This city reborns from her ashes with music every may



This is my third article on Dresden and its music festival that competes with the city in beauty. As I emphasized in my first article, in “Elbe’s Florence” that I visited in the spring of year 2008 for the first time, “I had watched a performance of Semper Opera (Semperoper) which the enviable music tradition of the city is symbolized, and the next day a concert of The Dresden State Orchestra (Staatskapelle Dresden) which is as famous as Semper Opera.” After that day I came by to this Phoenix that was reborn from its ashes on other occasions as well. Finally, in the marvelous music festival of the city that I watched for the third time, which I had the chance to visit between 28th and 30th of May of this year, I attended the concert of the violinist Gil Shaham with The Singapore Symphony Orchestra on the 28th of May, and on the 29th of May first I attended the concert of The New Jewish Chamber Philharmonic of Dresden and then the concert of the pianist Igor Levit with The Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky.

Even though its past can be linked back with “the plays of the muses” and “Zwinger parties” of the elector kings of Saxony, did you know that Dresden Music Festival was founded in the years of cold war, and with a government order? “The city of Dresden will host a music festival in an international calibre every year, starting from the year 1978.” The Festival, which began its journey with this decree published in Berlin, the capital of the German Democratic Republic in the middle of cold war, started competing with several famous festivals of beyond the iron curtain like Berlin, Halle Handel in no time. Dresden Music Festival, which conduced to many famous names of classical music to visit this historic city not only after the demolition of the wall, but also before that as well, broadened and enriched its programme over time. In fact today, the Festival not only includes the standard repertoire of the Classical and Romantic era into its programme, but also a wide range of works beginning from the early period and coming to our day.

Street musicians can be seen at every corner and ''platz'' of Dresden during the city's music festival. 

One of the features of Dresden that makes it unique among other leading classical music festivals is that every year since 1978, it brings out a different theme in its programme. When I started to become accredited as a music critic to the Festival in 2012, it has been focused on Vienna-Budapest-Prague and the works that were composed in these cities under the theme of “The Heart of Europe”. The themes, which were “The Empire” in 2013, and “Golden Years of 1920’s” in 2014, were focused on the relationship between music and geography in the name of “Fire (South) and Ice (North)” in 2015. This year’s theme was again short, yet explained a lot of things about music: “Time”. “The most imperative, difficult and basic element in music is the tempo.” The intendant Jan Vogler started his presentation in the Festival booklet with this sentence. It is written in a letter that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father Leopold in 1777. Jan Vogler interprets this sentence as, “Indeed, the tempo of a musical piece is a determining factor in order to understand that piece’s character in a trice”, and continues: “A fast piece takes a hold of us with its tempo and sometimes gives us a feeling as if we are riding an imaginary “rollercoaster”. A slow paced tempo on the other hand provides us with the time we need for the thought and emotional experience.”

I also made a nice interview with Jan Vogler, who besides being a world famous cellist, is the general manager (intendant) of Dresden Music Festival.

In the festival booklet, on the page where this year’s theme is presented, these statements of Jan Vogler were also remarkable: “I have always been interested in the relationship between time and music. All great musical works are either in harmony or in contrast with the period in which they were composed. Even after centuries, this character that the music contains does not vanish; this is embedded in its DNA. Music tells us the history of the period that it was composed, it is like the emotional memory of the period it was created. Interpreting musical works also affects our perception of time. It carries us forward, holds us still, flows harmoniously with our vitality, or tortures us with the power it possesses. Much like time, a good concert provides us with the opportunity to establish an intellectual bond between the past and the future.”           

Another one of the reasons why I like Dresden Music Festival is the determination of the festival directors in transforming Dresden into a “festival city” for a month, by using many locations of the city for concerts, and organizing free concerts in the open air public areas of the city. For instance, the event called “Dresden Singt und Musiziert” (Dresden Sings and Makes Music) is held for a whole day every year in the “Europe’s terrace” nicknamed Brühl, which is located in the center of the old city, and became an inspiration for Canaletto’s unique paintings. As I have written before, I admire the fact that apart from ticketed concerts in indoor locations, Dresden and similar festivals include festive concerts in their programmes, where large part of the public can watch them for free. This is a practice that our ever growing festivals, starting from İstanbul Music Festival, should definitely take as an example. It’s never too much to emphasize the importance of the function of free public concerts for the people of the city to embrace the festival and for the “festival consciousness” to be transferred from one generation to the other.

Dresden Music Festival reaches an occupancy rate of more than 90% every year in the concerts held in over 20 locations. Volkswagen Company, which hosted one or two concerts in their impressive factory called Die Glaeserne Manufaktur located in this region, is seriously contributing to the festival every year as the main supporter. For this reason, it’s safe to say that the followers of Dresden Music Festival, which runs a globally effective publicity campaign, are widely spread, since in order to follow the festival both individual and group participations occur not only from Germany and nearby countries, but also from USA and England. The effect of the citizens of these countries having a different kind of affection to Dresden on the participation from these countries is surely big. What kind of affection am I talking about? In order to answer this question, I would have to take you to the days of World War II and Dresden being bombed mercilessly by the allied forces. But it’s not only this. I have to tell Frauenkirche in this manner, which is one of the symbol buildings of Dresden that is in the source of ever growing Anglo-American sympathy that started after the war, and one of the main performance locations of the festival at the same time.

Frauenkirche which is the symbol of the baroque old city wears a different costume according to the light of the day.

The history of Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which is Dresden’s unique symbol that impresses everyone, is based on the first quarter of 18th century. When the old Frauenkirche which stood at the same place could not satisfy the needs of the more powerful Kingdom of Saxony anymore, King Augustus II the Strong orders the carpenter master George Bähr to make a design similar to the Saint Mary of Health in Venice. The new Protestant church Frauenkirche, which had its foundation laid in 1726, is completed on 27 May 1743 after 17 years. Surviving the Seven Years’ War between 1756 and 1763, and Uprisings in 1849 without any damages, after standing in the Dresden skies for 200 years, Frauenkirche was destroyed on the 15th of February by the bombings that USA started on the 13th of February 1945, in the last days of World War II that destroyed the city completely.  
Only a huge pile of rubble and two walls were left from that magnificent beauty. Frauenkirche, which the communist government did not intend to rebuild, is embraced by the people of the city after the demolition of Berlin Wall, and an international campaign starts for the reconstruction with the “Appeal from Dresden” slogan. Whether Dresden’s bombing was necessary or not was heatedly argued after the war. The 250 million DEM, which was collected thanks to the generous donations of American and English art lovers who feel responsible for this highly questionable act. After meticulously gathering and cataloguing thousands of sandstones from the debris site one by one right after the bombing, and laying them together with the new ones, Frauenkirche rises to the sky again between 1994 and 2005. The only thing missing in Frauenkirche, which was built faithful to the original from top to bottom, is the spectacular organ that bears the signature of the famous organ master Gottfried Silbermann, which was also played by J.S.Bach at one time. Today, the organ of the master builder Daniel Kern from Strasbourg took place of this historical instrument.

The interior of Frauenkirche, which was decorated with patterns in classical style, and glamourized with pastel colours, resembles a huge fruit cake rather than the usual church look. The fact that there are transparent glasses in the huge windows instead of stained-glass is the main factor that has an effect on the brightness of the interior. Apart from being the number one church of the city, Frauenkirche is one of the most important concert locations of the city with its 1500 seating capacity, and its warm acoustics unexpected from a stone building. It’s the reason why it feels very natural that many concerts in Dresden Music Festival are held at this monumental place.     

Because of the immense sunlight pouring through the glass and not stained windows, Frauenkirche looks like a fruit cake than a typical church.
The fact that I will be watching one festival concert at Frauenkirche during my three days Dresden visit made me happy, since I find the history and architecture of this building impressive. In this visit I had the chance of seeing the concert of Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Singapore Symphony is an ensemble which has become very popular lately. As a result of their success they got an invitation from BBC Proms Festival in London, and they gave a much applauded concert at Royal Albert Hall in 2014 (It can be remembered that at the same festival, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sascha Goetzel also gave an unforgettable concert that its effect lasted for days.) Gil Shaham, who is the top violinist for years among many violinists that I like, performed Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Violin Concerto in D minor with the accompaniment of the ensemble conducted by Lan Shui.

In terms of technique, expression, and nuance, it was a perfect performance that we are used to hear from Shaham. The most remarkable aspect of the performance according to me was his moderate, extraordinarily plain, unselfish, and modest attitude. Exaggerated expressions, and intense vibratos that we usually witness with some of the big performers, which especially they make a habit when they get older, took no place in Shaham’s performance. It seemed like Mendelsshon’s concerto turned into a Baroque period piece rather than an early Romantic piece in his hands. I wouldn’t have any kind of objections to this nuanced approach which reveals the beauty of the concerto all out.

The violin virtuoso Gil Shaham and Singapore Symphony Orchestra under tha baton of Lan Shui gave an impressive concert in Frauenkirche during the festival.

The body language that Shaham displayed during the performance was also worth seeing. These moves that some might find odd, was in my opinion a sign that showed how much he enjoyed making music in an exceptional place like Frauenkirche with the orchestra, and how big of a love he had for Mendelssohn’s concerto. His encore piece Bach will probably have more of an unforgettable place than Mendelssohn. His Bach interpretation, just like Mendelssohn, was indescribably beautiful with its pureness, and lightness. Singapore Symphony conducted by Lan Shui performed the Dresden premiere of Cheng Zhangyi’s Orchestra Piece at the beginning of the concert, and Schönberg’s masterpiece Transfigured Night that made a breakthrough in music history, and Ravel’s La Valse, after the concerto. In Schönberg’s work, we witnessed the vibrant tones and the mastership in synchronized playing of Singapore Symphony strings. Ravel’s work was also performed impressively with the extensive participation of the wind instruments, however it could be argued that La Valse pushed the acoustical limits of a place like Frauenkirche, which is not really suitable for the romantic symphonic music, pretty hard. Cheng Zhangyi’s ten minutes long contemporary work Orchestra Piece that opened the concert was a work that was composed for a large orchestra, string instruments played in higher positions all the time, spread mystical rings to every corner of Frauenkirche, and has a fabulous atmosphere.   

At the other orchestra concert I watched in Dresden Music Festival, Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky ,which I can call as “the one and only symphonic ensemble” of the city, accompanied pianist Igor Levit in Albertinum building. When I call Dresden Philharmonic as “the one and only symphonic ensemble of the city,” I don’t deny the importance of Staatskepelle Dresden of course, however, we should underline the fact that Staatskapelle Dresden, being one of the most prestigious ensembles of the world, is the orchestra of the opera company of the city, named Semperoper and they go on stage from opera’s orchestra pit at least twice a month in order to play orchestral works. In other words, just as Vienna Symphony claims that it is the only symphony orchestra of the city, considering the fact that Vienna Philharmonic is actually an opera orchestra, Dresden Philharmonic can also easily claim with the same justification that it is the only symphony orchestra of Dresden.

Born in 1987, the German pianist Igor Levit of Russian origin, is undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of our day, notwithstanding his young age. His mature interpretations of the piano works of Beethoven and Bach that cannot be expected from his age, which have philosophical depth, evoke admiration all over the world. As the writer of this article who wants to go and watch the concerts wherever Levit gives them, acquires his recordings from Sony as soon as they get released, and pursues the live concert recordings, I have found the opportunity of watching Levit as the soloist of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”, accompanied by Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra which was conducted by Sinaisky in this year’s Dresden Music Festival. Again, Levit didn’t disappoint me. He is one of those people who was born to be a soloist. He presented a brilliant feast to people of Dresden, which filled Albertinum, by not losing his concentration even for a second, preventing the smallest incorrect note, and by harmonizing the silky touch with aristocratic manner perfectly. I would expect that the people of Dresden would strongly applaud him and run to the CD table which was set after the concert, but these expectations of mine was in vain.

According to my observations, I deduced that the most of the audience had subscription tickets in this concert, and in my opinion, Levit should’ve gotten a bigger round of applause after his performance, there should’ve been long queues in front of the CD table. I should say that I have found it interesting that Levit has a sitting stance in front of the piano that resembles Glenn Gould and he was sitting on a rather lower seat which was nearly on the level of the piano, just like the Canadian cult pianist. Perhaps, this sitting stance has an effect in the beautiful tone and sonority that the pianist produces, I don’t know. It would be fitting to say that Richard Strauss’s huge symphonic poem Sinfonia domestica, which was performed by Dresden Philharmonic in the second half of the concert, fell victim to Albertinum’s insufficient acoustics.

Albertinum is not the concert hall of Dresden Philharmonic. Since the Kulturpalast (Culture Palace) from Communist era, which is located in the middle of the city and used by the orchestra for performing concerts, is being remodelled for a long while now, the concerts are performed at the inner court, located in the middle of this museum. Thus, instead of becoming a nomad like our İDSO (İstanbul State Symphony Orchestra), Dresden Philharmonic has the luxury of giving all of its concerts in one temporary place, yet the acoustics of the place is far from doing justice to this orchestra of high quality. Fortunately, Kulturpalast is going to be open after a few months from now and will resume on being both Dresden Philharmonic’s home and the city’s main concert hall. The building’s exterior surface, which is reflecting the typical functional architecture of Communist era, was preserved all the same, but the auditorium was completely renovated based on the basic concert hall design of the 20th century, the vineyard seating.

Kulturpalast, which was among the architectural symbols of the Communist era in East Germany, wasn't demolished after the wall came down but instead, its outer walls has been refurbished while its inner spaces have been designed in a modern way. 

Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Vassily Sinaisky accompanied the superb pianist Igor Levit in Albertinum rather than their actual home Kulturpalast because of the ongoing renovation there.

I’ve left the surprise concert of my Dresden Music Festival tour to the last. This one, which was performed on 29th May, at 17.00 o’clock, just before Dresden Philharmonic’s concert, had an unusual place, unusual ensemble and unusual repertoire. I haven’t heard the name of Neue Jüdische Kammerphilharmonie (New Jewish Chamber Philharmonic) ensemble before this festival. Neue Jüdische Kammerphilharmonie was founded when a concert was performed at the city’s New Synagogue in 2007. With this first concert, the synagogue was also celebrating the 6th anniversary of its opening. Being a chamber orchestra, the ensemble consists of 24 Jewish and non-Jewish string musicians that was chosen from Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra members and the graduates from Carl Maria von Weber Music School. The main place of the ensemble is New Synagogue since its beginning. American conductor Michael Hurshell is the founder of this ensemble, even though his name is not being a prominent name in the international music societies, but recognized as an indisputable authority on both works of Jewish composers and – very interestingly – Richard Wagner’s life and art, who was known by his Jewish antagonism.

Michael Hurshell is the founding conductor of the Neue Jüdische Kammerphilharmonie Dresden.

Being born in Vienna from American parents, Hurshell grew up in the city of Seattle, USA, and in many other cities of Europe, and then started to build his career in Europe. Hurshell conducted many orchestras in the continent Europe, and made reawakening the Jewish composers who fled from Germany when Nazis came into power, who were murdered by Nazis, and whose works were banned by again Nazis, both in Germany and world public opinion his main mission and hit the road with his orchestra in 2007. Hurshell displayed his authority on Wagner field, when he took over the curator position of Richard Wagner House in Graupa, near Dresden. During my interview with Hurshell in the next morning of the concert, I listened to his unusual opinions on Wagner’s life, art, but especially composer’s most discussed side of all times, his Jewish antagonism, with great interest. 

Dresden's cubic formed Neue Synagoge was the host to the concert conducted by Michael Hurshell.

Michael Hurshell and the violist Itamar Ringel who was the soloist of the concert gave a pose to me at the reception held after the concert.

The small stage at the Neue Synagoge was sufficient enough to accomodate Neue Jüdische Kammerphilharmonie Dresden. The acoustics of the venue was also remarkable.

Semper Synagogue, which was built as a sanctuary in the style of Maghreb Revivalism – an architectural movement which had an influence over Europe in 19th century – was designed in 1840, by Gottfried Semper, who was also the architect of Semper Opera. Being blasted completely during Kristallnacht in 1938, the sanctuary was reopened with the name of New Synagogue in 2001, after being designed in modern architectural style. Being located around the Baroque heart of Dresden, a royal city and the capital of Saxony, the New Synagogue, which was built in place of the old one, is an impressive building that immediately stands out among the surrounding buildings with its cubic formed design and gives an impression of a peace island with the green landscape surrounding it.

At the festival concert which took place in New Synagogue, Dresden’s New Jewish Chamber Philharmonic ensemble performed Jewish composers’ works, such as the third movement of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No 1 (arranged by Hurshell), Leo Smit’s Concert for Viola and the Strings, the third movement of Moishe Vainberg’s Trio (arranged by Hurshell) Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik (mourning music) for Viola and Strings, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphonic Serenade for Strings. In Hindemith’s concerto, the soloist was Itamar Ringel. We listened to some beautiful interpretations proving that Hurshell chose the members of his ensemble fastidiously, and each and every one of them are the masters of their instruments. Settling on the quite narrow stage of the New Synagogue, Dresden’s string musicians presented a splendid performance from the beginning to the end, in the aspects of intonation, tone quality and ensemble. The soloist of the concert, and a student of Tabea Zimmermann, Itamar Ringel is a high level violist who has a solid technique and effective expression, and he stands out with his interpretations of Jewish composers’ works, besides being an educator in Berlin Hanns Eisler Music School.

Conducted by Michael Hurshell, I listened to Dresden New Jewish Chamber Philharmonic ensemble’s concert at New Synagogue, while feeling the pain of millions of civil Jewish people in my heart, who were exiled to the four corners of Europe, treated like slaves, tormented, humiliated and murdered during and before the World War II.

Serhan Bali



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