That isn’t chamber music for me, when a Beethoven quartet is played by four people in four different locations. It is in fact the opposite of chamber music, as it requires very fine tuning in real time ...”

Tabea Zimmermann

 

Eckhard Roelcke: we are having this conversation on 21st April 2020. As a result of the Corona-crisis, life has been greatly restricted. In a matter of days, a few of these restrictions will begin to be lifted but the situation can change at any time. When we met for our first conversation in Essen on the 7th March, the virus had already reached Germany but there were no official restrictions. At that time, we spoke about your concert at the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize ceremony on the 11th May. Since then, the ceremony in Munich’s Prinzregententheater has been postponed indefinitely. The plan was for you to travel directly from Essen to the UK for two concerts, followed by a long tour in the USA and Canada. What has happened to these plans?

 

Tabea Zimmermann: Daniel Sepec, Jean-Guihen Queyras and I did in fact travel to Liverpool. We had been preparing various Beethoven string trios for two years. It thus would have been sad if this milestone concert hadn’t been reached. When my subsequent travels were cancelled, I was a bit disappointed. It would have been a great opportunity to tour the USA with the sonata-evening programme. On the other hand, the potential for ending up trapped in the US due to a travel ban didn’t enthuse me.

Since then, lots has changed. I am feeling a positive calm. The time-pressure is gone, and I have lots of opportunities to reflect. The situation is very bad for the cultural world, as all activities will likely be unable to take place for a long time. For many self-employed artists, this is extremely worrying. Especially for younger musicians, as the motivation has been swept away. Without a well-planned next season, many are asking themselves: why am I practicing at all? That is something I can hardly imagine. As a teacher, I also find it very difficult to talk to my students. For it to function, you need to be in a room, similar to when one is playing chamber music. There are just certain things which can’t be done on the phone or via video conference, as they require too much precision.

And do we experience music differently as listeners?

As I have such little communication with my listeners at the moment, I’m not really able to answer this question. We all have a certain hunger for audio-experiences! I have seen how some people go to the internet and – with a certain fever – search for a replacement for the musical experience. It does grate with me, however, when pieces of music are assembled using individual sound tracks. That isn’t chamber music for me, when a Beethoven quartet is played by four people in four different locations. It is in fact the opposite of chamber music, as it requires very fine tuning in real time: one player makes a small movement in one direction and the others follow. That is missing in multitrack-track recordings. Ravel’s Bolero can maybe be presented that way, as its rhythm enables everyone to follow via a click-track. But that doesn’t work with Beethoven.

We probably all know what we were doing on 11th September 2001 when terrorists flew two aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York. Shocking pictures that leave a deep impact. The Corona-crisis doesn’t have a fixed date, but rather a concrete timespan: Early 2020. Do you think you will associate this period with a musical experience? With works you have been working on in these weeks?

At the moment, I have the desire to maintain my technical abilities. The pressure to learn new pieces on the viola for future performance hasn’t reached me yet. I will therefore think about this time as a period in which I busied myself with non-musical activities. It is very enjoyable to absorb oneself in a really long book.

In March, we spoke about how important your work with your students is. How does that work function at the moment?

I produce short videos which I then send to my fifteen students. In essence, I simply practice in slow motion and explain my thought process. That can be either a technical or musical aspect. It is a chance to try out alternative working methods. In a normal lesson, the student simply states what they are playing, to which I go to my score-cupboard, choose a score and then enter into a discussion. Now, the route is different. I send reading materials to all of my students and, a week later, they all practice something similar. Additionally, they can all send me a video of their individual tasks.

For me, music has always given me the energy to connect the inner with the outer.

Tabea Zimmermann

 

Back to your work with young musicians. You are working on Harold in Italy by Hector Berlioz in the coming year with the Bundesjugendorchester of Germany. What led to that?

I have such good memories of this orchestra! I often lead ensembles from the viola, but I’ve never been further than symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert. I’ve never done such a big work as Harold in Italy. I am excited by Berlioz’s rhythmic, angular style. But this project will require sufficient rehearsals. We somehow need to be able to play the hardest passages in the last section by heart so that we can react to the sound. Even with the biggest orchestras, that can sometimes go pear-shaped. I want to build the piece in detail by ear and from the inner rhythm of the music. I want to dig deep!

And you are taking time for that.​

Yes, I do that when I want to experience how much is possible when sufficient time is invested.

So you are also building upon the experiences you have gained with Ensemble Resonanz.

Ensemble Resonanz was the first ensemble that trusted me to lead the group for many concerts over a period of two years from the viola without a conductor. For that, I am really very thankful. At the time, I thought, ‘What do you want from me? I can’t do that!’ But the insistence of the players gave me courage. It was a very different kind of work. I will never forget the two years as Artist in Residence with Ensemble Resonanz.
That is my ultimate dream: to gently peel off the hierarchical structures in music as a collective. 

Translation: Robert Jacobs

 

The former Home Secretary Otto Schily said that “those who close music schools endanger domestic security”…

…very good! I wholeheartedly agree.

He wanted to underline the social importance of musical education. Would you place it on such a high pedestal?

Yes, it can’t be placed high enough! I watch with worry as we slowly demote the idea of a basic, musical education. The effects can be most clearly seen at the entrance exams to the music conservatory. Of maybe 50 applicants, only one or two come from Germany. If someone wants to learn a musical instrument nowadays, they are going to have to have rich parents to pay for private lessons. There is no longer a well-equipped network of music schools like in the 70s. Cost saving measures have led to their demise, and that is something I am especially saddened by.

And what are the consequences?​

A musical education gives children something for life, something with which they become more resilient and confident. Music should be a standard part of any education.

You recently said that, “We musicians must be more political and mustn’t remain in our niche.” The concert for the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize is no doubt a good platform!

I often ask myself when musicians can, should and must be political. It is difficult to find the right moment. Sometimes it is good to simply fall back on music and not need to make continuous political statements. But sometimes we are just too comfortable, with the sense of ‘I don’t care where the money comes from’. At the moment, there are some unpleasant connections in the classical scene, especially with not-so-great donors in the background.

That sounds like an appeal to your colleagues to think more about the music industry and to be more critical.

It is more of an appeal to think about individual decisions and not to make them purely from the perspective of personal advantage. One can also say: I’m not accepting this invitation. One should also ask what interests are lurking behind a particular engagement. Music has slowly become a tool for establishing political gain. Unfortunately, music isn’t always the main player even when music plays the main role on the placard.

Can you give an example?

I mean festivals such as Verbier, but also Lucerne and Salzburg. Wherever you look, Russian oligarchs are involved. I find that awful. The socio-political responsibility of artists is deactivated relatively quickly nowadays. They bait young musicians and promise them amazing events. For example, they might be invited onto the ship MS Europa with the promise that they are being ingratiated into a luxury world. But don’t speak to anyone of course, just plinky-plonk away in the corner!

Is music for them a culinary rather than an existential experience?

Yes, of course! I wouldn’t like to play on a cruise liner even if I could have a nice trip in the process. That goes against my grain. There, there are only people who can afford that, it is an extremely elite event. When tickets for festivals are sold for hundreds of euros and there are a few if any affordable tickets, this also gives me cause for concern. I would much rather have a lower entry point but ensure that more people could come. Of course, I don’t know whether they will come – that depends on the programme. I have no issue with playing in a chamber hall with only 200 seats. The concert is then not elitist as a result of the ticket price, but rather from the supply.

At the beginning of March, shortly before the country-wise Coronavirus lockdown, the musicologist Eckhard Roelcke met with the recipient of the 2020 Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation Prize, Tabea Zimmermann, in Essen. She spoke, amongst other things, about her choice of pieces for the prizegiving concert originally planned for the 11th May 2020. At the time of the interview, the effects of the pandemic on public and cultural life could hardly be imagined, including the necessary postponement of the prizegiving concert itself into 2021.

A conversation with Eckhard Roelcke, journalist and musicologist, in March 2020

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