When he answers the phone, conductor Alexander Liebreich sounds surprised to have received my call. Have I caught him at a bad time? “I am in parliament, asking for money for the Strauss Festival”, he apologises. Would I mind phoning back in an hour?

Alexander Liebreich © Sammy Hart
Alexander Liebreich
© Sammy Hart
I do so, and find Liebreich in high spirits for someone who has just endured a three-hour meeting with the Bavarian political establishment. The funding for the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, of which Liebreich is the new Artistic Director, has been approved. Access to funds had been blocked due to political disagreements. “But the current government is favourable towards culture, and patronage will be even better than last year.” Does political wrangling give Liebreich a buzz? “I try to do less and less,” he says, pausing for thought. “But politics can be interesting.”

A gift for negotiating has surely served Liebreich well. The first European Artistic Director of South Korea’s Tongyeong International Music Festival, and one of the first European conductors to have visited North Korea regularly, he has a reputation for getting daringly innovative projects off the ground. And in the Polish city of Katowice, where Liebreich works as Chief Conductor of the resident National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR), his work has been barely less boundary-pushing. In 2015 he was appointed the first Artistic Director of the Katowice Kultura Natura Festival. It is just one of the major attractions in a city that is fast becoming a thriving cultural hub.

Liebreich and NOSPR’s two programmes at the festival this year include Mahler’s Third Symphony and Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem. Commissioned by Liebreich in 2011, the work is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. But the conductor insists the piece is “spiritual rather than political”. “Music is the most non-political art. It cannot be allowed to be the prostitute of politics.”

Is Liebreich drawn to new music? “I have commissioned works from composers like Sciarrino and Haas five or six years in a row. But I hate to use the term ‘new’ music. I love working with composers on new works. But that doesn’t mean music composed in the past is old. A piece by Mozart to me is new. It is all in the interpretation.”

The festival’s programme in notably eclectic. What role did Liebreich play in its creation? “We have been very tough on programming,” he explains. “We don’t like tourers, and are not into name-dropping for ticket sales. This year the theme is childhood. With Ian Bostridge we had a long conversation, and decided to pair Britten with Schumann. With the Tonhalle we had a chat about what makes it fascinating to be a child.” The result is two enticing programmes that stretch from Rimsky-Korsakov to Honegger and from Ravel to Lutoslawski and Dutilleux.  

NOSPR Concert Hall © NOSPR
NOSPR Concert Hall
“Childhood is about fairytales,” Liebreich continues. “About learning about reality while exploring fantasy. I have a son who is eight. We have just watched Harry Potter together. You understand that the key is how fairytale magic can overcome the borders of life.” Do challenging programmes risk stretching audiences’ imaginations too far? “We have to keep on going. You really have to trust in the audience, and think “let’s just do it”. If we don’t believe in our repertoire choices who will? If it all comes down to ticket sales you are digging your own grave.”

As Chief Conductor of NOSPR, Liebreich’s flair for programming has been in full evidence. Since its inception in Warsaw in 1935, the orchestra has been a sort of ambassador for Polish music on the world scene, and has collaborated with Polish composers like Górecki, Penderecki and Lutosławski on the first performances of their works. How does NOSPR play this music? “They tell stories. It is something in their blood and it is music that feels authentic for them.” It sounds as though it has by now entered Liebreich’s blood, too. “When I visit Katowice I sleep in Szymanowski’s bed,” he marvels. “I stay in room 217, of the hotel in which the composer once stayed.”

Liebreich describes his teaching trips to a North Korean university as “one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I was freely teaching music across the range, and I learned a lot about where truth is. We had only a small number of rules. No North Korean music, no government orchestras and that musicians had to come from the country.”

How challenging was the experience? “It was easier than some discussions with the German government,” Liebreich chuckles. “The idea of a united Korea has created love between the North and South, and it is a very profound love. There are those that are crazy about unification and even mention of the idea would make them start crying immediately.” To what extent can cultural diplomacy unite divided peoples? “As Lenny Bernstein said, we can’t change the rules but we can take a little step.”

NOSPR Concert Hall © Katowice City Council
NOSPR Concert Hall
© Katowice City Council

If music cannot change the world, it can certainly change a city. We return to Katowice – a post-industrial city of 310,000, which in the last decade has undergone what Liebreich describes as a “metamorphosis”. The local government has pumped €45m each year into the creative economy under the motto “from heavy industry to creative industries”. And music resonates everywhere. The city notably hosts the Karol Szymanowski Academy, which founded the first Department of Jazz music in Poland, and 27 music festivals which spotlight a variety of music genres. Since becoming a UNESCO City of Music in 2015, Katowice’s cultural future has looked ever brighter.

“I find it very impressive,” says Liebreich. “The city’s industrial past is the source of its creativity today.” And it is to that past that NOSPR’s concert hall – “one of the best in Europe”, says Liebreich – pays respect. Built in coal black, it is a monument to the city’s mining traditions.

It is often the “non-places”, Liebreich concludes, that the real music-making happens. At the Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus, announcing programmes 48 hours before the concerts creates excitement. At the Verbier Festival, the mix of musical devotees casts a special atmosphere even in the absence of a great auditorium. One of Liebreich’s best concerts, he says, took place in the unassuming environment of a Llandudno sports hall. 

But Liebreich’s observations highlight another thing: that music has the power to turn the non-places into the places to be. In Katowice, investment in culture has proved transformative, and the city’s classical music festival is one particularly exciting endeavour to have emerged from the process. With its bold, fresh and imaginative range of programmes, the current edition of the Kultura Natura Festival has much to offer.

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Article sponsored by Katowice Kultura Natura Festival