Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Daring for more democracy

October 11, 2007

Rheinischer Merkur
Every note counts: the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen lets its company philosophy be heard

By Hilde Malcomess

After midnight, over a white wine, tender chicken and fine beans, the protagonists celebrate the conclusion of their world tour and joke about the name of their collective. “Actually, something short and sexy would be better”, says conductor Paavo Järvi with a smirk. On the international scene, the verbal monster is considered a challenge for concert hosts and radio presenters. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is the showpiece ensemble within our system of subsidised orchestras. A wonder-child, born in 1980 of two dozen young string players who set off in woolly jumpers and parkas to create a musicians’ paradise on a North Sea island: rehearsing, discussing, agonising, taking their time, rehearsing again, the whole collective becoming engrossed in the scores.
Out of the fundamentally democratic organisation which was the collective at that time, a company orchestra has emerged, a non-profit-making limited company. The shareholders are its 36 musicians. It is for this reason, too, that everyone in this Kammerphilharmonie plays from on the edge of their seat; their own income and the wellbeing of their firm depend on the success of the concerts.
Currently, the orchestra is celebrating success from all quarters, especially with Beethoven. Since 2004, the Estonian-born Paavo Järvi has been their Artistic Director. When the Bremen musicians play the Beethoven symphonies with him, the performance is tight, crystal clear, and snappy, but it breathes naturally too, with long slurs and soloistic aural clarity.
What is the difference between a symphony orchestra and a chamber orchestra? “The decisive factor is the difference in attitude, rather than the size of the ensemble”, says Järvi. He should know, as alongside the Kammerphilharmonie he directs the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Estonian Symphony Orchestra and the hr-Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt. “The Kammerphilharmonie musicians see themselves as chamber musicians, they know about their responsibility. Every note counts, every voice is significant”, explains Järvi.
In 2005, the Bremen musicians and Järvi gave guest performances of Beethoven in the USA. In 2006 they flew to Japan to give their breathtaking interpretation of Beethoven’s complete works. The 2007 tour, from Strasbourg to Japan, Canada, and back via Chicago and New York to Dresden, finished with a wonderful Sixth at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, which has particular ties with the Kammerphilharmonie as its orchestra in residence. Anyone who has played that much Beethoven would want to get the final rehearsal over and done with as quickly as possible. Not Järvi and the Bremen musicians. Even in Bonn, they rehearsed for over two hours. “With Beethoven”, says Järvi, “you're never finished”.
The balancing act between grassroots democracy and economic viability is tested on a daily basis. If it is a matter of filling a vacancy in the orchestra, the collective decides. Regarding collaboration with soloists and conductors, a plenary meeting is called. When deciding on new projects and programmes, a plenary meeting is called. When deciding on new projects and programmes, too, everyone’s opinion is called for.
The violist Klaus Heidemann is one of the four founder members who still play in the orchestra today. “It’s my baby”, he says almost affectionately. The organisation of the ensemble may have changed, but not its ethos: “We search without compromise for the idea of the composer, and rehearse until we reach the best possible realisation of this.” Those original members, who used to play without a conductor altogether, now also have a say in questions of interpretation. “Confident conductors appreciate it when there is input from our ranks. That is unthinkable in a salaried orchestra.”
For their salaried colleagues, performing on the basis of collective employment contracts, it would be inconceivable for a violist to turn round to an oboist to say that they were playing too sharp, thinks the oboist Ulrich König. “With us, on the other hand, there is no hierarchy between the instruments. We're all paid the same too.” How much they earn depends on the rehearsals and concerts where they actually play. If someone is ill, they earn less.
This orchestra born out of dreams of self-management and self-realisation is today amongst the best chamber orchestras in the world. It generates 44 percent of its budget through concerts, and earns 15 percent from sponsoring. That still leaves the 41 percent, or two million euros, which is contributed by the Federal State of Bremen. The orchestra left its first residence, Frankfurt am Main, in 1992, when the culture administration tried to force it to make artistic compromises by putting on the squeeze with funding.
Up to 2009, the programme is determined by Beethoven. And then? “We have asked Järvi if he can imagine a romantic future with us”, reveals oboist Ulrich König. “We want to take on Brahms.”

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies 3 & 8. Symphonies 4 & 7. Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Sony/BMG.

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