View of Bamberg from Geyerswörth zum Dom © Peter Eberts
View of Bamberg from Geyerswörth zum Dom
© Peter Eberts

Extraordinary city. Extraordinary orchestra.

Not many ensembles in the world can make that claim, much less back it up. But in the case of the Bamberg Symphony, which is using the slogan to spearhead a new promotional campaign, it neatly encapsulates the larger-than-life cachet of an international orchestra from a small city in Bavaria.

“I want to show the music industry what kind of jewel we have, and why this is something very special,” says Bamberg Intendant Marcus Rudolf Axt.

Every orchestra manager in the world feels the same way. But not every one calls a UNESCO World Heritage city in the heart of Central Europe home. Or can boast a pedigree that reaches back to the 1787 première of Don Giovanni and traces the arc of the most turbulent period in modern history. Nor plays with what Chief Conductor Jonathan Nott succinctly describes as a “cognac-colored sound.”

Still, Axt faces the same problems as many of his contemporaries. “If I call an agency in London or get someone on the phone in the United States, their first reaction is, ʻBamberg?ʼ So they Google it and say, ʻOh, itʼs a provincial German orchestra.ʼ And thatʼs not true. Thatʼs exactly what we are not.”

Cognoscenti know the orchestra as a storied ensemble that has been a standard-bearer of the Central European sound and tradition for decades. And not just in Europe. Long before touring was de rigueur for major orchestras, Bamberg was blazing new trails in the Americas. The orchestra first visited Mexico and Brazil in 1954, returning in 1962 for a month-long tour through Mexico and seven South American countries. In the U.S., the orchestra made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1954 and has since has appeared in a total of 37 cities, including 18 on a single tour in the spring of 1973.

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra © Michael Trippel
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
© Michael Trippel

All this starting from a city that doesn’t even have its own airport.

This month the Bamberg Symphony was in Vienna and Prague, the latter for an appearance at the Prague Spring festival to play Strauss songs with Violeta Urmana and Mahler’s Symphony no. 1. Over coffee before the concert, Axt described the Prague visit as a return to the orchestra’s roots. “The musicians walk through the city this afternoon, and somehow it’s like home,” he said.

This feeling goes much deeper than the well-preserved architecture and historical charm that the two cities share. Axt has been hard at work tracing the Bamberg Symphony’s lineage, and while some of his research will need authenticating, he has a remarkable story to tell.

When Mozart premièred Don Giovanni in Prague, the orchestra in the pit at the Nostitz Theater was, according to Axt, the same one that several generations later became the house orchestra at the New German Theater. In the half-century after its opening in 1888, that theater became a musical powerhouse, operating under the directorship of luminaries like Angelo Neumann, Alexander Zemlinsky and George Szell. In 1908, Mahler premièred his Seventh Symphony there. When the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia in 1938, the theater was closed and the orchestra regrouped in the hinterlands. It was called back two years later when Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels decided that he needed a German orchestra in Prague.

“There is an indication in the diary of Goebbels: The Czech Philharmonic is still playing, we need to conquer the music there as well,” Axt says. “So the orchestra was brought back and renamed the Deutsche Philharmonisches, with Joseph Keilberth installed as music director.”

Keilberth went on to have a long and prolific career with the orchestra, though not until 1949. When the Russians liberated Prague in May 1945, the orchestra once again fled – Keilberth to Dresden, where he became chief conductor of the Dresden State Opera for four years. Most of the musicians headed west, away from the advancing Russian army. The first city they came to that had not been destroyed by Allied bombs was Bamberg.

“They got housing, which was the first thing for all the refugees,” Axt says. “Then the city said to them: Just before the war we wanted to have an orchestra, but it didn’t work out. So now you can be our orchestra. We have an empty convent that you can use to give concerts. But you should call yourselves the Bamberg Symphony.”

Jonathan Nott © Paul Yates
Jonathan Nott
© Paul Yates

The players brought with them what Axt describes as “the Bohemian sound” – the warm, richly emotional, full-blooded style of playing that is deep in the Czech DNA and still characterizes the country’s best orchestras.

“This is what fascinates me so much,” Axt says. “If you compare recordings with Keilberth from the 1950s to today, there is this kind of vibrant, burning spirit in the sound that is consistent. There was an attitude toward the music, a joyful sense of playing together, that came to Bamberg and stayed there.”

If the sound shaped the city, the reverse is also true. In Bamberg the musicians found not only a similar aesthetic environment crowned by a cathedral on a hill, but a fervent fan base that has never been shy about offering support – or making its opinions known.

“Most of us come to work by cycling along the river or walking alongside 500 year-old buildings, and when you breathe that kind of history, it informs the music-making you do,” Axt says. “When I go to the green market on Saturday, people will come up to me and say, ʻYesterdayʼs concert was wonderful, but I didnʼt like the Mozart so much. Why donʼt you do more Shostakovich?ʼ”

But Bamberg has a built-in limitation: a population of just 70,000. So while orchestra managers can boast that nearly 10 percent of the cityʼs residents are season ticket-holders, and stage 40 concerts a season for them, itʼs not nearly enough to sustain a world-class ensemble.

“The orchestra is far too big for the city,” Axt acknowledges. “Thatʼs why, since the founding in 1946, it has always been on tour. Since 2003 we also have the honorary title of State Philharmonic of Bavaria, which brings some subsidies and make us this regionʼs musical ambassador to the world.”

Marcus Axt © David Ebener
Marcus Axt
© David Ebener

And so the road continues to beckon, with roughly 30 concerts a year throughout Bavaria and another 30-40 abroad. Axt also likes to take on challenges that would give other orchestras pause, like serving as the orchestra in residence at last yearʼs Lucerne Festival, where the Bamberg Symphony mounted concert performances of Wagnerʼs entire Ring cycle.

And while it may be grounded in the past, the orchestra is focused on the future. Axt and Nott have expanded its repertoire by adding hefty doses of contemporary music. For the next two seasons that will include new works by Jörg Widmann, the orchestraʼs composer in residence. In Vienna last week the audience got a preview of another new music feature that will debut in the 2014/15 season, short encores commissioned by Axt from a range of living composers. (Akin to what American violinist Hilary Hahn did in her recent 27 Pieces project.)

“We need to have encores on tours, but a nice waltz or Slavonic dance doesnʼt always fit the program,” Axt says. “So I asked some 40 composers to create a short piece that would do what an encore should do – say thank you to the audience, and give them some fireworks at the end. This should also work as an advertisement, letting audiences know itʼs not so complicated to listen to new music.”

The preview piece was a work by Spanish composer Mauricio Sotelo titled Bruckner Nachklang, written to be played after Brucknerʼs Symphony no. 7.  “Three minutes, 20 seconds, with some elements of Bruckner in the music,” Axt says. “It worked wonderfully.”


This article is sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.