Music Director Carsten Witt Interview: “Unleash Your Creative Power!” – the culture

Mr. Witt, 48 years ago I founded the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, which broke away from classical routines as a self-governing student orchestra. At that time, they hoped to revolutionize the entire field of classical music. Did it work?
We have done a lot. We founded Ensemble Modern and Deutsche Kamerfilharmonie, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie created Freiburger Barockorchester, Ensemble Resonanz and others – the core of Germany’s independent classical music scene. But the revolution in the orchestra did not happen. Pierre Boulez’s call to “blow up the operas” goes back even further. At that time, no one would have believed that the old order would still be around 50 years later and that the Berlin Philharmonic would still be Germany’s only large, self-governing orchestra. There was also discussion of groups of musicians of a variety of formations. Even Herbert von Karajan told me: Nobody needs too many state orchestras that all do the same thing.

Could he possibly mean that the main thing is that the Philharmoniker stay under his supervision?
I understood it differently: classical music money should be spent more on financing projects and groups. Germany’s 120 state orchestras do valuable work, from teaching to cultivating new music, especially in small towns. But their daily lives, with rehearsals beginning on Mondays, weekend concerts and occasional tours, have become routine, leaving little room for change. Why are concerts always at 8 pm? There’s the Boston Morning Chamber Music Series that’s always sold out. Why aren’t there any afternoon shows, why aren’t there more late-night brunches or parties? The audience is there for that.

How can this finally be achieved?
The German orchestra is understaffed in management, mostly with only five to eight staff. In each London Philharmonic, about 30 people are concerned with staff development and finances, fundraising, educational work, marketing, etc.

There is a lot of visitor research in England, so why not in Germany?
Because the orchestra here is 80 percent supported, it’s less than 20 percent in England. They have to earn the rest themselves.

So, aside from subsidies?
It’s more complicated. The Vienna Konzerthaus, which I ran from 1991 to 1996, was only 10% subsidized, in a very subsidized environment. It worked great and constantly renewed itself. On the other hand, I have not succeeded in changing the structures of the South Bank Center in London, which has 60% state support. The company was bound by the regulations. Today in London the most famous of them are performed only because everyone thinks they should be on the safe side. You can hear all of Beethoven’s piano concerts four times a season and Mahler’s fifth every month. Why should I attend this special party on this special evening?

Does this mean it can still remain a museum without subsidies?
Cutting state support would not be a solution, if only because of the risk of losing money for culture. The problem is that almost all of the money goes to fixed costs and from year to year there is less and less money for art projects. That was the structural problem for the Southbank Centre, and the same was true for German opera houses and orchestras. The goal should be to unleash the creative potential of these institutions. Freezing is not possible as a greater part of the income must be generated.

Too much protection hurts artistic quality?
Of course there have to be ways to catch up, social networks, but artwork is always associated with danger, with the need to prove itself over and over again. Diversity is just as important as autonomy: that musicians, like the majority of members of the Berlin Philharmoniker, are also active in other ways, forming chamber groups, performing as soloists, realizing educational programs and also developing individually.

Under this pandemic, self-reflection in classical music has increased. There were more hybrids, many thought the climate-destroying rides and the terrible fees of the big names. Will everyone be back to business as usual now?
Some hotels now plan on short notice and don’t book everything years in advance. However, it appears that the set program periods have been filled again in many places. Where is the flight headed? There is a great deal of uncertainty because of the pandemic and because of the war in Ukraine. Subscribers are returning, as are star fans, but a significant part of the audience is turning away. For two years we got used to the social life that mostly takes place at home. Perhaps we should try to win over a new audience through smaller, more intimate and informal concert forms, as well as in new places, with exciting programs where people talk, compose music and consume, as a new social life develops. At the same time, large homes have to fill their halls again quickly, which is a dilemma.

On May 9th at Philharmonie they will present a new series that mixes disciplines. Philosopher and clarinetist David Rothenberg, who made music with Nachtigall, will deliver a speech, followed by works by Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb, among others. It seems strange.
We’ve had the idea and business plan for a long time. They should start in 2020/21, but the first concerts of the current season have been canceled due to the pandemic. Now we start with the third party of our second session. Of course, this is very risky, but we waited long enough.

After nearly 50 years, aren’t you losing hope?
Many years ago I visited then coach Alexandre Pereira at La Scala in Milan. Posters of an opera house from the 1830s hung in his living room. The “Barber of Seville” was announced, with ballet interludes and a physics professor who, after the first class, presented three science experiments “never seen before in our city”. That blew my mind: Physics in the Opera! Sure, it was also a kind of circus attraction, but it had something to do with a thirst for knowledge and normalcy. This claim of direct confrontation with the world is lost in a cultural position. Why not talk about the birdsong at the Philharmonie, which Olivier Messian studied extensively? Why not invite a historian, an architect, or a virologist?

What is the other concept behind this series?
We want to fill a gap in the concert business, where musical references are usually developed to the neoclassical level, with a necessarily acceptable contemporary shorter piece. What is lacking are the great works of the post-war period that are rarely shown. We want to present it in a meaningful, dramatic context, in this case as part of a tour conducted by the Radio Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra.

But this music is jarring, which many visitors find exhausting.
The audience is underestimated, it is more open and intelligent than what prejudice says. I am convinced that in the city of Berlin of four million people, there are 2,000 people who want to hear Messiann. There is also a variety of music events for all types of audiences. And we’re not making any ugly music, at least this time. That’s our promise: You don’t need any prior knowledge, we’ll be playing catchy, catchy and even tonal soundtracks on May 9. The Philharmonie by Sharon is the concert hall for post-war modernism, and the music of that time belongs there.

Has enough happened here in Berlin already, with independent houses like Radialsystem and Neuköllner Oper, with formats like Mittendrin Concerts at Konzerthaus? What is your advice to cultural politicians?
Berlin has an incredibly rich musical life and a fascinating, curious and flexible audience. Now, two years into the pandemic, some things need to be rebuilt for new audiences. Fortunately, there are many funding opportunities in Berlin, but it is more difficult in medium-sized cities, especially in those without a music college.

Culture Director Folkert Uhde has called for a new deal for classical music in 2020: away from overrepresentation, and more connected to the project rather than institutional funding. Do you agree?
We need a large number of organizers with project budgets: festivals, concert halls, organizers with unusual spaces such as the Radialsystem or the Ruhr Triennale. Government funding for music no longer flows almost exclusively to operas and orchestras – it must also be financed in part by project money. The independent scene, orchestras and orchestras have their programs and homes close to audience and marketing. We have to create structures in which the creative potential of musicians can unfold and in which all orchestras can develop their own unmistakable identity.

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