Marcus Rudolf Axt
© Andreas Herza

Marcus Rudolf Axt is busy right now: “I’m working much more than I used to before, and I didn’t work part time then,” he laughs, his sense of humour apparently undimmed by the weirdness of having to run an organisation full of musicians who aren’t allowed to play music. The workload of the Bamberg Symphony's CEO has doubled: orchestral seasons get planned years in advance, so he is planning the 2021-22 season as usual, but he now has to revisit the plan for the coming weeks and months on a daily basis, considering the latest government guidelines, a plan which, under normal circumstances, would have been done, dusted and off his desk long ago. And then there’s the need for constant communication: keeping the stir-crazy orchestra members informed about what’s happening, conducting interviews with local TV and newspapers (and with me, over Skype link), an hour spent with the Bavarian Culture Minister (who listened for over an hour and was very supportive).

For the moment, the musicians can practise at home, but they are barred not only from performing but even from any form of joint rehearsal. That makes it a tough time emotionally. “Your basic way of life is making music and you start this at a very young age – at three of four years old, you start playing your instrument, you practice all the time, you start doing concerts and this continues for your professional life for 10, 20, 30 years, whatever. And all of a sudden, this stops, the thing which is your definition of yourself, being a musician. Nobody outside our bubble talks about this, that art is part of life and you cannot live as a human citizen without taking part in music and culture.” No-one knows how lockdown will end, but when the ministers meet at the end of this week, there are hopes for a partial loosening that will permit rehearsals, at least in small groups, and perhaps some limited performances in the community such as “little open air flashmob concerts, or bringing groups or single players into churches to play a Bach partita”.

Like many, Bamberg has turned to video to enable some form of continuing performance – but only to a limited extent. Early on in the crisis, “at the perfect point to get people involved”, the Bambergers made what Axt calls a “puzzle video” (slickly assembled from 64 videos made on the musicians’ iPhones at home) of the Ode to Joy. They are also working on a new composition by one of their cellists for broadcast on their YouTube channel. But Axt doesn’t feel that he needs to use video to prove anything to his international audience: rather, he says, he wants something to offer his subscribers, who are the ones feeling the lack of live concerts in their city. If he is permitted to get his musicians back together on stage some time soon, that will be a priority.

To take a break from the current crisis: Bachtrack has been talking to Bamberg’s Chief Conductor Jakub Hrůša since his appointment in 2015, so I asked Axt for his take on the Hrůša years so far. Have there been any surprises? “When you start working with someone, you feel very quickly that this can work and it can work for a longer time. Then, you wait for this famous turn down in the second year when everybody is annoyed and the orchestra wouldn’t like the conductor any more. With Jakub in Bamberg, this just didn’t happen; they just kept loving each other and growing together.” The surprise, for Axt, has been how the development of the music quality has continued to progress. He gives the example of Smetana’s Má Vlast at Prague Spring last year as a concert where he has thought “well, this cannot get any better”, only to be “really overwhelmed by this quality; it was on a completely different level” at the Proms in the summer. Our reviewer Rohan Shotton described that performance as “Smetana with all the drama of Mahler, the theatre of Wagner and the pastoralism of Dvořák”.

The Bamberg Symphony at the BBC Proms in 2019
© Andreas Herzau

Bamberg’s two honorary conductors are Christoph Eschenbach and Herbert Blomstedt, each of whom has conducted the orchestra more than 170 times. That makes three conductors with very different personalities, all of whom enjoy a strong and enduring relationship with the orchestra. Axt puts this down to a single common factor: for these three, respect for the score is paramount and any toughness or combative nature is entirely in service of the music and not of the conductor’s ego. Of course, for any given piece, it’s a matter of considerable debate as to exactly what “respect for the score" actually means. “All three of them have their own material for this standard repertoire. So you have different music sheets with different bowings, different phrasings and so on. So the differences start with the preparation at home and continue in the rehearsal process”.

Having had our moment of reflection, it’s time to look forward. Axt is hopeful that Bamberg’s 2020-21 season, celebrating the orchestra’s 75th birthday, will be performed broadly as scheduled, although he can’t predict the details of what may need to be changed in view of social distancing or travel restrictions. Determining the exact birthday turned out to be harder than expected. After some research, it was discovered that the inaugural concert was planned to take place on 16th March 1946, the all-Beethoven playbill being the Leonore no.3 overture, the Violin Concerto and the Eroica symphony. Bavaria, however, was still under US military occupation and the American authorities decided that it was inappropriate for the Eroica to be played by a German orchestra; as a result, the Symphony no.7 was put in its place and the concert delayed to March 20th. For their anniversary concert in 2021, which replicates the inaugural programme, the orchestra has split the difference and chosen March 18th; the honour of soloist for that performance falls to Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, whom Axt describes as “part of the Bamberg family”, having conducted the orchestra on several occasions as well as being a world class violinist.

Each of Bamberg’s recent seasons has featured a “portrait artist”. Past incumbents have included Sol Gabetta and Martin Fröst: in 2020-21, it will be the turn of violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who is anything but a standard performer of standard repertoire. Axt describes Kopatchinskaja as “a very special bird in this cage” and there’s a twinkle in his eye that the artefacts of video compression can’t hide when he describes his meetings with her to discuss repertoire. “She is radical in her way of seeing contemporary pieces as the normality that it should be. At one of the really early meetings, she said to me ‘I think I should just play contemporary and nothing else anymore because there's no reason for me to play something like Beethoven or Berg again and again’. She was being ironic, but in her way, she's perfectly right. She looks at every piece of music like it is some completely new work. Also, she’s inspiring a lot of contemporary composers.” A series of five concerts will include a new violin concerto by Luca Francesconi, commissioned by Bamberg and which the composer says is being written “onto the skin of Patricia Kopatchinskaja”. She will also be putting the violin down to recite the sprechstimme of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire in a concert which ironically interleaves Strauss waltzes into the Schoenberg “so you are in this Second Viennese mixture”.

BBC Proms, 2019
© Andreas Herzau

While Axt doesn’t want to discuss too many more details of the season – understandably, given the uncertainties involved – he tells me about two parts of the celebration planned for outside the concert hall. The first is an open air concert in July, whose exact location is as yet undetermined but to which he plans to attract over 10,000 people, the biggest ever in Bamberg (population: 77,592): “it's a kind of thank you present for 75 years of trust and confidence from our audience”. The second is a “long night of chamber music” in which Bamberg members go into “little places in the city that are part of the UNESCO world heritage: little protected houses, churches, whatever, even if there’s just space for an audience of 30 or 50 or so; there are some palaces from the 17th century or chapels where you’re not normally allowed in”.

I have left the toughest question for last: when the current crisis ends, will the world of his orchestra return to normal, or will the pandemic have caused irreversible changes? Axt is optimistic.

“I think we will perceive the arts differently than before. I think when we will be allowed to gather together again in concert halls or theatres, one by one or with an empty seat between each other or whatever, the first and also the continuing experience of being in a live event will be a completely different experience than before. Everybody who's in there and has missed this for a lot of weeks or months will realise the high value of what we are doing and that he or she is allowed to be a part of this."

“With the power of live music, the power of 100 people trusting each other, it’s really like a very, very wonderful dream. Now, it’s as if we’ve hit the pause button on the player; we’re just hoping that if you press play again, that we can continue increasing our artistic and musical experiences for the next years.”

This interview was sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony