The silence that has descended on concert halls and opera houses across the world is a tragedy for musicians and music-lovers everywhere, but it is particularly keenly felt in Bonn, which should be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of its most famous son with a year of concerts, talks, discussions and artistic exploration, led by an ensemble named in tribute to him, the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn.

Dirk Kaftan
© Irene Zandel

The year, shaped by general music director Dirk Kaftan to resemble the progress of a symphony, barely got beyond the opening of its first movement before the Covid-19 lockdown put an end to all his plans. Over 12 months, the orchestra aimed to present four "movements" or areas of focus reflecting the moods and characteristics of a symphony: discussion and inquiry in the first movement, song and inward reflection in the second, dance and joy in the third, and celebration in the fourth. 

Take Beethoven’s familiar Fifth Symphony. The orchestra was going to perform it several times during the anniversary year, analysing it and placing it within the context of its own and our times. Before the lockdown, it appeared in the first "movement", in January. In August, during the third quarter or third movement, it was to have formed the basis for the orchestra’s educational project with Colombian and German youth: a project defined as “international, unifying and forward-looking”. 

Some of the year’s 80 events would consciously be associated with one of the movements, but it was not so much about learning what a symphony is, but about watching the music grow for 12 months, “and at best, becoming part of it”.

Beethoven Orchester Bonn
© Magdalena Spinn

Becoming part of the music is very important to Kaftan. The educational project involved young people from Medellin, Colombia, some former child soldiers, youngsters with little or no exposure to classical music who were invited to devise their own responses to Beethoven’s Fifth. They were due to visit Bonn this summer and present their creation with the orchestra. 

Kaftan very much hopes this project can be revived if and when travel resumes and the orchestra can perform again, but otherwise he is doubtful that many items from this year’s anniversary season will be rescued, as “for most of them, the moment has past. We don’t know what the world will look like; music and culture will have to react to that. You simply cannot repeat a year.”

In the meantime, he is staying in touch with his players through social media and organising small projects to bring music to the community where possible, such as sending two players, or a player and a singer from Bonn Opera, to old people’s homes and hospitals to perform – from a safe distance, of course.

“The players are doing what they can to help in the current pandemic: sewing face masks and donating blood, while also trying to devise new musical things online,” he said. Recently, the orchestra’s website published all the parts for the opening of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, and invited instrumentalists at home to video themselves playing their line. These contributions were then edited into a home orchestra, accompanied by a discreet recording from the orchestra itself.

In the week that we talked about the situation in Bonn, German opera houses and orchestras wrote a joint open letter to their government, calling for some future strategy for the arts.

They wrote: “We realize that it will likely be a long time before we are able to once again enjoy operas and concerts as before. However, surely there are a number of possible alternatives to live performances that adhere to the novel Covid-19 regulations, such as open-air performances of concertante operas or special productions that abide by the distancing regulations. Other possibilities would be performances of works written for small ensembles, such as from the baroque and classic eras, that constitute a significant part of orchestral repertoire. Conductors and string instrument players could wear masks, small choirs and wind instrumentalists could be placed at necessary distances and even additionally protected by plexiglass panes. With regard to audiences, existing measures could be adopted and altered to suit concert settings. However, all of these suggestions and possible solutions will remain fruitless if politicians and public health departments do not come forward soon with a clear set of conditions and guidelines.”

Kaftan is not so sure. He is convinced that it will only be possible to perform again when coronavirus is beaten. He feels people want to go to a concert or the opera to relax and concentrate on the music – not something that can be achieved when social distancing conditions are necessarily imposed on both audience and musicians. “So now we have to reset ourselves; help where we can, and try the ‘brain game’ of devising new, relevant seasons.”

Dirk Kaftan
© Irène Zandel

Kaftan and his orchestra have taken music to some strange venues in recent seasons because, despite the Beethoven anniversary, their concert hall is still under restoration. “It has been under renovation for many, many years. It’s a project that seems never to end,” he said wearily. “It’s a 1960s building and its renovation has become more and more expensive as new problems are discovered. Workmen found the ruins of an old hospital underneath it which had a large basement that needs to be filled in to prevent the danger of collapse. The hall is supposed to be reopening in 2024, but I don’t count on anything, and right now we couldn’t play there, anyway.”

Without a hall, the orchestra decided to take positive action and bring music to the people. “By playing in different formations and situations we found a different public, and playing in crazy places has strong influence on the context of the programming.” 

One such “crazy” venue is BaseCamp, a large youth hostel, housed in a former factory filled with old buses, train carriages, caravans and mobile homes, all available to rent. “It’s an impressive place where we put on new programmes of contemporary music. It was hugely popular and the concerts have become cult events, sold out for many weeks beforehand.” 

Beethoven Orchester Bonn in Opernhaus
© Felix von Hagen

Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, founded in 1907, is also the opera orchestra, in a house that is also in need of renovation “but there’s neither time or money to do that now”. Kaftan feels that the opera has to think very carefully about future programming after corona. “Will the audience return right away? What are the right pieces? Do you open with a modern piece or an Italian opera? It’s not possible to continue as if nothing has happened. You have to be sensitive about this. It will be a process of carefully finding new ways of starting a cultural life again.

“We look all around the world to see what others are thinking. We look at Korea, at the UK, at France and we watch, listen and wait. When will orchestra and singers be allowed to come together without danger? Even the experts contradict each other. I don’t have a clue, but I do know that I have to be sure no one is in danger – and then we can play.”