From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow: Bonn might once have been a sleepy provincial German town on the banks of the Rhine, but it is also the birthplace of one Ludwig van Beethoven and much later became the post-war capital of West Germany. This small city (whose population is just over 300,000) honours its most famous son not only with the traditional summer festival in September but also - since 2014 - with a dedicated chamber music festival in January. In the course of a conversation with its artistic director, the internationally acclaimed viola player Tabea Zimmermann, I discovered more about its individual profile.

Beethoven-Haus Bonn © Beethoven-Haus Bonn
Beethoven-Haus Bonn
© Beethoven-Haus Bonn
In one sense it is like a phoenix rising from the ashes. As one of the very first chamber music festivals ever, it was inaugurated by the great violinist Joseph Joachim in 1890 but later fell into decline. Since its much more recent reinvigoration with Tabea as its guiding spirit, its aim has been to take one of Beethoven’s themes and link it with the work of leading contemporary composers. I found it somewhat surprising that in one of the coldest and darkest months of the year there could be a significant place for a project of this kind, but Zimmermann reminded me that the Mozartwoche in Salzburg is a parallel event, and in any case she and her team are constrained in their planning by the predominance in spring of the Rhenish Karneval season and the need to avoid any direct competition with the summer festival. The concerts are held in the Beethoven-Haus with its 200-seat auditorium and are linked to presentations, exhibitions and associated events, such as a Scottish ceilidh during the next festival.

Tabea Zimmermann © Marco Borggreve
Tabea Zimmermann
© Marco Borggreve
The 2018 programme is centred on the Original Scottish Airs, Op.108 collected and arranged by Beethoven and first published in Edinburgh and London in 1818. This sometimes overlooked area of the composer’s oeuvre  – and he wrote more than 140 arrangements of folk music – provides a springboard for the exploration of popular music by other composers from Haydn to Widmann, with a special emphasis on differing contemporary approaches. There is hardly an area of life in Germany on which the shadow of the Third Reich has not fallen and since 1945, folk music has for obvious reasons been sorely neglected, being seen in many quarters as “politically dubious”. Zimmermann pointed out that the tradition of singing folk songs in her homeland has all but disappeared, quite unlike what can be encountered elsewhere in Europe, and she was keen to stress the depth of folk music represented in the upcoming festival, with evenings devoted to Spanish music and what she called the Hungarian connection, stretching from Bartók through Kodály and Kurtág to Ligeti. She also highlighted the arrangements of Scandinavian folk songs to be performed by the Danish String Quartet with the intriguing title of Wood Works. Tabea herself takes a prominent role as performer in the festival and is especially looking forward to one of her favourite works, Berio’s Naturale (based on Sicilian themes), and in an evening largely devoted to Britten’s folk songs (with Roderick Williams) she appears with Roger Vignoles as the soloist in that composer’s Lachrymae (Reflections on a Song of Dowland).

I asked Zimmermann about a recurring area of concern to lovers of classical music in the western world, namely the visible greying of audiences and falling numbers. She admitted that even with visitors to the Beethoven-Woche there is a preponderance of the elderly, but her audiences are largely loyal to her and undeterred by more than just a sprinkling of contemporary works. “They come with open ears,” she said, and that is what she most values. Seeking out new ways of exploring the classical repertoire is something she is committed to: she and the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras have both been artists-in-residence with the Hamburg-based chamber group Ensemble Resonanz. With the help of discussions, workshops, presentations and experimental formats that link familiar museum pieces with the entirely new they have built over the past fifteen years an entirely different audience base, including many who had never previously attended classical concerts. This is very much the approach she hopes will succeed with her forthcoming annual projects in Bonn. Forward planning is already well advanced and the key Beethoven year of 2020 firmly in the crosshairs. The highlight in an extended three week festival will be almost all of the composer’s chamber music.

Beethoven Haus, Kammermusiksaal © Beethoven-Haus Bonn
Beethoven Haus, Kammermusiksaal
© Beethoven-Haus Bonn
One important and continuing dimension of Zimmermann's work is the teaching she does at the Hanns Eisler conservatory in Berlin. She is acutely aware of the younger generation’s declining interest in classical music, citing the fact that in a recent year there was only one German among the fifty applicants. Why, in the part of Europe that once produced more classical composers and musicians than any other, has this come about? She finds that for most children the school day has become much longer than it once was, with less time to practise in the afternoons, and very many more distractions, and the broadly-based traditional approach to music teaching has all but disappeared. Even in a comparatively wealthy country like Germany there is much less financial support at the local and regional level than there used to be, and in particular peripatetic music teachers are paid abysmally, so that there is little public recognition of the work they do and little incentive for others to follow in their footsteps. In her case it is a mutual exploration which defines her teaching, “an appetite for the new”, as she says. More than that she aims at stimulating the process of lifelong learning, so that the four-year course of academic studies for the viola does not simply end there.

This brought me to her chosen instrument which, as a very young child surrounded by siblings who had already committed to other stringed instruments, was self-selecting. She knew all about the many jokes in the English-speaking world which revolve around the viola, but has observed their diminishing incidence in Germany. Here, there is no lessening of interest in the instrument as such. Luthiers are kept busy and there is a worldwide demand for new violas, with a palpable increase in playing standards in youth, student and professional orchestras. The only serious problem, and this is by no means a new phenomenon, is the absence of specific repertoire for the viola and the fact that there is only a handful of soloists driving public enthusiasm for the instrument.

As a performer, Zimmermann has been in the international limelight since she won her first international prize (the Geneva International Music Competition) at the age of only fifteen. She restricts herself to fifty annual concerts at most, devoting the rest of her time to teaching and the special focus she has on the Beethoven-Woche. Now that her three children are much older, she has taken up touring again (she will be playing Harold in Italy with Les Siècles in February), but regards this as extremely tiring and declares the time spent in travelling and rehearsing in different venues that are part of a consecutive run to be out of all proportion to the few hours of an evening performance. That said, a passion for music is what continues to drive her, “the stuff that allows human beings to develop”, as she puts it.

This interview was sponsored by Beethoven-Haus Bonn