Ten years ago, barely three months after its opening, as maliciously and vociferously predicted by many who felt that building Europe's largest opera house (with 2500 seats) in a town of barely 50000 inhabitants smacked of illusions of grandeur, went bankrupt.
It was only an unprecedented act of civic pride and courage that managed to raise enough funds to rescue that beautiful 'Palace of Dreams' as Pierre Boulez called it in his speech to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Festspielhaus of Baden-Baden.
Boulez, who only a few years ago wanted to blow up all opera houses, mellowed much as he approaches his eightieth year. Wise and still full of ambitious plans for the future, he admitted that he was also amongst those who promised no future to the Festspielhaus. However, being a long-time resident of Baden-Baden, and having been so long associated with its Musical Director, he became its most fervent ambassador.
Carefully balancing his love for classical music, and his unique, almost obsessional respect for what he considers the best in contemporary music, he hinted that the next step in completing that 'Palace of Dreams' should be the building of a small hall to be a home for contemporary and chamber music. Since those knife-edge days, a new management under Andreas Moelich-Zebhauser, with long experience as a close associate of Pierre Boulez in launching and managing the French Centre for Contemporary Music, managed to turn round the fortunes of the Festspielhaus.
It is now an admired centre of European musical culture, unique also in relying entirely on private support and surviving without any state subsidy. Two-thirds of its budget is covered by ticket sales - over 200,000 tickets were sold during the last season. Five hundred private donors and a body of 1300 Friends finance the rest of a modest annual budget. It is remarkable that a staff of only fifty manages to look after an enterprise of this size and complexity. At a time when Bayreuth, now in the hands of two of his great-granddaughters, looking forward to an uncertain artistic future, is in danger of losing its ossified predominance in presenting Wagner's operas, and Salzburg becoming year by year more crudely commercialised, with admission prices that make it the preserve of the rich, the Festspielhaus seems to be a beacon of musical excellence in agreable and affordable circumstances.
The Festspielhaus is a fifteen-minute drive away from the local airport, in the centre of a cultured and hospitable town, beautifully nestling in the foothills of the Black Forest. Artistes of the highest order, like Bartoli, Netrebko, Garanca, Quasthoff, Florez, Villazon, Abbado, Thielmann, Gergiev, Brendel and many others have, from the very first days, not only supported the Festspielhaus by being always available to appear in its star-studded programmes, but always made a point of praising it as their favourite platform. They can count on a house sold out to a sophisticated audience, but also enjoy a warm and hospitable welcome from a dedicated staff, and uniquely comfortable backstage arrangements, with individually decorated and luxurious changing rooms, always with flowers to greet them.
The Artistic Director has briefly presented the ambitious plans of the Festspielhaus for the coming season. An agreement has just been signed with ARTE, the TV Station presenting the finest cultural programs from the German, Austrian and Swiss stations. The Festspielhaus Tannhauser, produced by Lehnhoff, and a Florez Bel Canto Gala will be broadcast in the spring of 2009. A new Barbiere is taken over from the Metropolitan in October, and a revival of the splendid Salzburg Rosenkavalier will be presented early next year. Plans are already in hand for a new Ring, under Thielemann, the leading Wagner conductor of the day, and partner of the new management in Bayreuth. John Neumeier, the famous choreographer and founder of the Hamburg Ballett Company will further increase the close co-operation with the Festspielhaus. At Christmastime, the Mariinsky Ballet will present its most famous productions. Robert Wilson will direct in June Weber's Der Freischutz. Kurt Masur, Sir Simon Rattle, Lang Lang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Micha Maisky, Kent Nagano, Hilary Hahn and many other internationally famous artristes and conductors will also appear in the course of the season.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, four orchestral concerts were offered, each of them representing the highest excellence in its category. Over 8000 listened to these concerts and a further 3000 attended lectures and free, public rehearsals. An ambitious educational program allows 14,000 students from local schools to attend concerts and lectures. The opening concert was conducted by Maazel, about to end his long tenancy of the New York Philharmonic. Another Maestro who, nearing his 80th year, has also mellowed much and dropped some of his occasionally idiosyncratic ways, that gained him so much undeserved-hostility amongst many critics. Bruckner's 8th Symphony is a monumental epic of a composer, living in the shadow of two towering geniuses of his age - Wagner and Brahms - always weakened by diabetes and heartproblems and always underestimating his own genius. He created a work where these obsessive feelings of inferiority were sublimated into oceans of sounds, intermixed with delicate Scherzos, but never able to allow his gentler creative powers to flower without majestic outpourings of Brass. The last few bars of the Rheingold - this summit of majesty groomed into musical terms - last only three or four minutes and are enough to leave an audience in almost paralised elation. Bruckner's peaks of majestic outbursts seem unending and leave one in exhausted relief from having at last reached the end of a glorious but tiring trip.
To have been guided throughout this trip by Maazel was an experience I never before felt in listening to Bruckner. Like Prospero, age-old, wise and benevolent, he seemed to eschew any show-gesticulation . There was none of the excitable elbow-work of a Solti. He was relaxed and serene throughout, his arms hardly leaving his waist, beating meticulously every single bar with a totally convincing exactitude of a conductor who has yielded a baton longer than any living Maestro of equal talents. Moving in turn to the groups acting out Bruckner's concept of writing in massed columns of instruments, he allowed complete freedom to the many beautifully-executed wind and brass solo passages, and yet I felt that the soloists trusted their own concept willingly in the hands of one who measured up, humbly, to the genius of a Bruckner. The repeated entries of horns, so favoured in the instrumentation of Bruckner - how much Strauss and Mahler learnt from him - sounded as if they were being played by a single magic horn. The cues given by Maazel, flowing out of the tip of his baton achieved miraculously soft unanimous entries, and also marvellously and gently fading out sounds. At the end, far beyond the prescribed fermatas, the symphony came almost unending to a conclusion that left me exhausted and yet elated and grateful to have learnt to admire and savour a work that normally is not so near to my heart.
The next concert was directed by Thomas Hengelbrock, founder of one of the finest baroque ensembles and choruses in Europe, presenting Bach Motets and Cantatas. The relatively tiny volume produced by this ensemble, playing on contemporary, or reproduced instruments, still managed to focus attention in this enormous concert hall on the beauties of some lesser-known works of Bach. Between Bruckner, and on the evening before Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, this concert was a welcome reminder of where the sources of classical music stem from. The small chorus of only twenty, amongst them fine soloists, sang some beautiful a cappella passages, unburdened by the occasionally tedious lengths of the recitatives, which are an integral part of the great Passions but - to my taste - unnecessarily burden the balance of shorter religious works. I might mention in passing, that the timpanies played by a very musical timpanist, were exact copies, made in England, of the ancient timpanies still used by the mounted guards in the UK.
Wherever Gustavo Dudamel, the barely 27-year-old conductor appears, he creates a sensation. When he stands in front of 'his' Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, sensation turns into amazement and limitless admiration. So it was in Baden-Baden, on the third day of the anniversary celebrations of the Festspielhaus. The orchestra, exploding the numbers that even the Berlioz Requiem or Mahler's Second Symphony would require, filled the enormous stage to bursting point. There were at least 48 violins, 16 violas, 14 cellists and 12 double basses. Some Youth Orchestras have some musicians already nearing middle age; in this orchestra, youth means youth.Their appearance on the stage has nothing to do with the formal and sedate behaviour of our conventional orcghestras. There is a youthful and happy confusion, moving of chairs and stands, and their tuning and warming up is gloriously cheerful and chaotic.
Dudamel is a slight, wiry figure, with a large mop of black hair, so that when he stands on the rostrum, dressed in a simple black suit, one can see only a figure, like an oversize doll, with blindingly white hands, flickering wildly in the air. Yet, that blade-like figure jumps into life, like a steel coil released. If Maazel reminded me of Prospero, Dudamel seemed to me the embodiment of a benevolent Caliban. His grasp - from memory - of that fiendishly complex score of Sacre borders on the unbelievable. There is not one sound, one phrase, one lightning, flickering entry, that does not come out of his fingers, arms, shoulders and his entire body, jumping, turning, bending. His beat never relaxes for a second, triplets in rapid upbeats point every single component with the arrow-like end of his baton, in majestic tuttis he seems to levitate far above his own height and in gentle passages he seems to form and shape the very sounds that emerge, as if it were he playing them.
The soloists are truly phenomenal. One of the orchestra's bass players was engaged instantly by the Berlin Philharmonic, when they gave a concert there. Eight horns sound like one, with meltingly beautiful solos . Muted trumpet solos sound like nothing I have heard before, two tuba players amaze one at each entry. The wild, sharp chords that dominate Sacre, are hammered out with a precision as if they were produced by a robot, even though these chords are played by 120 musicians. The percussion section work like maniacs, with every touch of the triangle audible in the welter of noise. Ansermet, one of the great maestros who championed Sacre from the beginning would, I'm sure, be amazed to hear what still lies in that score, that his superb Swiss Romand orchestra, working for months to master it, must have missed. This kind of playing, with every single member giving everything they could, and yet securely led through the fantastic rhytmic complications by this modest and unassuminmg young man, can drive even an audience of stolid burghers into a frenetic, never ending applause.
In Pictures at an Exhibition (the Ravel version) the orchestra has shown itself - or Dudamel has shown himself - from another side. Few great orchestral works give so many opportunities for showing their mettle and the brilliance of their soloists. Again, I was completely won over both by the majesty and wit of the concept of Dudamel, and the delicacy, subtlety and sheer beauty of sound of his soloists. Horns, flutes, clarinets, oboes, English horns and a superb bassoonist were matched in virtuosity by a doubly reinforced brass-section, that in the 'Great Gate of Kiev' reached a paroxism of volume, still whipped to higher spheres by Dudamel's hypnotic verve. The timpanist rose to his full height and raising his sticks skywards punished his timpani, like bringing a bull to its knees. This was no show, this was passion. What came after that last chord, making the air tremble in the hall, was like the continuation of the playing of the orchestra by an audience roused to an applause like an an integral part of the composition.
After Musorgsky, an encore was, of course, inevitable. They chose an electrifying composition of Bernstein: the Mambo. This gave again an opportunity to the orchestra to shed every restraint and turn the composition in a show, entire groups jumping up and down, bass players and cellists twirling their instruments, brass players swinging from side to side, sometimes the entire orchestra shouting out some version of 'Ole', and in the end all getting up and in a whirl of chaos rushng about, still playing, and all this matched by Dudamel with his flickering baton giving cues with the precision of a surgeon. A final encore was the Radetzky March. In his directing of the massed clapping of the audience Dudamel already showed that he could be an undisputed master of the Vienna Philharmonic's traditional New Year Concert. In the end, the entire orchestra rushed about on the stage, embracing, dancing, and not for a moment did one feel that this was a rehearsed show. It was the continuation of that joyous spirit that seems to inspire all these young players. The formality of handing to Dudamel this year's Jeunesses Musicales Prize was also the occasion for celebrating the presence at the concert of Jose Antonio Abreu, who created the movement in Caracas that led to this unique transformation of the lives of thousands of underprivileged children. Dudamel, although not from an underprivileged background , is also the creation of that movement, which has dominated his life from the age of eight.
Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra gave the opening concert in the Festspielhaus ten years ago. Ever since, he has considered the Festspielhaus as his favourite venue outside his hometown and has not only appeared every year in Baden-Baden, but several of the spectacular opera productions of the Mariinsky Theatre, amongst them the Mariinsky Ring, have also been shown in the Festspielhaus. The famous Mariinsky Ballet Company is also a regular guest in Baden-Baden. In a somewhat conventional program, the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto was played by Alexei Volodin, one of seemingly unending flow of superbly talented pianists from Russia from whom the thundering octave-passages demand no greater effort than signing a program note for a fan. He will again appear in London with Gergiev and the LSO.
The main work was the Fifth Symphony by Tchaikovsky. Boulez referred in his speech to the straight-jacket of a Musical Director of a great Concerthall, who must put such much beloved works again and again in their programme planning, as their main concern has to be the balancing of the books. He even expressed sympathy for this. In the event, to hear this work performed in such an authentic manner, with such passion and love, was fully justified. Gergiev, a tall and imposing figure, does not stand on a pedestal - he stands in the middle of the semicircle formed by the principal string players, in physical closeness to all parts of the orchestra. He does not use a baton, but relies on his hands, which seem to be extraordinarily powerful, with curiously long fingers. In conducting, he seems to use all fingers individually, his little fingers often standing up as if he held delicately a cup of tea. In his upbeats, or individual cues in shaping a phrase, some fingers are given a quick trill-like shake, and when stopping or ending a phrase this little whirl, like feathering along the surface of water, gives a very individual aspect to his technique. He engages in his choreography his whole body, and moves freely about in the ample space.
This physical nearness to the players allows him an even stronger ability to involve and lead them. He often uses his hands almost as if he were shaping something of clay. A very sensual and commanding choreography, emerging from a deep understanding and love of the score. The quality of the wind and brass sound in his orchestra allows a very special brooding, melancholy timbre, so well fitting this work. Yet when in the last movement the first tentative rythms are building up into a heroic march, he stands towering over his players and he can whip up a feast of volume that brutally contrasts with the melancholy sadness of much of the work in the earlier movements. An encore - the Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo - was light and fluffy, like whipped cream, and as a second encore the orchestra waded in in the Glinka Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture at a speed that allowed them to show how fast and precisely their strings can play. I found Gergiev a most impressive Maestro and his meteoric rise during the last few years is not surprising.
Before the concert, everybody was offered a glass of champagne; after the concert, excellent soups and trays of snacks were offered in the entrance hall, and a section of the strings played some extracts from the String Serenade. Smiling usherettes offered roses to all ladies leaving the hall. I felt that this was a perfect ending to a lovely concert evening, and this seems to be another speciality of the Festspielhaus in creating an atmosphere of welcome, which I rarely experienced in other concert halls.
Leaving that splendid building, it was difficult to remember
that the furthest point in the town that houses such a magnificent
Hall is just a few minutes away.