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Leseprobe SIGHTGEIST / Rubrik: Culture

Music as Alive Today as Ever

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra represents 275 years of European music tradition

It was a sight to behold, even for a city like New York: Musicians from Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra performed in front of the Flatiron building, evoking 75 years of living music history from Saxony right at the heart of the American metropolis. Amidst the skyscrapers and surrounded by rushing traffic, they caused a sensation: People stopped to listen and ask where the musicians were from. Many New Yorkers had already heard of the orchestra from Leipzig. Thanks to performances such as this one in 2014 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Saxon orchestra is one of the best and most widely-known ensembles in the world.
Classical music followers relish its earthy, dark sound and the musicians’ delight in playing. It is said that a concert by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is never mediocre, but always features a certain boldness that immediately sparks the interest of the audience. In its home town of Leipzig, the orchestra has some 12,500 subscribers. The 70 major concerts it stages throughout the year alone are virtually all sold out. Yet the Gewandhaus itself is just one of three venues used by the orchestra in Leipzig. Traditionally, the ensemble not only performs at the Gewandhaus, but is also the concert orchestra for the Leipzig Opera and, together with St Thomas Boys Choir, gives weekly performances of Bach’s cantatas at St. Thomas’s Church. Thanks to these three different genres – concert music, musical theatre and church music – the orchestra has acquired an artistic horizon that is unique in the world. Moreover, no other leading symphonic orchestra performs as many works by Johann Sebastian Bach as regularly as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
In addition to the 200 concerts it plays in Leipzig every year, the orchestra’s annual tours have long included highly acclaimed guest performances in cities like London, Paris, Lucerne, Milan and Budapest. Another regular destination for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is Japan. In Tokyo, it surprised passersby at a shopping centre, much like it did in New York in 2014. The musicians also take a piece of European music history with them whenever they tour the world, with a repertoire that is still dominated by composers like Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Schubert and Brahms. Famous music directors, or Gewandhauskapellmeister, of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, such as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Ferdinand Hiller, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Franz Konwitschny, set the tone early on in the orchestra’s history and still influence its repertoire today. Even 200 years after the orchestra’s establishment, the list of significant music directors is unending: Since 1970, this post has been held by Kurt Masur, Herbert Blomstedt and Riccardo Chailly. Starting in 2018, Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons will guide the traditional orchestra into the future as its 21st Gewandhauskapellmeister.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra owes its excellent reputation not only to these world-famous figures, but also to its unique origins. In the 18th century, Leipzig was already a major Saxon city together with the royal seat of Dresden. Cultural life in Leipzig was largely influenced by Stadtpfeifer or “town pipers” – musicians employed by the city council, who performed at public events – and church music, until a group of 16 citizens and noblemen, including traders, patricians and merchants as well as some Stadtpfeifer, founded an independent ensemble. They gave private concerts, arranged musical evenings in private homes and soon established a society they called the “Grosses Concert” (Grand Concert). The group had struck a chord, and people lined up to hear them. (excerpt)

Nicole Czerwinka

Photo: (c) Gewandhaus/Jens Gerber

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