Hamburg, Gateway to Classical Music!



Franco Soda talked with Kent Nagano, General Music Director of Hamburg State Opera, on his coming projects in Hamburg, and on the differences between the historical and cultural backgrounds of Hamburg and Munich that affect their musical lineage.
What are your projects for Hamburg? 
In Hamburg, we refer to basically 3 organizations that came together from hundreds years. One is the Staatsoper itself. The second is the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester. And the third is the Hamburg Staatsballet with John Neumeier. I think that the most important project, since for many years, is to bring these organizations closer together. Then there will be a collaboration between the organizations in ways that we haven’t seen before. The Orchestra was founded in 1828, one year after the death of Beethoven. And it was founded by a society of Hamburg because there were very inspired by the idea of symphony as proposed by Beethoven: freedom, Freieheit, equality, the ideals of French Revolution. So the citizens of Hamburg founded the orchestra in 1828, and what we do now in 2015, for this season, is putting special refocus on the theme of this symphonic tradition as being inspired by 1828. This is the root of the existence of the orchestra and we are bringing this a kind of middle point, a focus again. So does it mean precisely? It means we give concerts focusing really on the great symphonic tradition but within the context of Hamburg. So, for example, the program comprised entirely those works by composers who lived here and as a part of the Hamburg tradition: Telemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Mahler, Ligeti…
Other programs go around the idea of communication which we have a big problem about today. There is a dialogue between Brahms’ Requiem and Boulez’s Répons, with questions and answers. And yet other programs are Beethoven, Berlioz… the great symphonic tradition is the focus. For the opera we focus again on what the Hamburg tradition was, and on what it has to say to us today.
The Hamburg Opera is the oldest public opera in the world. It was founded in 1678, and reflects many changes in the European history. We try to show these themes that took place in Hamburg: The “freedom from oppression” - Gullaime Tell, the “temptations between men and women”- Elektra or maybe most importantly, especially today the refugees, crises with political oppressions, the fleeing or running away from politic oppression, leaving people behind, war, the sea, revolt, even destiny…! We chose Les Troyens. The destiny of Aenea was to found Rome and with this idea to flee, to run away from war and to revolt using the sea. These themes are very, very actual today, where the Hamburg as a harbour state has always been very much involved with these themes.
Or, for example, the consequences of man and nature: there will be a new creation Stilles Meer by Hosokawa which is focusing on the sea and the disaster of Fukushima (the atomic reactor in Japan). The sea coming in to conflict with man. So in this way we try to illuminate the traditional Hamburger themes but in ways that make clear that the opera as a medium is very actual. Finally the third element, the Staatsballet: I think that will be for the first time since…. John Neumaier, can’t remember: it will the first time that a Generalmusikdirektor and Philharmonisches Staatsorcheser collaborate for a new creation for the ballet. We will set Messiaen’s Turangallia with a new choreography of John Neumeier. Anyway, we hope to bring it in the house together. That’s the biggest project.
You are coming back to directing once again an opera house in Germany. Whats the different with Munich, your previous one? 
Both opera houses represent this very traditional repertoire system. Both Hamburg and Munich have very very large repertoires, but they come from completely different historic backgrounds, and they have very different playing traditions. Much has to do be done with what I find fascinating in Germany as an American. Both in USA and in Canada we are used to having enormous geographic dimensions. Everything is so new that differences are not as radical as here in Europe. And in Germany because of its unique history, even when you travel just few kilometers, you can have entirely a difrerent cultural history and traditions. And this is the case of Hamburg and Munich: Munich has had a royal court like many other towns in Germany, while Hamburg, since the beginning, was a Freiestaat: with no king, no queen, no rulers. Founded in complete freedom, where people lived in a democratic context.
What makes Hamburg particular is that it has a very rich history of musical culture. People of Munich like to say that they have four house gods: Orlando di Lassus, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. In Hamburg we have a tradition which is very different but we have our own great great, inspiring leaders who were part of the house: Telemann, Buxtehude, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler… and if you look at the influence of these ones, you see that the tradition is very different from that one of di Lasso, Mozart, Wagner, Strauss.
Maybe the main difference between Munich and Hamburg is that the cities have a completely different relationship to the Church. Primarily, being a Catholic State, Munich is very close to Italy, very close to Rome. Hamburg is mostly the part of Lutheran tradition. And it was fortunate for Hamburg that Luther had a great affinity to music. And trough Luther we have this strong musical tradition in Northern Germany which had an influence on the definition of the musical culture. So I think that the context of the musical culture and tradition, and even in terms of their playing traditions, the two cities are very very different. Even though they are not so far apart, at least for an American perspective.
The Elbphilharmonie building 

What’s you dream for Hamburg? 
Coming to appreciate the very unique but also ancient and historical tradition in Hamburg, much of the dream that Georges Delnon and I have is to bring the tradition that we do have into a very actual setting. So that opera and symphonic expressions may in twenty percent be more relevant than they were before. And our dream is to really focus on this relevance. In part it will come trough a real movement that’s happening right now: a movement of growth and expansion. The most visible proof of this is the Elbphilharmonie, the new concert hall, which after a long construction process, will be completed in a year and a half. It will be a new opening for Hamburg, and in this time with the general opening in Hamburg, we must to try to bring our very unique history and unique tradition into the contact with XXI century. As you see, we have chosen the words very carefully, we have chosen the partiture for the orchestra very carefully.
I think how we look forward with an artistic vision it is our priority. It doesn't have much to do with specific titles of works, but how we want to present this to the international world. Hamburg is the gateway into Germany for the international world, it’s a kind of a window as the only really big opening to the sea. Traditionally Hamburg has been the point of big tension between the outside world and Germany, and so our real dream is to activate this pointof tension so that it sets sail through the gateway towards the world.
© Franco Soda 2015



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