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Beethovenfest Bonn

Rick FulkerSeptember 5, 2013

"Metamorphoses" is the motto of the Beethovenfest Bonn in 2013. This year's festival features some provocative changes, including leaving Beethoven's music off of the programs at both the opening and closing concerts.

Beethoven composing. - Phototype, coloured, after painting, c.1890, by Carl Schloesser (1832-1914)
Image: picture-alliance / akg-images

Only through change can we remain true to ourselves - that line, the title of an influential article by singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann and written following the collapse of East Germany, encapsulates the spirit of the 2013 Beethovenfest. It was phrased a different way by the god Wotan in Richard Wagner's opera "Das Rheingold": "Wandel und Wechsel liebt, wer lebt" (Change and transformation are loved by those who live). Backing them up is a thinker no less weighty than Immanuel Kant, who wrote, "Nothing is more permanent than impermanence."

The rather abstract festival motto in 2013, "Metamorphoses," evokes an element central to music both in terms of the variations and adaptations that abound in musical creation as well as in the cycles of tradition and renewal that run through music history.

A festival in flux

Nobody understood that better than Ludwig van Beethoven, born in 1770 in Bonn. The Beethovenfest, which has taken place in the composer's city of birth with varying regularity since 1845, will include 67 concerts and events at 29 locations in Bonn and its surroundings. The programs run from September 5 to October 5, 2013. After the festival was given new life in 1999, Beethoven has been honored annually in a variety of ways in Bonn.

Irish Singer Caitriona O'Leary © Tara Slye 2013
Singer Caitriona O'Leary will perform "Ecstasy - Irish Songs of Joy"Image: Tara Slye 2013

First there were efforts to illuminate Beethoven's biography or the performance traditions of his work by focusing on Beethoven vis-a-vis specific countries, such as Russia, France or England. But in recent years, the themes have grown more abstract and have included "Music of the Future," "In the Light," "Utopia," "Strong-mindedness," and, now, "Metamorphoses."

Those weighty mottos may go against conventional marketing techniques, but they have been well received by artists and audiences. Last year, around 90 percent of the approximately 53,000 festival tickets were sold.

Not just Beethoven

As 2013 marks two centuries since the birth of Richard Wagner, his music is a key element in the Beethovenfest program. After all, Beethoven was Wagner's most important musical role model. On the one hand, there's unadulterated Wagner, including excerpts from his operas, performed by the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn. But the "Ring" composer is seeing his share of metamorphosis as well at the festival, with jazz adaptations of his Wagnerian motifs by Angelika Niescier and her German Women's Jazz Orchestra, or even into swing, samba and hip-hop rhythms by Otto Sauter & Ten of the Best & Friends.

Those who cross boundaries are welcome at the festival, like Moldova-born violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. As this year's artist in residence, she will give three concerts whose programs range from the folk music of her home country to Beethoven's Violin Concerto. The duo Igudesman and Joo will make their way to Bonn with their comedy take on classical hits, while in a piano battle, the audience chooses the winner between two competing pianists.

One hundred years after the scandal-plagued premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," percussionist Martin Grubinger - a near permanent fixture at the festival - will appear with his adaptation of Stravinsky's work. Finally, there's a gesture that some in the audience will see as original, others as a provocation: Music by Ludwig van Beethoven is not on the bill at the opening concert nor at the concert that rounds out the festival on October 5.

Cycles and traditions

So it's clear that 2013 is set to offer a number of things one wouldn't necessarily expect from a Beethoven festival. However, Ludwig van isn't forgotten completely in 2013. Acclaimed Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff will round out the cycle he began in 2013 of all of Beethoven's piano sonatas. In a second, ongoing Beethoven cycle, the famed Borodin Quartet from Russia pairs Beethoven's complete string quartets with quartets by Russian composers (this time: Dmitry Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke).

In a series called "Encounter with Beethoven," the Beethovenfest and Deutsche Welle continue their Orchestra Campus project. This year sees Turkey return as the partner country, and a Turkish youth orchestra will perform at the festival in a program that will include a commissioned work by the young Turkish composer Zaynep Gedizlioglu.

As orchestra in residence since 2004, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and its conductor, Paavo Järvi, will return with their fresh interpretations of Beethoven. This time audiences can also look forward to their take on Beethoven's sole opera, "Fidelio."

Those performances may mark the conclusion of a long partnership, indicated Järvi during a video address at the press conference. Turning to speak directly to festival head Ilona Schmiel, he said, "Thank you for making our dream come true and sharing our vision." Change at the helm

After a decade at the head of the Beethovenfest Bonn, Schmiel will part ways with the event to take over as director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. In the mid-term, at least, the festival has solid financial footing: The city of Bonn will continue its annual subvention payments totaling 1.6 million euros ($2.08 million) through the year 2017. That covers around a third of the event's total budget of 5.1 million euros, with the rest of the funds coming from sponsors and from ticket sales.

Beethovenfest head Ilona Schmiel (c) Horst Galuschka
Outgoing Beethovenfest head Ilona SchmielImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin © Bob Gruen 2013
Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin is in the "Fidelio" castImage: Bob Gruen 2013
Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Marco Borggreve 2013
2013 artist in residence; violinist Patricia KopatchinskajaImage: Marco Borggreve 2013