The Distant Loved One), followed by an explosion of productivity. Ludwig van Beethoven's late creative phase is filled with radical and edgy, often revolutionary works.
Equally prominent in the composer's biography is the "Immortal Beloved," the unknown addressee of a passionate love letter Beethoven penned in 1812. Musicologists still dispute who among the many women in Beethoven's life that person might have been. In the years after Beethoven, the iconic "Immortal Beloved" inspired many works of art.
In two genres - the art song and the madrigal - love is clearly a frequent subject. Both genres feature prominently in the program, such as in a "Day of Art Song" moderated by the German pianist and musicologist Siegfried Mauser. This, said Nike Wagner, is an example of how the festival "also seeks to probe the depths analytically and not just seek a broad appeal."
The "Distant Loved One" theme should appeal to a concert visitor's "inner space," said Nike Wagner - one "that needs protection in our noisy day and age and should be preserved."
Plumbing the depths
In many instances, that quieter side of serious music is represented on the playbill through chamber music, which in comparison to orchestral concerts is a more intimate, intense and challenging listening experience - such as on a "String Quartet Weekend," where visitors can hear all of Beethoven's late-period string quartets.
But the big sound is also in ample supply, as provided by prominent names on the orchestral landscape such as the Bamberg Symphony under Jakub Hrusa and the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Sakari Oramo. They too perform concerts with works revolving around the themes of love, longing and passion. Big names on the solo and chamber music programs include the Russian-German cult pianist Igor Levit, the renowned Dutch fortepiano specialist Ronald Brautigam, and the world-famous lied singer Matthias Goerne.
Not just Beethoven - and not just classical
Three evenings of contemporary dance, a literature reading with the German journalist and politician Christina Weiss, an extended lineup for children called "Ludwig + Du" (Ludwig + You) and a student manager project are among the features that are somewhat off the beaten track, giving the Beethovenfest its identity.
The latter centers around Francesco Tristano. The Luxemburg pianist features on CDs with music by John Cage, Johann Sebastian Bach, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky but also knows his way around the club scene, making him a figure younger people will identify with. This time, the school-age participants will not only learn the ropes of concert management but will also bring along their own musical ideas, which are then to be brought to life as "One Music" in cooperation with Tristano.
Experiments with music
The festival also will feature an experiment in perception when a gauze cylinder with a grand piano inside is erected for three days in the arcade court yard of the Bonn University. Every half hour, a different pianist will enter and perform, and passers-by can move freely about, listening while standing, sitting, reclining or walking by.
By opening day, roughly half of the 31,000 available tickets had been sold and 13 concerts sold out - an interim result with which Business Director Dettloff Schwerdtfeger is satisfied.
Even after being shortened from four weeks to three, the Beethovenfest Bonn, with 54 concerts, 2000 artists and a total budget of 4.5 million euros ($5.39 million) is one of Germany's major classical music events.
This year, DW is recording eight of the concerts to be broadcast by partner stations abroad in the radio series "DW Festival Concerts / Concert Hour."
A number of performances can be heard as audio on demand or podcast on dw.com/beethovenfest, and the DW television format "Sarah's Music" will also report from the event.