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Divine sparks at the Beethovenfest as Wagner era begins

Big names, four Beethoven cycles, top young conductors, classical stars and new music will shape the 2014 Beethovenfest. In September, Bonn is set to celebrate the city’s famous son with some 60 events.

Götterfunken is one of those evocative German words familiar to some even well beyond the German-speaking world. Translating to "divine sparks," it's the core message in the chorale finale of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony. Beethoven's musical setting of the poem "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich Schiller takes up the theme of artistic inspiration that leads to nothing less than the brotherhood of all peoples.

Götterfunken is the motto of this year's Beethovenfest, which runs from September 6 until October 3 in the city where the composer was born - the idea being that the sparks in this year's lineup will jump over to the audiences and kindle their enthusiasm. While giving a program preview, artistic director Nike Wagner quoted Deutsche Welle General Director Peter Limbourg: "The divine spark stands for joy, variety, peace. These are ideals Beethoven had and - in light of current political developments not only in Europe - are every bit as relevant today."

Beethoven's cosmos

How does one get the sparks flying in 60 concerts at 21 locations in Bonn and the region? And most of all, how does one sell 39,000 tickets along the way?

At the Beethovenfest 2014 press conference

Bonn mayor Jürgen Nimptsch (r) attended the press conference

First of all, there are concerts of the type to be expected, given the festival's namesake. For the fourth time in the recent history of this festival, which was founded by Franz Liszt in 1845, the lineup includes all nine Beethoven symphonies. They will be performed on four successive evenings by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its Latvian principal conductor Andris Nelsons.

Secondly, the Beethoven Hall will resonate with all four of the composer's piano concertos and his Choral Fantasy, juxtaposed with works by Igor Stravinsky. Performing here are Norwegian star pianist Leif Ove Andsnes along with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The third Beethoven cycle is performed by Greek-born Leonidas Kavakos, described by the "New York Times" as a "formidable violinist," accompanied in multiple recitals by the Italian pianist Enrico Pace, with all ten of Ludwig van Beethoven's sonatas for that combination of instruments.

Finally, 2014 marks the third and final year of the string quartet cycle with the legendary Borodin Quartet from Russia, in which Beethoven’s complete oeuvre in the genre is performed along with string quartets by Russian composers - most importantly among them Dmitry Shostakovich.

It would be hard to get a more complete view of the Beethoven universe. Yet the festival doesn't restrict itself to that one composer. Several world premieres are planned for this year, and in seven concerts, a String Quartet Weekend highlights music of the years 1814 (the year of the Vienna Congres), 1914 (beginning of World War I) and 2014. A thematic focus on music and religion includes an evening titled Passio - Compassio, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to early Christian and Islamic music.

Big names and new works

The Orchestra Campus, co-organized by the Beethovenfest and Deutsche Welle, enters its 14th year, concluding a three-year focus on Turkey with the title "Beethoven ile bulusma - Encounter with Beethoven." This time, the Bilkent Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ankara will perform in Bonn with its conductor Isin Metin. Deutsche Welle's own composition commission goes this year to Istanbul composer Tolga Yayalar, and his work will have its world premiere on September 23, played together with Beethoven's Ninth.

Nike Wagner

The new festival director Nike Wagner, great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner

Big names in the biz are on the playbill, as one might expect from recent years. In 2014, they include Lorin Maazel and the Munich Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with Paavo Järvi and conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

Music of the future

The greater part of this year's program was planned by former artistic director Ilona Schmiel, but Nike Wagner is already making a mark, having given the impetus to the final festival event. Described as a "theatric convention" and titled "Save the World," the multi-media event will include elements from the worlds of art, music and science, drawing its protagonists from various artistic disciplines.

And that may be a hint at the way things will develop in the still-new Wagner era of the Beethovenfest. The new director, always willing to experiment, has announced that there will be more events combining various artistic forms and genres. Another of Frau Wagner's goals is to cross-compare different styles of musical interpretation and to work out highly focused programs.

Meanwhile, added to the list of Beethoven memorabilia in Bonn: on March 30, a new sculpture of the composer will be unveiled in the Stadtgarten near the Rhine riverbank. Nearly three meters tall, it's the work of sculptor Markus Lüpertz.

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