“Getting Beethoven off his pedestal”

Art during the corona crisis: Steven Walter, the Bonn Beethovenfest’s new German-American director, talks about creative approaches to classical music.

Steven Walter: “Bringing people from all over the world together”
Steven Walter: “Bringing people from all over the world together” dpa/Beethofenfeste Bonn

Mr Walter, the music scene, reliant as it is on live performances, has been hit hard by the corona crisis. Where do you see potential for creative solutions?
Artists felt considerable pressure at the beginning of the crisis to maintain a presence, which is why many got involved in live streams. In my view, live streaming makes sense when it allows the artists in question to create a social presence for themselves and to bring people from all over the world together. We succeeded for example in doing this on Easter Friday when we staged the Podium Esslingen festival that I co-initiated. We streamed a live chamber music performance of Bach’s St. John Passion that was watched by a good 700,000 people worldwide. We had already been experimenting with digitisation at the Podium Esslingen long before corona. The most important thing is to perceive the digital world as an artistic space in its own right, and to take advantage of the many opportunities offered by things such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence

You come from a German-American family and said in an interview that you are proud to “combine both cultures”. How is this influence expressed?
My parents are American but I was born and raised in Germany, so I have been shaped to a large extent by German or at least European culture. Furthermore, I spent four years studying cello in Oslo, which means that the Scandinavian influence is also very considerable. My musical influences are extremely wide-ranging and include not only the German avant-garde music of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s but also American pop culture. However, the aspect that I would explicitly describe as American is the idea that business is an integral part of culture. I began entrepreneurial activities at a very early age and had the confidence to try out many things even if some of them failed. But my optimism remains unshakeable, which I believe is something very American.

You have some pretty big shoes to fill as Nike Wagners successor at the Beethovenfest Bonn. How are you coping with this challenge?
I am aware that this is a very traditional festival with great history. I regard bringing my own concept to the Beethovenfest as both a challenge and an opportunity. When the selection committee asked me how I imagined the festival I was very honest in my presentation, so I feel I have a mandate to put these ideas into practice.

Beethoven is a global star – the exact opposite of an insiders’ tip. Is there anything new you can still tell people about Beethoven?
Beethoven tends to be placed on an excessively high pedestal, and what I want to do is get him off this pedestal and recontextualise him. It’s not a question of anecdotal historical perception and the familiar clichés. Beethoven was highly contradictory and had both feet firmly on the ground. I am particularly fascinated by the young Beethoven who evolved in Bonn from talent to superstar. I am seeking the spirit of the young Beethoven – and trying to discover where this spirit can be found today.

How can the Beethovenfest maintain its appeal, especially for young people or those with little affinity with classical music?
I believe that a diversity of formats is extremely important. After all, there is no longer one format that will reach everyone. All the same, there are many overlapping areas that we can build on. Bonn is an exciting environment in which to bring music to the public. On the one hand it is an old city of bourgeois and conservative leanings that boasts an incredible degree of private engagement. And on the other Bonn is a city with many young people, a University of Excellence and a UN Campus. Bonn is a centre of high-tech research, and is also synonymous with sustainability and climate protection – the city is home for example to the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat. The most important topics relating to the future of society and technology are all focused here; this serves as a wonderful foundation for a music festival that is likewise dedicated to shaping the future.

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