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Cloth Hall Players No Strangers to Symphony Hall


Riccardo Chailly
Riccardo Chailly

When conductor Kurt Masur brought the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to Boston from East Germany in 1974, it was a really big deal. Travel was difficult from the East, and no one had yet heard of glasnost or perestroika. We looked forward to hearing a very old and famous orchestra which had been insulated from performance trends in the West. Fifteen years later, the Berlin Wall fell. And now, 25 years after that historic moment, the GO is back in Boston to bring its special sound, style, and history once again. The Boston Celebrity Series concert will offer Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (Overture), Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. The orchestra’s leader, Riccardo Chailly will conduct and Nikolaj Znaider will be the violin soloist.

BMInt interviewed Andreas Schulz, the orchestra’s intendant.

LE: In Boston we have a reverence for what we think of as old institutions. Our city was founded in 1630, our first university opened its doors six years later, and we had singing societies from the very beginning. The Harvard Musical Association, an outgrowth of Harvard’s Pierian Sodality (an undergraduate orchestra beginning in 1808) dates from 1837. But we did not really get a successful professional orchestra until Harvard Musical Association organized one in 1865. That orchestra ceased operations the year after the BSO was founded in 1881 after contributing half its players to the new body. Thus, it can be bruited that the Boston Symphony Orchestra can trace its origins to 1808—not bad for a New World cultural institution, though with a founding date of 1781, The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is certainly more rooted in antiquity. Can you tell me how this history bears upon how the players and management view themselves?

AS: Everybody in this organization is very much aware of the long tradition. Highly visibly written on the organ prospect in the great hall and still guiding us in every day’s work is the ancient motto the Gewandhaus had chosen for itself from the beginning: Res severa est verum gaudium (“true pleasure is a serious business” from Seneca) . But the consciousness of tradition at the same time always has been accompanied by an obligation for us to renew. Our work does not stop with keeping up the tradition. But ever since Mendelssohn’s, time the orchestra has been an ensemble of premieres and first performances. To encourage, bring forward and explore new music and new ways has always been important, so building new traditions at the same time as paying respect to the old one is a key mission of our institution.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra is so very connected with Mendelssohn. It’s probably too broad a topic for an interview, but what can you tell us of that composer’s ups and downs in Germany in the 20th century?

In the Third Reich Mendelssohn was vilified because of his Jewish roots. His reputation as a brilliant musician, reconciling European cultural with his visionary reach into almost all aspects of life, have had a lasting influence on Germany and the classical music world even through today, yet that was so profoundly damaged by the defamation of the Nazis that his music had almost completely disappeared from the repertoire, not to mention our knowledge of his paintings and letters reflecting German and European bourgeois life.

Kurt Masur has devoted a big part of his life to exploring and performing Mendelssohn’s musical œuvre. It was under Masur’s chairmanship that the International Mendelssohn Foundation was founded in 1991 for saving and restoring the house where Mendelssohn had lived and died, and Masur has been tirelessly committed ever since to the preservation of this important cultural heritage. In 1997, the Mendelssohn House was opened to the public as a museum.

Another way to continue the revival of Mendelssohn comes from the Mendelssohn Festival, which was initiated in 1997 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death and now takes place regularly. The Festival concert series concludes with a Gala Concert after which the International Mendelssohn Prize has been conferred annually since 2007 in three categories: music, visual arts and social commitment. These categories recall Mendelssohn’s creative diversity, his diverse talents and his tireless efforts to promote social advancement.

Second Gewandhaus 1844-1944
Second Gewandhaus 1844-1944

Mendelssohn also supposedly brought Bach back to 19th-century audiences, but inasmuch as the Gewandhaus Orchestra has always also served as the orchestra for Bach’s St. Thomas Church, was there ever a time when the ensemble did not play Bach?

The Gewandhaus Orchestra has played Bach throughout its history. It serves in an unbroken tradition almost weekly at St. Thomas Church and plays the big Passions and the Christmas Oratorio every year.

How has the GO’s Bach performance style changed over the years?

Musicians learn and research all-life long, and, at the end of the day, adapt their styles to newly acquired knowledge. Since the fall of the wall in 1990, the Gewandhaus Orchestra players have devoted themselves to the study of the most recent findings of research on historical performance practice. The latest recordings of Bach clearly demonstrate a new transparency combined with a fresh and spell-binding performance.

How does the Chailly directorship fit into the history of your orchestra in terms of sound and repertoire?

Riccardo Chailly has interpreted the core repertoire of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in a great way: Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler: he revolutionized the interpretation of the Gewandhaus repertoire not just through his conception of the music, but also by discoveries of special versions. Under his leadership, the Gewandhaus Orchestra has become a highly virtuosic flexible ensemble. In addition, Chailly has led numerous world premieres among them pieces commissioned by Gewandhaus from Wolfgang Rihm and Hans-Werner Henze.

Chailly has mixed the uniquely warm sound of the orchestra with his southern temperament and analytical sophistication, and this affords the musicians the greatest possible experience, even though in terms of technique, it sometimes tests the limits. This risky manner of music-making, the special sound, the new view of familiar works and the virtuoso playing of the musicians make the listening experience in concert so unique.

Our sound has been passed down to younger generations of musicians since Mendelssohn’s times through the Hochschule für Musik in Leipzig. In 1843, Mendelssohn had specifically founded this college for the training of the Gewandhaus musicians as the first music conservatory in Germany. The “Mendelssohn Orchestral Academy” of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, founded in 2004 with a special trainee program for aspiring orchestral musicians, nowadays continues intensively to pursue this goal in close cooperation with the Hochschule für Musik (now called University of Music and Theater Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy). The Academy offers a bachelor degree course and a master degree course.

Please tell us about the program you are bringing to Boston and how it shows off what the orchestra is sounding like now and what pieces have a historical connection for it.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy must be credited with exerting decisive influence on the development of today’s core symphonic repertoire during his tenure as Gewandhauskapellmeister (1835-1847). During his incumbency, the Gewandhausorchester gave the first performances of several of his own most significant works, including the Violin Concerto in E Minor, the Scottish Symphony and the overture to Ruy Blas. Mendelssohn also conducted the orchestra in the world premieres of Schubert’s C major symphony “The Great,” as well as the 1st, 2nd and 4th symphonies of Robert Schumann. By way of innovative programming, Mendelssohn also broadened the Leipzig audience’s horizons towards the masterpieces of the past, in particular reintroducing and resurrecting interest in Bach’s instrumental works—music that until Mendelssohn’s arrival in Leipzig was, astonishingly, largely forgotten by concert audiences.

Musicologists and historians consider Leipzig in the early 19th century as being at the forefront of Beethoven performance outside Vienna. Not only did Beethoven allow his symphonies to be performed at the Gewandhaus shortly after their respective premieres in Vienna, but he entrusted the Gewandhausorchester itself with the first performances of two of his most significant works: the Triple Concerto, Op. 56 (1808) and the 5th Piano Concerto in E-flat Major (the Emperor), Op. 73 (1811). A year before Beethoven’s death, in the season 1825-26, the Gewandhausorchester became the first orchestra in the world to stage a complete cycle of his nine symphonies. The Gewandhausorchester’s first Beethoven symphony cycle on foreign soil took place (twice) in 1961 during the Orchestra’s first tour to Japan. I also remember how the master’s name dominates the proscenium arch at your Symphony Hall.

 The logistics of touring a symphony orchestra are tremendously daunting. How is this tour being sponsored?

DHL, the official logistics partner of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, supports the ensemble’s annual tour through the U.S. From November 3rd to November 10th. DHL accounts for the tour’s logistics planning and safe transportation of the sensitive instruments. Furthermore, DHL manages the customs clearance formalities, which this year include the CITES[1] certificates for some of the instruments.

In cooperation with Teach For All, DHL’s partner to expand educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and young people, the musicians will also visit the John Marshall Middle School in Houston on November 3rd.

DHL has always been very reliable when it comes to logistics planning and execution. We are also excited to kick off our tour in Leipzig’s twin city Houston and appreciate DHL’s support in enabling us to follow our social responsibility agenda internationally.

Before the official tour start in Houston in the evening of November 3rd, three musicians of the Gewandhaus Orchestra will make a morning visit to the John Marshall Middle School in Houston, where Teach For America, Teach For All’s partner in the U.S., places teachers. The passionate members of the symphony orchestra will describe the Gewandhaus venue in Leipzig, present its orchestra and its traditions to students, and discuss what a career as a musician can look like.

Educational and employment opportunity play key roles in our group’s idea of corporate responsibility. Hence, we are not just thrilled for the upcoming U.S. tour of the symphony orchestra, but also for the opportunity to bring two of our major partners together to broaden students’ educational prospects”, Vincenzo Scrudato, Managing Director at DHL Trade Fairs & Events.

DHL has been the official logistics partner of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for almost ten years, facilitating the logistics planning and transporting instruments and equipment on concert tours in Europe, Asia, and America. A tour can take up to two years of logistics planning and requires the shipper to follow a stringent schedule to cope with the short time slots in between concerts, while always securing safety of the sensitive instruments.

Nikolaj Znaider (file photo)
Nikolaj Znaider (file photo)

Deutsche Post DHL recognizes that socially disadvantaged children often have the least access to quality education, which is why, as part of the GoTeach program, it has partnered with Teach For All, a global network of independent social enterprises working to expand educational opportunities in their countries. Teach For All network partners recruit and develop diverse individuals from a range of academic disciplines to commit two years to teach in their nations’ high need classrooms and to work throughout their lives, both within and outside of education, in pursuit of expanded opportunity for children.

There are many other parallels with Boston such as a music director in common: Arthur Nikisch in the beginning of the 20th century. And Bostonians have great affection for Leipzig’s former maestro, Kurt Masur. Another son of Leipzig, Klaus Tennstedt was a favorite guest conductor at the BSO. And Herbert Blomstedt yet another Leipzig music director has conducted the B in recent years. Then of course, there is the connection with the old Gewandhaus which was one of the prototypes for Symphony Hall. All of this must make the orchestra feel at home in Boston. How are the City of Boston, the Boston Symphony and Symphony Hall regarded in Leipzig?

Since the first visit of the orchestra in 1974 Boston has been very highly regarded by the musicians of the Gewandhaus. My predecessor in office at that time wrote in his travel diary about the debut in Boston: “Already at the first rehearsal at midday, the excellent acoustics of the hall are evident… Illustrious success—over 2000 listeners applauding enthusiastically.”

The close connection to Arthur Nikisch is something the orchestras share and equally cherish. To find architecture based on the second Gewandhaus here at Symphony Hall is like taking an inspiring journey in time and a reconnecting to our own history. On top of it all the enthusiastic reception of our performances has always made our stays here very special to us. The Boston Music Lovers show a seriousness and enthusiasm which is very much like that of our audience at home. It demonstrates how much commitment there is and how much pleasure derives from it.

[1] Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

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