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The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra - and Interview with Director Andreas Schulz

Tuesday, 23 October 2012 , ora 12.27
The origin of the German symphonic ensemble dates back to the year 1479, when the Leipzig City Council hired three flute playing musicians. This trio turned into a septet that occupied a central role in the cultural life of the city, performing at functions in City Hall, providing the musical accompaniment for services in the city's churches and participating in theatre productions as part of the 'Großes Konzert' - the 'Grand Concert' society orchestra. The latter is the predecessor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Therefore, one of the oldest German orchestra's was named after its first residence where it activated, Gewandhaus, which literally translates as 'the cloth hall'. Why would it be called this way?

This concert enterprise was founded in 1743 by sixteen merchant families from Leipzig and it is one of the oldest civic orchestras around the world. The initiative of those families was a response to the Dresden Saxon State Orchestra, which was created and supported by the royal court. The Leipzig merchants wanted to prove that 'we can also accomplish such a thing, and in an even easier way'. Their determination took the form of the society orchestra called the 'Grand Concert', which performed for the restaurant host until the representatives of the Leipzig middle class decided that a concert hall was needed. The best place they could find was the weavers and the tailors' exhibition hall, which after a series of renovations and construction works turned into a 500 seats concert hall. This was the first Gewandhaus - the trading house of the city's textile merchants, and that is where the musicians started to hold their concerts.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra does not have a music director, but a bandmaster. What is the motive for using this title?

This is because of a long standing tradition. According to it, we do not use terms like music director or principal conductor, as it is done in the United States, neither do we use orchestra manager; my position is that of Gewandhaus director and the principal conductor is the bandmaster. We believe that in this way we can preserve the tradition the orchestra is based on and which is guiding it even now.

Andreas Schulz, what are the requirements for the musicians that want to join the Gewandhaus Orchestra?

All the vacancy advertisements are published in the orchestra magazine, which is the most important communication tool that we have in Germany for this kind of announcements. After that, we audition ten, fifty, even 200 candidates, listening to each of them at first and then in the actual competition. On one hand we want musicians that are already very talented, experienced and well prepared, but on the other hand we are looking for particular characters that can adapt to the three types of instrumentalists that we need. I mention this because we are not just a symphonic ensemble that performs in Gewandhaus. We are also the orchestra for the Leipzig Opera, as well as a constant participant in the weekly performances of the cantatas of Bach with the boys' choir in St. Thomas's Church. During the auditions we also pay attention to the performance style of the instrumentalist, because it is very important for us to know what kind of musical approach he could bring to our orchestra. Ricardo Chailly, our bandmaster, Mr. Schoemmer, the general music director of the Leipzig Opera and Mr. Biller, the Saint Thomas's boys' choir cantor, our three leaders, they place much importance on the acoustic identity of the Gewandhaus Orchestra: a very dark, rich tone, with earthen hues, but transparent at the same time. All of these must match the artist that will join us. The preliminary examination is followed by a one year trial period and at the end of it, if everything goes well, the musician becomes an official member of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The ensemble is performing symphonic, opera and religious music. Isn't it a rather solicitous work for the band players?

It is true that we have a very wide repertoire, but the musicians like the diversity very much. In this manner they can procure for themselves an incredible flexibility, a quality that is in its turn very appreciated by our conductor guests. The work with the band will run smoothly and rapidly. Our musicians enjoy playing orchestra music, Bach's works, and religious music. This kind of repertoire makes us famous worldwide, and it is a unique fact that we are able to do concurrent performances for three music institutions, with a team that amounts to 185 musicians. And the detail that our band is the oldest civic orchestra in the world adds up to its reputation.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra performed many plays for the very first time since they were made. There are also many famous musicians that worked with it, like Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Andreas Schulz, what other names could you tell us?

Arthur Nikisch performed Bruckner's 7thSymphony with us. Concerning Beethoven's works, we had fewer first interpretations, but his musical pieces, his symphonies, were always performed in Leipzig as well, right after their premier in Vienna. Likewise, we introduced Beethoven's unabridged symphonies for the very first time during the period 1825 - 1826, while the composer was still alive. From among our many famous guests we've also had Mozart; and not only composers, but performers as well have visited us, such as Clara Schumann. The Gewandhaus Orchestra has an unmatched history of initial performances - let's not forget to mention Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, as well as many contemporary authors, like Wolfgang Rihm. You could say that the Gewandhaus Orchestra actually made history and it also wrote one of the musical repertoires' histories.

A few years ago, the Gewandhaus Orchestra was awarded the prize for the 'Best Concert Programme' by the German Association of Music Publishers, bringing praise to the 'Grand Concert' generation that is named after the society that the orchestra that founded it. Andreas Schulz how is a concert programme or concert season prepared?

This has always been a difficult and complex question, and if I had to answer it, I would have to begin with the Gewandhaus bandmaster's concerts, that presume a particular series of themes, like the Mahler suite. We go on tour with the works from these series, which are also recorded on CDs and DVDs. Once we have decided on the key note or base of the repertoire, together with our bandmaster, we finish the season details with the suggestions of our honoured conductors, Herbert Blomstedt and Kurt Masur, and those of the conductor guests. We try to create a diversified repertoire, starting with Haydn and Mozart and closing it, if I may say so, with contemporary initial performances. The repertoire does not necessarily mean German music only; if we are directed by a Scandinavian conductor we will perform Sibelius. In order to compile a repertoire as diverse as possible we also take into account the anniversaries and the celebrations of important composers. These are the settings we use to develop the concert programmes that we will use for a year or two. We received the prize of the German Association of Music Publishers because we had many initial performances and we feel honoured for getting it.

At the ensemble's headquarters, Gewandhaus, there is a pipe organ inscribed with this motto: 'Res severa verum gaudium'. In what way does this motto define today's orchestra activity, Andreas Schulz?

These words can be translated as 'a serious concern is true pleasure', but they can also be read backwards as 'true pleasure is a serious business'. We try to perform classical music with great pleasure, both in concerts and rehearsals, in convey its message properly. This theme has actually been with us ever since the beginning, as this citation from Seneca's 23rdletter had been written on one of the walls of the Leipzig textile merchant's exhibition hall, the first home of the Gewandhaus. The 'res severa verum gaudium' motto guides us through our entire activity.

Maria Monica Bojin
Translated by Roxana Țicămucă
MTTLC, Bucharest University