German Orchestra Chooses Its Own Path In Music and in Practice


Aug. 16 - Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass.

Aug. 18 - Lincoln Center Out of Doors, N.Y.

ABOUT 15 years ago, a group of music graduates from the German Youth Orchestra in Frankfurt decided to take matters into its own hands.

Instead of seeking state-supported jobs in one of the union orchestras in Frankfurt, the musicians banded together to form their own chamber orchestra - a self-governed, democratic ensemble without a music director. The members would choose repertoire, guest artists, and conductors, as well as decide how things would be run.

Today, the 33-member Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (DK) is one of the leading European chamber ensembles. The orchestra's tour and spate of recordings are bringing it into the international limelight as well.

The group is not the only such democratic ensemble to make a significant mark in the music world. The New York-based Orpheus, to name one, has a similar profile. The biggest difference is that DK has the support of an entire city. In 1992, the orchestra was persuaded to relocate from Frankfurt, where it was one of many groups struggling to attract and keep an audience, to the North Sea port of Bremen, where it has become the center of the city's cultural life.

The relocation has been a success for both city and orchestra. Bremen, though a democratic free state since the 16th century and a center of commerce for more than 1,000 years, had never been rich culturally.

The "acquisition" of DK has stimulated culture across the board. DK works with local composers, music educators, and students on a variety of projects within the local school system. Painters have been commissioned to create artworks for programs. And the orchestra's performance series as well as two summer music festivals have brought guest artists of international renown into Bremen.

In return, DK has gotten the opportunity and support it needed to do what it does best - cultivate and perform music. In the process, the group earns almost twice the income it was making in Frankfurt, yet the ratio between subsidy and earned income has remained the same (more than 70 percent generated by box-office receipts and recording contracts.)

"It gives us a lot of independence. We never would have accepted otherwise," says Hannes Nimpuno, the group's managing director. "The government trusts us as the cultural specialists, and we are doing well economically, so they leave us alone."

From the beginning, DK had a distinctly different artistic profile, with unusual projects, collaborations, and commissions. (Their current American tour, led by violinist-conductor Jaime Laredo, will feature Manuel De Falla's "El amor brujo" performed in the original authentic style by legendary Gypsy flamenco singer Ginesa Ortega.)

Nimpuno says, "There was no need to found yet another orchestra unless we wanted to establish something very different. In 14 years, we have never played the Tchaikovsky 'Serenade,' the most typical piece for an orchestra of this size. Instead, we want to commission new pieces. We do collaborations, often with TV or film productions, and it has been a great experience. It also changes the daily work for the orchestra, and they are excited to explore new lands. That has become part of the orchestra's trademark."

DK is planning an experimental music series and has a project with composers living in Bremen. Violinist Stefan Latzko says, "We work closely with these composers as they are writing, and it's very inspiring - we don't only have the finished works to perform, but we are more a part of the actual process of the piece."

Players also seem to revel in the process of keeping the orchestra running. Main decisions are worked out in general assembly that meets eight times a year. Three elected representatives meet each week to iron out details. Almost half the players also perform additional jobs such as researching programming or scouting for recording projects and performance halls.

"It keeps up motivation and identification with what we're doing," Latzko says.

Nimpuno elaborates, "If there is a project we really want to do but there is not enough money, we may decide it is important enough to do and not get paid. That's different from other orchestras."

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