Bonn Music manager Steven Walter takes office as director of the Beethovenfest in a year's time. In 2022 he will organise the first festival. In an interview he describes the Corona crisis as an accelerator for change.
The corona pandemic is a crisis of historic proportions, and culture has also been caught up in its maelstrom. Now the new vaccine gives us hope that the nightmare will come to an end. Should the classical music industry then try to pick up where it left off in March of this year?
I don't think it can. Because, regardless of the Corona crisis, we are currently experiencing a crisis of meaning, which has long been in evidence. It has suddenly become possible that we are thrown into a leisure pot of all kinds of fun events. This must give us food for thought and of course outrage. But I think it is not enough for us to be outraged about it.
How should culture react to this?
I would like the rhetoric to be a bit more honest. For instance, the debate on systemic relevance. I find that a bit strange. Because you don't need music to survive, you need it to live! We must fight for this, we must work for this meaning. But to claim that if you can open day-care centres and schools, then you have to open concert halls as well, sometimes you overestimate the role of culture in people's everyday lives. Music is not relevant to the system, but to the soul. We have to make that clear through our work.
How is that possible?
In perspective, we have to succeed in making the deep, identity-giving power of music more widely experienced. Classical music is still seen too much as belonging to a certain social-aesthetic class. But the goal must be to multiply the life-changing potential of music by diversifying programmes and formats. Only then will we be able to develop the cultural-political depth of focus needed to survive such crises. In Bonn, for example, a citizens concern with music has often been demonstrated! In terms of cultural policy, a distinction must also be made between activities of cultural and artistic value and business, which has grown up around certain areas of high culture and is ultimately comparable with any other leisure business.
If you look at the big concert halls and festivals, you rather get the impression that they hope to soon be able to play symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner again as they did before 2000 people. Are there still too few consequences being drawn from the pandemic?
I think there will be a conservative backlash after the pandemic. But the pressure to fundamentally rethink things will increase quickly. The representative and glamorous facet of high culture will always exist in the future. And of course there will still be great symphonies. But beyond that, we must succeed in making a deeper impact on society. Our concert culture is the result of a 19th century bourgeois movement. Music was played in every salon and there was house music everywhere - and at the top of the range, people afforded themselves concert halls, opera houses and large orchestras.
I am now very worried that this base will fall away, that the many concerts, often organised by private operators, will cease to exist, that the many creative and innovative formats will suffer - and then above all the naturally more cumbersome subsidised tankers will survive. We must be careful not to become a top without a foundation. Then it would be easy to call the whole thing into question. After all, a lot of public money is at stake here.
What are the consequences for the classical music scene if an agency as powerful and traditional as Columbia Artists in the USA suddenly closes down, as happened shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic?
I think we will experience something similar in Germany. The system of the big touring industry, where an orchestra flies around the world for two or three concerts, for which horrendous sums of money are spent, will hardly be tenable in the long term in terms of cultural policy. This also against the background of increasing debates on sustainability. Here I see the pandemic more as an accelerator than as a change agent, because these questions would come up eventually anyway, only now they would come up faster. One should also discuss such delicate issues as a possible cap on top fees. One has to ask oneself whether it is justifiable to use taxpayers' money to pay evening fees of 50,000 euros or more for superstars, while no less excellent artists are often paid precariously. If this is done by a private-sector promoter who follows a market logic and sells enough tickets at 300 euros a piece, that is absolutely fine. But the question must be justified whether a publicly funded institution has to participate in this business.
In this context, would you also include the Beethovenfest among the publicly funded institutions, even though a lot of private money is involved through sponsors?
Walter: I would say yes. In my opinion, public funding obliges us to measure success in many dimensions. In addition to the absolute number of visitors, the diverse composition of the audience is also important. The mix must be right, whereby artistic excellence is never in question. But I have no particular ambitions to take part in what I consider to be a ruinous competition of higher, faster, further. Instead, I prefer: deeper, wiser, broader! I think that Nike Wagner has already initiated many things in this programmatic sense, for which I am grateful.
Are projects like the #bebeethoven Fellowship Programme of the Podium Esslingen Festival, which you also presented in Bonn in October, an approach?
#bebeethoven was a project that was decidedly concerned with artistic innovation in the field of music. But yes: I believe we need such freedom for new artistic developments, which then, in a second step, must of course be communicated and made accessible to a broad public.
In the current Beethoven Year there was the Pastoral Project, which honoured Beethoven not only as a nature lover but also in a certain way as the patron saint of creation. Would this be a starting point for rethinking the classical music business?
The sustainability issue will inevitably come up. Sustainability in many senses, also in terms of how we can sustainably develop talents, ideas and networks. The business is far too much in continuous flow mode, the eternal search for the proverbial next sow to be chased through the classic village is preventing some strategic and long-term important development in the sense of a sustainable classic landscape.
Even before the Corona crisis, it was often criticised that many more professional musicians were trained at music academies than the market could absorb. Will the problem get worse now?
Yes, absolutely. In the past, the majority of trained musicians were employed in permanent positions. That has now reversed. Most end up as freelance artists. Of course, studying at a conservatory is not a professional training programme. It's a general concept of education, and rightly so: It should be about artistically comprehensive education, not about market-oriented training. But you still have to consider where the journey can lead. This is increasingly happening at the universities of music. I myself am a peculiar and absurd result of the soloistically oriented education system. Fortunately, I have noticed that there is a yawning gap in the intermediate area between music performance and the public. Otherwise I too would have had few interesting prospects.
How can this gap be described?
It lies in the curatorial aspect, which by the way has long been understood in other areas of cultural life. In the visual arts, there have been branches of education for ages that systematically deal with the museum as a public platform for experiencing art. In music there is nothing really comparable. This is symptomatic: we train a great deal of artistic excellence, but a great deal of it fizzles out. We need to think more about how the interface between music and the public is shaped. I see many areas of work for people with a basic musical education.
Would you currently advise talented young people to study music?
I have always said: if you can imagine doing something else, you should do something else. But there are enough people who can't help but become musicians. That was the same with me. I had many interests in my youth, but at some point I realised: not making music would be like an amputation that I couldn't cope with. It's a crazy idea to make a living by producing sound waves in space. But that is also part of the magic: it is so valuable to many people that they need it, if not for survival, then for a good life. And enough people are willing to spend private and public money on it. That is a great achievement of civilisation.
Original text: Bernhard Hartmann
Translation: Mareike Graepel