Friday, February 10, 2006

The Music and Social Scene in Leipzig by Maestro Franz Anton Krager

I am an American conductor. My name is Franz Anton Krager, and I just returned to the USA from Leipzig, Germany where I conducted the Akademisches Orchester Leipzig in the world-famous "Gewandhaus" in January.

Of course, the city of Leipzig has been an historical center in the musical world for centuries. It was home to Johann Sebastian Bach for the last twenty-seven years of his life. Bach is buried in Leipzig's St. Thomas Church. Felix Mendelssohn also spent the height of his prodigious career in Leipzig where he became conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts and co-founder of the Leipzig Conservatorium. Robert Schumann was also instrumental in establishing the Leipzig Conservatorium and taught composition there. Leipzig was the birthplace of Richard Wagner, where he was taught harmony and counterpoint at the St. Thomas School.

Some of the greatest conductors of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries have led the legendary Gewandhaus concerts. Artur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Bruno Walter all left a part of their musical legacy in Leipzig.

In 1989, the citizens of Leipzig showed their uncommon valor as a political force when thousands of them gathered in the area just outside the St. Nicholas Church to protest their lack of freedom at the hands of the Communist regime. This extraordinary demonstration was at the very center of the movement, which brought down communism in East Germany and helped to pave the way for reunification of the two Germanys. Many people don't know that during this critical moment, the order to the Leipzig city officials from East Berlin was to "shoot to kill," as the demonstration began to gain momentum. However, the Lord Mayor of Leipzig ignored this order and instructed his police force to stand down. A real hero in the Leipzig tradition!

Today, beautiful Leipzig bustles with shops and boutiques stocked with goods from all over the world for its half million residents and its flurry of tourists. The restaurant scene is alive and well. Nightlife is warm to hot. Old buildings are getting face-lifts. The architecture in Leipzig is truly some of the most splendid work in all of Germany. Leipzig is getting a new subway system, compliments of the European Union. The autobahn around Leipzig is new, wide and fast moving. Leipzig is a city of great musical tradition, and a city on the cutting edge in the new Germany.

It is in this context that my story of appearing as conductor in the Leipzig Gewandhaus is so told. I wish that I could say that I actually stood in the same place as Mendelssohn, or Nikisch, or Furtwangler stood when they conducted at the Gewandhaus, but I cannot. The original Gewandhaus was destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII. Years after the war, the Gewandhaus was rebuilt in a different location (right in the heart of the city) as a piece of stunning modern architecture. The exterior of the building has much the same breath-taking effect on the viewer as the Lincoln Center complex in New York City does - mass with line (both straight and with curves), glass and grandeur.

Inside of the Gewandhaus you will find a world of awesome space, color, beauty, and sound possibilities. The acoustics are absolutely perfect in both halls. Yes, there are two performance venues under one roof. The Mendelssohn Saal is the smaller of the two and an ideal space for recitals or chamber music. The Grosser Saal is the large performance hall and is the area used for large-scale orchestra concerts. The space when you enter the Grosser Saal sweeps you right off your feet with its 360 degree steeply tiered seating around a pentagonal shaped performance platform, rich burgundy colored seats stretching almost as far as the eye can see, angular bands of wide bright white trim separating the hardwood stage platform from the surrounding sea of burgundy, and then, centered high above and behind the performance space, clustered rows of enormous glittering chrome organ pipes several stories tall. The scene is one of overwhelming power but also, of sensitivity and nuance.

I can say that I stood in the same place as Kurt Masur, former Music Director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and one of the world's greatest living conductors. His tenure as chief of the Gewandhaus Orchestra is legendary. There is a large collage of head shots arranged in the general shape of an orchestra located in the dressing room area, representing each member the Gewandhaus Orchestra during Maestro Masur's tenure there - an imposing reminder of the greatness and tradition of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.... truly a world class orchestra.

Another sobering display of history located in the same dressing room area is a series of portraits, beginning in the Eighteenth Century (and much later, turning to photographs) of all the former concertmasters of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, hung one after another down the length of one side of a very long hallway.

As if that isn't enough history, down the other side of that same long hallway hangs a series of framed, original posters announcing great composers who, in their time, performed their music at the Gewandhaus. The poster located immediately next to my dressing room door announced, "Herr Mozart" conducting his music. Then there was Herr Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Stravinsky, and the list goes on and on - enough to make you want to crawl on your hands and knees to the stage knowing that these giants all performed at the Gewandhaus, each one forming a link in a long chain of music history and Gewandhaus tradition. It's fun for me to think that my appearance there was a teeny tiny link in that chain!

The year 2006 being the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, I just had to conduct some Mozart in the Gewandhaus! The Akademisches Orchester Leipzig and I began our concert performance with The Abduction from the Seraglio Overture, K384, followed by the Flute and Harp Concerto in C Major, K299. The soloists for the occasion were harpist, Nora Koch (solo harpist with the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra & guest with the Berlin Philharmonic) and flutist, Claudia Stein-Cornaz (solo flutist with the Bayreuther Festspielorchester). Top-flight performers, both! After the intermission, the Orchestra and I performed some Americana, namely George Gershwin's "Catfish Row," the composer's own excerpted, instrumental version of his opera, "Porgy and Bess," replete with a wind machine for the hurricane section! We then rounded out the program with Robert Nelson's, "The Lone Star Pageant," A Musical Tour of the Great State of Texas, including "Dallas," "El Paso," "Streets of Laredo," "Rose of San Anton'" and "Galveston." (After all, I do live in Houston!!!) An encore was necessary. The concert received a rave review in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Oh, and did I mention - the concert was sold out.