Sudwestrundfunk (SWR), the broadcaster which covers the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinatein Germany, is causing anger and concern with its decision to merge its two surviving orchestras, the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (SO) with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR (RSO). The decision to merge the ensembles seems to have already been taken, rather than being a proposal, and will take effect from 2016. An open letter objecting to this cultural vandalism signed by over 160 distinguished signatories was published earlier this month, and has so far only elicited a rather unsatisfactory reply from SWR. The open letter is available at the Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung website, but I am publishing the English version in full below (click on the more link).
François-Xavier Roth is the current Chief Conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden
und Freiburg, and the orchestra has a distinguished history dating back to 1946 with past conductors including Hans Rosbaud.
Dear Mr. Boudgoust,
On September 28th 2012, in a meeting of the Broadcasting Council of the Südwestrundfunk
(SWR), you pushed through the decision to merge the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden
und Freiburg (SO) with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR (RSO) – against
considerable resistance and despite many recommendations to the contrary coming from
competent and prominent musicians and other personalities. This decision is artistically
senseless, economically questionable to say the least and a clear signal of your politico-cultural
The marginalisation of culture may well be in fashion, but it is nevertheless fully incompatible
with the educational mandate which requires every one of the public broadcasting
corporations to “contribute specifically cultural content”. This is clearly stated in §11 section
1 of the Contract with the State, which is in effect since January 1st 2013. The wording is not
“as well as” or “also” or “among other things”, but really “specifically cultural content”.
By merging its two remaining symphony orchestras, the SWR is helping to dismantle the
cultural landscape, and thus, the publicly financed institution the SWR is, is actively sawing
away at the branch on which it sits. Soon enough, the whole plethora of soap operas, talk
shows and cooking shows, as well as sporting events (which are subject to the laws of the free
market, since the broadcasting rights habitually go to the highest bidder), will no longer be
enough to differentiate the SWR’s programming from that of the private broadcasting
companies. This differentiation, however, is an indispensable prerequisiteto the SWR’s
financing through the fee paid by each and every German citizen. This in turn means that the
SWR must maintain its two orchestras, its vocal ensemble, big band and experimental studio,
as well as its share of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, in order to be able to afford its
entertainment programming – and not the other way around.
A grotesquely disproportionate merger-orchestra, comprised of 200 musicians (98 from the
SO and 102 from the RSO), without any semblance of a unique profile, and needing years or
decades to attain a minimum of homogeneity, is not at all suited to represent the cultural
commitment expected of the SWR by the state. Art and culture are being reduced to the fig
leaf behind which hides a corporation which is more and more interested in its ratings, rather
than its legally binding educational mandate. But it was the numerous concerts, offered in the
provincial capitals as well as in smaller towns, with programmes which always boldly
represented the avant-garde, which over the course of almost 70 years have been the real
justification for the existence of a system of publicly funded radio and television corporations.
Furthermore an exemplary and well-developed youth program has allowed the SO over the
course of many years to arouse a young future audience’s curiosity for classical music and the
avant-garde, as well as their interest in live concerts.
On paper, as a bureaucratic plan, the orchestras’ merger may seem to you like a good and
feasible endeavour – but from a musical and artistic point of view it has no justification
whatsoever. No conductor (and hence none of the signatories of this letter) will be in a
position to form within a reasonable period of time an ensemble that would be even remotely
comparable to the two destroyed orchestras – two orchestras with long-standing traditions and
cultures. As a further consequence, the grim outlook of no longer being part of a world-class,
renowned orchestra will force many of the younger, highly talented players to go look for
work elsewhere, causing a dramatic imbalance in the age structure of the new, merged orchestra. These are not the conditions one wishes for when trying to attain the highest level
of musical performance.
In many European countries, centralism prevails, causing an agglomeration of cultural events
and organisations in very few cities, at the detriment of the rest of the country. Germany has a
long-standing tradition which is diametrically opposed to this: the cultural institutions are
spread out, having deep roots in many provincial, far-removed regions. You have decided to
work against this rich and highly democratic system by choosing to settle the future merged
orchestra in Stuttgart, the regional capital. Furthermore, by abandoning Baden-Baden and
Freiburg as cultural bases, you are practically giving up seven decades’ worth of trinational
cooperation and growth, of which the SWR SO was a leading ambassador, playing many
concerts in France and in Switzerland at a time when politicians had not yet grasped the
attractiveness and commercial potential of this region.
The destruction of the SO means not only an irretrievable loss to Germany’s orchestral culture
and the loss of the SWR’s main ambassador to neighbouring countries as well as to the rest of
Europe, it is also a massive threat to the future of contemporary orchestral music. There is no
comparable symphony orchestra worldwide, no orchestra in which the musicians devote
themselves to the music of our time with such passion, openness, curiosity and at such a high
level of technical proficiency, as the musicians of the SO do. This is an orchestra which has
been able to perform scores which to many other orchestras seem unplayable, an orchestra
which continues to set the benchmark of what is feasible in the world of contemporary music.
In the past 20 years, 36 orchestras have closed in Germany and have disappeared forever from
the map. This cultural barbarity thus robs us of two orchestras every single year. By reversing
your ill-advised merger decision and, instead, continuing to support and fund the SO as a
leading international orchestra, you can do your part to preserve the globally unique German
orchestral landscape. It should be worth the effort – only diversity can help us prevent cultural
Hans Michael Beuerle
Pieter-Jelle de Boer
Carmen Maria Cârneci
David Robert Coleman
Dennis Russell Davies
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Kasper de Roo
Christoph von Dohnányi
Hortense von Gelmini
Eivind Gullberg Jensen
Grzegorz Rafael Nowak
Robert HP Platz
Peter Richter de Rangenier
Pablo Rus Broseta
Sir William Southgate
Michael Tilson Thomas
Edo de Waart
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