Monday 13 April 2015

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and their Encore project

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra - photo credit Michael Trippel
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
photo credit Michael Trippel
The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's ambitious new project to commission around 40 new works, encore pieces to promote new music and show that contemporary composers can be entertaining!

The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is 70 year old next year, and has a long an interesting history. Recently the orchestra has been making something of a name for itself under their conductor Jonathan Nott. They have established the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize which had Gustavo Dudamel as its first winner in 2004. Now they have come up with in interesting project to refresh the orchestral repertoire in a manageable and rather lively way. I had an email interview with Marcus Rudolf Axt, the chief-executive of the orchestra to learn more about it.

The orchestra's Encore project is designed to do just that, commission new encores which the orchestra can use on their tours. They want new works are 'which strong enough to end the concert "with a smile"'. But the project is ambitious, they aim to commission around 40 pieces by various composer. Five have been premiered so far, and the intention is to provide an overview of the range of creation in contemporary music at the moment. Marcus is clear that overall, they want to promote new music but doing so by showing that contemporary composers can be entertaining.
The choice is somewhat subjective, as there is no curator or jury; the composers reflect Marcus's personal interests. He comments, 'this is a strongly subjective choice, but with some "big names" as well as several young, not so well known artists. Men and women of different ages and nationality'. Staring with a list of favourites, he found that talking to musicians he came across new names and interesting people.

Jonathan Nott - photo credit Thomas Muller
Jonathan Nott
photo credit Thomas Muller
Following the premieres of the works, the planned re-performances will depend on the orchestral forces and the works' adaptability to other concert programmes. Marcus feels the need to keep an eye on economic necessity, so they will only be about to tour works from the project which fit, it makes no sense he comments to take extra musicians on tour special for an encore.

The composers are given two different possibilities for writing a piece. The first option is what Marcus calls a 'classical' encore – pieces like Dvořák's Slavonic Dances or Strauss's Polkas that can be performed after many different concert programmes. The other is to formulate a postlude to one of the big, late-Romantic works such as Mahler or Bruckner symphonies, or Strauss tone poems. In both cases the orchestral forces matter, either 'small and beautiful' or exactly matching the forces of the previous work.

Marcus feels that this is probably the biggest challenge for composers nowadays, but that limiting the options can often create a strength of expression. Inevitably all this leads to composers sometimes struggling to create works which engage the ear rather than the intellect. Marcus sees the difficulty lying in 'being simple, intriguing and humorous as well as being smart enough to surprise the audiences', but this is not the only way. Sometimes an intellectual approach can work, such as a detailed layout of the work in bars and seconds, which can be both challenging and stimulating. They have just had a piece by Abrahamsen that is very complicated and hard to perform but makes a great effect on the listeners.

The whole process is just starting and so far the pieces have only been performed in Bamberg, but not yet been taken on tour. Marcus sees the Bamberg audience as being keen on discovering new music, and they see it as being like a mini-competition.

All this is taking place in Bamberg, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Bavaria. Marcus describes it as 'a city of cloisters, courtyards and a thousand-year-old cathedral, with 2,500 protected buildings'. The orchestra was founded in Bamberg in 1946, and Marcus feels that the audience has 'always felt the orchestra is a vital part of the community, of their daily lives'. They have an impressive 6,000 subscribers (in a population of something over 70,000). Marcus sees this as a clear sign their 'audience just cannot live without music', independent of social status or age.

The orchestra's conductor is Jonathan Nott, and Marcus sees the audience having trust in their choices of composer. Marcus believes they 'need to programme with care, and with a sense of balance' though this is always the case. He tries to offer a well-balanced season spanning from baroque and classical, with a strong focus on late romantic, and integrating 20th century masterpieces. Marcus's final word that it is important to present good music, and pieces that he loves to hear himself.

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