Was it a lucky coincidence or just by chance? While preparing for my interview with violinist Anna Neubert, I discovered that we both studied with the same violin professor at the University of Music and Dance in Cologne. Regardless, it was the ideal way to start a conversation with this versatile artist, who redefines and expands the term “violinist” for herself, and who loves to play, stage and infiltrate unusual concert settings.

Anna Neubert © Rebecca ter Braak
Anna Neubert
© Rebecca ter Braak

Anna Neubert is a classically trained violinist, ensemble leader and concert director. She studied in Cologne, most recently with Barnabas Kelemen and Barbara Maurer, and received valuable inspiration during a year abroad in Paris and at masterclasses with Donald Weilerstein and Igor Ozim. Her interest in contemporary music led her to the Lucerne Festival Academy several times. “I’d like to think more broadly about what one does as an interpreter and extend the creative will not only to the sound level, but to wider levels.” Thus, she is particularly interested in interdisciplinary concert forms and the development of new, hybrid works between composition and choreography. Through her involvement with dance and theatre, but also with contemporary circus, Neubert developed an urge to help shape the way music is performed. Concerts “always include theatrical moments,” she explains, “some intentional, some unintentional.” This led her to the question: “How can you integrate further elements into these already existing different levels of a concert, which might allow access to very complex music, especially in contemporary music?”

Her interdisciplinary graduation recital Seiltänzer was awarded top marks in 2013; since then she has directed projects in cooperation with the Cologne Association for Contemporary Circus, ZAMUS Cologne, at the Schwetzingen Festival, the AchtBrücken Festival in Cologne, the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn and the Villa Massimo in Rome. In addition, Neubert performs with her ensemble uBu, is involved in productions with the Junge Opern Düsseldorf and Dortmund, and performs in duos with the guitarist Leonhard Spies as well as with the soprano Marie Heeschen (in a staged version of Kurtág's Kafka Fragments). With the band Tovte, she enjoys not only exploring the world of klezmer but another long-standing passion of hers, tango music. Awards and sponsorship followed, among others, at the International Alois Kottmann Competition and through the Yehudi Menuhin Live Music Now. In 2016, she won the Boris Pergamenschikow Prize with Trio uBu and received the stART.up scholarship from the Claussen-Simon Foundation in 2018-2020.

Kafka Fragments

When designing concert programmes, it's important for Anna Neubert to help shape all parameters of the performance situation. “I want to give my audience the opportunity to experience individual works in a particularly intense and novel way.” In today's second lockdown, compared to the spring, the young violinist feels obliged to become active again and asks herself the question, no matter what the activity: “What is needed and what is perhaps no longer needed, which I used to think was needed?”

Despite all restrictions, she plans rehearsals, projects and long-distance concerts. For the Junge Oper Düsseldorf she is currently performing in the project Kreative Pause (Creative Break), where short concerts for young audiences take place interactively via Zoom. Originally, this project was to take place during the breaks in schools. Now it will be offered to pupils via the internet.

At the same time, Neubert is rehearsing for a concert at the Beethovenhaus Bonn in March with the piano trio uBu. The trio comprises one half of her ensemble uBu, which is completed by three dancers and a costume designer. With this ensemble, which owes its name to Bernd Alois Zimmermann's 1961 piano trio Présence, Neubert seeks to make contemporary music a physical experience. Présence is a ballet blanc in five scenes, for which Zimmermann briefly describes a stage with three figures in the introduction: Don Quixote, Molly Bloom and (Roi) Ubu. Zimmermann limits himself to only a few scenic elements and leaves the rest of the presentation to his interpreters. Neubert uses this freedom to the full. Thanks to a grant from the German Federal Cultural Foundation, uBu is currently experimenting with 360° music videos, which are filmed at the Kölner Philharmonie.

Présence Trailer

As a result of commissioning works such as Calling Sirens by Huihui Cheng, with whom she has had a close working relationship since 2018, she has produced further works for uBu's extraordinary formation. In recent years, Neubert has extended the scope of her interpretations into experiential spaces with her ensembles. It excites her to “throw myself and my audience into new situations in which new spaces of thought and emotional worlds can be musically explored.”

Another of her projects explores music and the art of weaving. These “Weaving Concerts” were created in collaboration with the textile artist Nicole Kiersz, whom she had met through the Claussen-Simon Foundation scholarship. “The loom is the oldest digital machine in the world,” she enlightens me. In weaving, the two possible states represented by 0 and 1 in the binary code are either the top weft or the top warp. Together with Kiersz, she explored the connections between music and weaving. The two found inspiring similarities in notation and in the language used to talk about a piece of music and a piece of fabric. In the future, her dream is “a large-scale concert cycle about weaving sounds, with a central piece for string orchestra and weaving loom.”

Weaving Concerts

In one of her concerts designed for the INTERVALL series of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, webern_bewegt, the audience had the opportunity to experience Anton Webern's aphoristic music from the musician's perspective. During the performance, Neubert had a dancer rehearse movements with the audience in response to a few short phrases from Webern's string quartet. Through repeated active listening and dance, the audience not only got a unique listening experience, as is usual in traditional concerts, but through practising dance movements, they discovered Webern's music in all its facets. At the same time, they intensively immersed themselves in the subtleties of the score. “As a musician, you experience the music in motion while playing, in contrast to the audience, which usually sits motionless in their chairs,” she explains. With her new concert dramaturgical approach, Neubert wants to enable her audience also to “experience music in motion”. And she's convinced that the audience makes its own contribution to every concert situation. Therefore, she is interested in developing formats in which a heterogeneous audience can meet. 

Trailer of webern_bewegt

Why, I want to know, do even quite a few New Music ensembles stick to traditional concert conventions? “It's because of an outdated definition of the term ‘music’,” Neubert believes. Therein, music is considered spiritual and intellectual. This school of thought perceives and understands composed music as a purely acoustic experience. Based on this, a specialised approach has developed over the last 40 years. Neubert, representing today's young generation, rebels against this. She sees herself as a specialist for individual works and doesn't consider herself to belong to a closed cosmos of old or new music. “The freedom of possible cross-connections leads to exciting interpretations and broadens the musical horizons of musicians and audiences.”

Neubert draws inspiration from improvisation; she has gained experience particularly in the Cologne improv scene. But the discussion of existing works appeals more to her at the moment. “I would rather transfer the improvisational approach to the interpretation itself.”

Does she see herself as a concert creator, designer or even dramaturge? More important to Neubert is the question: “How can I expand the term 'violinist'? In the 21st century, for me that means helping to shape the parameters of the concert.” For her, the status of concert education has long been changing. “The trend is away from a colonising attitude with a sense of mission on part of the 'experts'. For me, it's about creating low-threshold spaces of experience without presuppositions.” This means that the development is moving away from the distinction between communicator and musician, and towards a combination of both. Today's musicians have an ever greater interest in ensuring that both the performed works and the chosen interpretation are understood by the audience. That is why they are looking for ways and means with which the musical content can be communicated more easily.

Ensemble uBu plays <i>Calling Sirens</i> by Huihui Cheng at Deutschlandfunk, Cologne © Sina Miranda
Ensemble uBu plays Calling Sirens by Huihui Cheng at Deutschlandfunk, Cologne
© Sina Miranda

Looking to the future, Neubert has various plans to continue her pioneering work with concert performances between music and dance with the aim of questioning entrenched roles in the concert business. She is constantly looking for answers to the questions: “What could happen within the concert setting if I bring body and movement into focus? How do you initiate something genuinely new in this context?” She feels strengthened by like-minded people in today's vibrant young scene. As an example, she cites the platform www.betterconcerts.org, where many ideas are shared and which is bubbling over with creativity. “But,” she says, “you need the support of the big players!”

If you want to give the musical content a lasting relevance, then you have to find new means of presentation and concert formats. After our 60-minute conversation, I have no doubt that Anna Neubert will discover and establish these new forms of performance for herself and for us!

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

Find out more about Anna Neubert:

Official site | Vimeo | Instagram | Ensemble uBu

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Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.