Tabea Zimmermann © Marco Borggreve
Tabea Zimmermann
© Marco Borggreve

One of the earliest and most interesting events of the Beethoven anniversary year will be at the composerʼs birthplace in Bonn, where nearly his entire chamber music oeuvre will be performed over four weekends in January and February. The 2020 Beethoven Woche festival will also mark the close of violist Tabea Zimmermannʼs tenure as artistic director, a job that came with unexpected benefits.

“Looking at the content from the perspective of an organizer rather than a player changed my thinking in many ways,” she says. “It turned out to be a fantastic opportunity for me to learn and understand better how things work.”

It was also a position that Zimmermann was initially reluctant to accept. “If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be president of Beethoven Haus and running a chamber music festival, I would have said, for sure not, I canʼt do that,” she says. “When they asked me in 2013, my first reaction was, thanks but no thanks.”

As one of the worldʼs premier viola players, Zimmermann already had a full schedule of concerts and teaching at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin. And itʼs a rare year when sheʼs not an artist-in-residence – this season, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. But Zimmermann has her own ideas about what makes for a good music festival. And Beethoven is a seminal figure in her personal musical life. So when Beethoven Haus agreed to let her bring along Spanish writer and concert promoter Luis Gago as an adviser, she agreed to take on the job.

Though small in stature and brief in duration, Beethoven Woche has an illustrious history. In 1890 the first honorary president of the Beethoven Haus Association, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, launched what is now considered the worldʼs first chamber music festival. It was a prestigious affair, with lavish dinners and some of the most renowned musicians in Europe. After Joachimʼs death in 1907, a smaller version of the festival ran until 1956. The opening of a new chamber music hall in 1989 inaugurated an annual season of concerts at Beethoven Haus, and in 2013 the Association invited Zimmermann to revive the festival.

“Beethoven was always an important composer to me,” says Zimmermann, who came to his music early. She played his string trios with her two sisters starting at the age of five, then as her career developed learned the quintets and septets. After she formed the Arcanto Quartet with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and violinists Antje Weithaas and Daniel Sepec in 2002, they took on the string quartets, particularly the late, notoriously difficult ones beginning with Opus 127.

“I will always be fascinated by them, but as a musician, I find them a big riddle – I have no explanation for them,” she says. “With for example a Brahms score, you can analyze the theme, see the structure, follow how he gets from one idea to the next. With Beethoven, there are so many surprises and questions. Why would a composer write something in fortissimo, and with such violence? It is almost at the limit of being painful.”

Ludwig van Beethoven's viola © Beethoven Haus Bonn
Ludwig van Beethoven's viola
© Beethoven Haus Bonn

Still, Zimmermannʼs interest was piqued when in 2001 the director of Beethoven Haus called her with an unusual offer. Beethoven played viola as a young man, and his instrument is in the museumʼs collection. “He told me, we have this instrument that has been silent for 100 years, and we want to bring it back to playing condition – would you play it?”

It wasnʼt an easy proposition. For insurance purposes, the viola cannot leave Beethoven Haus, so Zimmermman had to travel to Bonn to play it and eventually record a CD (“Beethovens Bratsche,” released in 2003 on Ars Musici). But it turned out to be a magical experience.

“Itʼs rather small, with gut strings, no chin or shoulder rests, and a sound very different from what we need today – not very large but beautiful, sweet like a soprano,” she says. “It was fantastic, picking it up, touching it slowly, starting to play it slowly, getting the first music out of it in 100 years. And it certainly helped make my connection with Beethoven a very personal one.”

The modern incarnation of Beethoven Woche debuted in 2014, though the first version with Zimmermannʼs imprint came the following year. Working in consultation with Gago and the Beethoven Haus board, she created what became known as “the festival of one work.”

“We wanted to be a bit different, not just invite some friends and have a series of random chamber music concerts,” she says. “That can be very nice, but we wanted something with a specific idea. So every year we chose one Beethoven piece to set a theme, then all the remaining programming followed that theme through other composers into the modern era.”

This yearʼs theme piece was the “Diabelli Variations,” which opened the door to variations by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Hindemith and a smart mix of early and contemporary composers. “Itʼs amazing how well that has worked,” Zimmermann says. “Many of our audience members come back for the entire week of concerts, and we have the impression they leave more clever than when we started.”

There was another reason for organizing the festival in that fashion: it saved most of Beethovenʼs chamber music for the 2020 anniversary festival, which has been expanded to 16 concerts over four weekends. Zimmermann does double duty as an organizer and performer during the festival, so that will give both her and the audiences a chance to catch their breath between concerts.

Tabea Zimmermann performing at Beethoven Woche Bonn © Fotostyle Boeschemeyer
Tabea Zimmermann performing at Beethoven Woche Bonn
© Fotostyle Boeschemeyer

The theme for 2020 is “progress and evolution,” reflecting Beethovenʼs visionary approach to composing. “His music was never looking back to keep the tradition of something going,” Zimmermann says. “He tried to move on and evolve, always very interested in trying out new techniques and ideas.”

Because the piano sonatas will be featured as part of Beethoven Hausʼs regular season, they are not included in the festival. But almost all the composerʼs remaining chamber music is, which posed a challenge for a team never content with doing standard programming.

“It was like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle,” Zimmerman says. “We decided to break up the genres and group the pieces by different kinds of free association. Like one evening we are doing ʻfirstʼ pieces – first piano trio, first string trio, first string quartet. Another night we are doing three opuses in a row, numbers 95, 96 and 97, which represent three different genres. The idea was to create individual concerts that stand on their own, but also offer a bigger overview of Beethoven.”

An impressive lineup of performers includes A-list names like Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov, longtime collaborators Queyras and Sepec, young talent like Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, and a blend of fresh and well-established ensembles – Quatuor Ébène, the Belcea Quartet, Trio Isimsiz. Nonetheless, Zimmermann readily admits that many of the names one might expect to see at a significant Beethoven anniversary event are missing – for a reason.

“I do not believe in stardom,” she says. “The stars coming to our festival are actually very serious artists, not just stars, which I think is a big problem with classical music nowadays. There are a number of people who have extremely big names, and a lot of hot air behind it. They are not interesting to me. We want musicians of the highest quality, a mix of people with names we know who are fantastic artists, and also younger people who have wonderful quality but do not yet have the big names.”

One of the festivalʼs great strengths is also its greatest weakness. Beethoven Hausʼs chamber music hall is an acoustic and architectural gem, an intimate amphitheater with just 199 seats and a rear window onto a courtyard where a statue of Beethoven looks on. But the size limits box office revenues, which means that without a major sponsor, the festival may not be financially sustainable over the long term.

Still, the revived and reimagined Beethoven Woche has had an undeniable impact on audiences – and Zimmermann.

“I think itʼs really essential to hear how Beethoven changed the writing of chamber music,” she says. “You couldnʼt have a string quartet nowadays without playing the Beethoven quartets, or referring to them in other pieces. Every single string quartet written after Beethoven carries the knowledge and the importance of his work in that genre. To put it simply: There is no classical music without Beethoven.”

This article was sponsored by the Beethoven Haus Bonn