John Axelrod

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21 Mar 2012
Shifting Paradigms, Alternative Venues

Shifting Paradigms, Alternative Venues

By Rebecca Schmid

March 21, 2012


BERLIN -- Earlier this month, well-groomed couples in heels and overcoats made their way

down a gritty street in Berlin’s Kreuzberg area, walking into the gates of a former heating plant

and through its heavy metal doors. Chandeliers brought in from the Staatsoper Unter den

Linden hung from the towering concrete rafters. Open piping and exposed machinery remnants

were still visible through the warm, colored lighting. A narrow, open staircase softened with

burgundy carpeting led up to a 970-seat theater erected on the former site of a hydroelectric

turbine. The occasion was the Berlin premiere of Luigi Nono’s “Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore.”


As classical music institutions struggle to build a wider audience base, unconventional locations

are becoming increasingly popular. The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, as part of

its series “The Night Shift,” embarked on a London pub crawl last month, playing chamber

music for local patrons. The Opera Company of Philadelphia surprised visitors at a farmers’

market two years ago with a flash concert of the “Brindisi,” subsequently launching a YouTube

video that received three million views in its first six months. The ensemble “Spira Mirabilis,” a

conductorless group of young players from various European orchestras, has won attention for

taking Beethoven to plazas and other public spaces as if spontaneously. The Zürich Opera

staged “La Traviata” at the city’s main rail station in 2008, and the German stage director

Christoph Hagel has brought Mozart operas to subway stations, circus tents, clubs and



In the case of “Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore,” the decision to use a converted power plant was

largely logistical. With the Staatsoper’s 18th-century headquarters on the Boulevard Unter den

Linden undergoing renovation, the company has been temporarily confined to the small space

of the Schiller Theater. Intendant Jürgen Flimm knew he needed a venue large enough to

accommodate Katie Mitchell’s staging of the Nono opera, originally designed for the Salzburg

Festspielhaus. He and his crew landed upon the Kraftwerk, as the converted space is known,

available for rent, at 50,000 Euros a month, as well as being home to the techno club “Tresor.”

The Staatsoper crew built everything from dressing rooms to an orchestra pit. The costs

amounted to no more than that of a large Verdi opera, Flimm told the local papers: 455,000

Euros, according to a Staatsoper spokesperson, with the government providing 215,000 Euros

of the total. The cost will be partly shared with Hagel’s touring show “Flying Bach” (an

amalgamation of the Well-Tempered Clavier and breakdancing).


Electronic music clubs located in defunct industrial buildings have been part of Berlin’s cultural

landscape since reunification. But more recent is the steady migration of high-arts institutions to

these spaces. The Radialsystem, a converted water pumping plant founded in 2006 as a center

for dialogue among the arts, has adopted the nickname “Spree Philharmonie” (concert hall on

the Spree river), recently presenting both the Berlin Philharmonic and Mahler Chamber

Orchestra in rotating programs of contemporary chamber music. The MCO ended its evening

with a DJ party – a sign of the ever increasing cross fertilization of club culture and classical

music, from Berlin to San Francisco. An important precedent was set by Deutsche

Grammophon’s Yellow Lounge, which since being launched at a Hamburg bar in 2001 has

established a presence at clubs in Berlin and other European cities with live concerts that are

accompanied by DJ and VJ events.


Opinion is divided on the efficacy of performing in these cavernous spaces. Composer/DJ

Mason Bates [’s Artist of the Month for June 2009] says that as much as he approves of

the idea, he was surprised to find such groups as Musica Antica Köln participating, since its

repertory bears no relevance to party culture.


“When you have a harpsichord involved you have to think, how does this fit?” he explains. “Just

changing the background scenery around which this music is heard doesn’t change anything

substantively. The reason why we love classical music is because it’s unlike any other listening experience.

There’s a lot of subtlety, and if you want to change the places where it’s heard, you have to get

really creative and acknowledge that it’s going to be a challenge.”


Although in favor of creating an accessible listening culture around classical music, Jennifer

Dauterman, artistic director of the recently established Club Contemporary Classical Festival,

also agrees that the space-repertoire fit has to be right.


Otherwise, “you have people talking over music that is meant to be listened to quietly and DJs

playing over sound systems that are not meant for classical music.”


Many presenters and players are actively rethinking the concert paradigm to fit the needs of the

21st century. Conductor John Axelrod has been experimenting with alternative formats since his

early days in Texas, with programs such as “Beer, BBQ and Beethoven.” He recently organized

a rave with his Orchestre des Pays de la Loire that included an electronic remix of “Ode an die

Freude” by composer/producer Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei’s grandson), whose “Concerto for

Turntables and Orchestra” was performed at the BBC Proms in August.

Axelrod believes that events such as the Yellow Lounge and pub crawls mostly play to a niche

market and do not necessarily have an impact on getting people into the concert hall.

“Performing in non-traditional venues makes for great media and is very ‘cool,’ but the events

are like recordings today—only good for promotion,” he says. He adds that flash concerts

similarly generate great video but do not create subscribers.


The acoustics of nontraditional spaces are almost always a challenge, but in some cases they

add to the off-beat nature of the occasion. Dauterman recently went to hear a Morton Feldman

chamber music performance at the city’s main rail station, expecting a disaster.

“Feldman is all about the silence, and the music dynamic was well below everything else

happening in the Hauptbahnhof,” she recalls. “But I found it to have this Cagean effect: I was

experiencing everything together as a rich tapestry.”


As a rule, contemporary repertoire is more successful in alternative spaces than traditional

repertoire. “Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore,” which includes live electronic and a large battery of

percussion, found a powerful setting in Kraftwerk both acoustically and aesthetically. Any space

can be utilized effectively, according to Axelrod, as long as it remains part of a consistent artistic

vision and is sensitive to the attitudes and lifestyles of the listeners. “Location, location, location

is the mantra for real estate. For classical music, it should be: public, public, public.”


Copyright © 2012, Musical America

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