Hamburg, Paris, Havana

First published in DIE WELT on 19 July 2018
by Helmut Peters

Plans by the tirelessly active Thomas Hengelbrock
in the field of early music and with young artists from all over the world.

Thomas Hengelbrock creates the impression of a man who, newly liberated, is fired by a thirst for action. New plans have been energizing and motivating him since his departure as principal conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra and will continue to do so until the end of the season. Unwilling to relinquish his two apartments in Hamburg and Paris, he is currently not looking for a new permanent appointment. All that can be said for certain is that his commitment to the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and Choir, which he founded in 1995 and 1991 respectively and which specialize in historically informed performance practice, can only grow stronger. This is also the case in Hamburg, where Hengelbrock and his specialist ensembles would like to appear more often. There are enough venues in Hamburg where this could be done, claims Hengelbrock – he is thinking, among other places, of Kampnagel. He has already demonstrated the suitability of this venue for Baroque opera not least with his production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Hamburg Music Festival.

“For the past two years,” says the conductor and family man, who is married to the former Burgtheater actress Johanna Wokalek, “we’ve been commuting between Paris and Hamburg. Hamburg remains my home – we also have most of our offices here, as well as many friends.” But new friends have also been added to his address book, including ones from far afield. Hengelbrock is also a passionate teacher, working intensively with, for example, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra on the island of Cuba and with students at the Instituto Superior de Arte Havanna. To both of these challenges he brings intense commitment. Traveling to Cuba regularly, he introduces young musicians to the performance techniques associated with early music but also familiarizes them with the avant-garde. “New music”, notes Hengelbrock, “hasn’t been able to develop in this socialist country to the same extent as it has done elsewhere.”

Tirelessly active, Hengelbrock has other irons in the fire. Individual members of the orchestra supported by the Lyceum Mozarteum in Havana are invited to take part in concerts with the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble. A number of young Cuban musicians were also involved in the SHMF’s Schubert & Schumann project. Among them were the violinist and composer Jenny Peña Campo Field, who was commissioned by the Rheingau Music Festival to write a Suite Cubana that was premiered by the Cuban-European Youth Academy under the baton of Duncan Ward on 1 September 2017. Hengelbrock will be performing the piece at the Zeche Zollverein in Essen on 23 September as part of the 2018 Ruhrtriennale.

This programme has been planned jointly by the Balthasar Neumann Choir and Soloists and by the Cuban-European Youth Orchestra and additionally features the world premiere of Maria: Eine Vertreibung für Sprecherin, Sprecher, vier Herrensoli, Chor und Orchester by the Hamburg composer Jan Müller-Wieland. The work is a melodrama. Hengelbrock has already premiered a number of other melodramas by Müller-Wieland, including one with Klaus Maria Brandauer as the speaker. In this particular instance the composer refers not only to scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s film Hail Mary but also to José Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Müller-Weiland recalls that Hengelbrock “suggested scoring the work for exactly the same forces as those that Schumann used in his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. As a result, there is no percussion. No decorative accessories! Only timpani! Throughout the time that I was working on the piece, I was fired by the king’s theme, the thema regium from Bach’s Musical Offering.”

Hengelbrock’s classes at the Cuban-European Youth Academy cover a wide range of topics. “These young people from Cuba and Europe received a training specific to their particular discipline. But they also learn something about the law as it relates to music, about programming and about ways to be one’s own manager.” A number of these students have a chance to work with the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble on its projects. Many of the Ensemble’s members come from Spain and France and are able to help from a linguistic point of view. “There is something heart-warming about this group,” Hengelbrock enthuses, “and there is tremendous mutual respect. The musicians have a very affectionate relationship with one another.”

But guests of the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble are by no means all from Cuba. Michael Gieler, the solo violist with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, regularly performs at the concerts of Hengelbrock’s favourite ensemble. “He takes part here simply because he enjoys doing so,” says Hengelbrock, who intends his relations with the top Dutch orchestra to become closer from now on. On 22 March 2019 the Concertgebouw Orchestra will even be organizing a portrait concert for Hengelbrock at the Konzerthaus in Dortmund. On the programme are works by Schubert and Soie for flute and orchestra by Lotta Wennäkoski.

On 28 November Hengelbrock and his two Balthasar Neumann ensembles will be appearing in Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle with a project entitled “Christmas with Klaus Maria Brandauer”. Brandauer will be declaiming pensive as well as witty and cheering texts by Rilke, Trakl and Zweig by way of a counterpoint to music by Bach, Mendelssohn and Reger.

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