Rhinegold Radialsystem: a Berlin experimental arts venue

Simon Mundy

Trouble ahead?

9:57, 4th January 2019

Simon Mundy reflects on the rise of populism across Europe and the ways in which music can offer unity and peace

Germany had a pretty terrible 20th century, all things told, and in Berlin they mark three of the more momentous events that all have anniversaries falling on 9 November: the founding of the German Republic after the Kaiser abdicated in 1918, the start of Hitler’s progrom against the city’s Jews in 1938, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Walking down Unter den Linden on that afternoon in 2018 towards the Brandenburg Gate from the Statsoper (about to open Orfeo with choreography by the wonderful Sasha Waltz), passing the Komische Oper, it was hard to imagine that it was a walk I could not have made without a very complicated East German visa when I first stayed in the city.

A few weeks after the wall opened (it and the German Democratic Republic had not yet fallen) I ventured into the East for the first time, paying the requisite five deutschmarks, braving the now smiling guards in the booths that had mirrors above and below you to check your head and trousers for illicit bags. The ridiculous Trabant cardboard cars chugged along but otherwise this central thoroughfare of the Prussian capital was bleak and dirty, its confidence long gone – though there was something about its stern austerity that was a relief after the brash neon of the American sector to the West.

If Kurt Masur had not presided over the first open discussions between the state and its citizens in Leipzig, it is doubtful whether East Germany would have faded away as peacefully as it did – and music was central to the healing process. I remember an extraordinary performance by Heinrich Schiff of the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (East Germany’s answer to the Phil) that, with its echoes of Czech calls for freedom, had everyone sobbing.

So in 2018, on the weekend that marked the centenary of the Armistice too, it was good to find that music is still the way that Berlin looks to find answers to its problems. Since 2004 I have attended the annual meeting of an initiative (not an organisation) called A Soul for Europe (ASfE) that uses the symbolism of that weekend to bring together the cultural and political worlds. It was started by the CDU former Senator, Volker Hassemer, and the much more left-wing former director of the Berlin Festival, Nele Hertling. Between them they encourage much younger people in the arts to present ideas for social reconciliation.

The next meeting will, unusually, be in March at Berlin’s experimental arts venue, Radialsystem (partly run by the husband of the aforementioned Sasha Waltz, Jochen Sandig). It is being held then to debate the position the arts should take prior to the next European Parliament elections – the first that Britain will not take part in, even if Brexit does not happen, because the seats have already been reallocated to other countries. The worry is that the elections will shift the political balance towards overtly nationalist parties, undermining many of the EU’s projects that champion integration and Europe-wide participation – of which its cultural programmes like Creative Europe are a major part. Musicians and all those in the arts will be asked to use their influence to show that we will defend the values of common humanity.

I wonder how long it will be before there is a need for an Italian musician to stand up against the rhetoric of Salvini in the way Toscanini did against the rise of fascism

This is already becoming important as so-called populist governments crack down on those they see as too pro-European and against their xenophobic agenda. One Hungarian musician contacted me several months ago, saying his group was finding it increasingly difficult to get dates in Hungary itself because he is seen as antipathetic to the policies of Victor Orban and his party, Fidesz. Luckily the musician himself is a member of several pan-European ensembles so his livelihood is relatively safe for the moment but even if this turns out to be an isolated case it is worrying. There is clear division in other countries too. Later in November there were audible boos in Warsaw when the nationalist Polish government’s Minister of Culture came on stage at the final concert of the Penderecki festival. I wonder how long it will be before there is a need for an Italian musician to stand up against the rhetoric of Salvini in the way Toscanini did against the rise of fascism from the 1920s onwards. As Harvey Sachs has laid bare in his recent brilliant biography of the conductor, the Salzburg and Lucerne Festivals were started specifically to help musicians being blacklisted and to raise awareness of the threat. Let us hope Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policies do not prevent other European musicians finding a haven here if the situation worsens.

Maybe it’s a reaction to winter nights that has made me look at the potential darkness of the times and I realise that this is a highly political episode of this column. Nonetheless it seems worth drawing attention to the overt ways the music world has championed the collegiate nature of the modern continent’s cultural life: from older expressions like the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and its origins in the European Union Youth Orchestra to the much more recent ‘Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe’ initiative, or Penderecki’s European Music Centre in southern Poland, and the embryonic network that cellist Alban Gerhardt and others have started, Musicians 4 United Europe. The ideals of performing together, and therefore inevitably dissolving boundaries and irrelevant borders, lives on and is demonstrated forcefully by musicians almost every day. Perhaps 2019 will turn out better than expected after all.

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