In May 2015 Anne-Sophie Mutter put her noble, impressively named “Lord Dunn-Raven” Stradivarius through more than ist usual paces. For a change, rather than standing on stage in one of the world’s renowned well-tempered grand concert halls, she spent two evenings playing in a tiny graffiti-scrawled nightclub in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin. The name of the club was Neue Heimat, or “new home”, and on two evenings in early summer it was jam-packed with hip young people. The atmosphere heated up in the usual way for such clubs, but not in the usual way for Anne-Sophie Mutter’s concerts. As she later put it, “It wasn’t good for the Strad’s wood. I’m the sort of person who tends to warm up unseen under my dress. But it was extremely hot in the club, and in the long run it put a big strain on the varnish. So to prevent the original varnish from becoming damaged we applied a thin protective coat to the Strad where it touches the bare skin. But any instrument over 300 years old is bound to show signs of wear and tear.”
But what’s a Strad doing in a Berlin nightclub? And how did a world-famous violinist wind up in such a place? What looks at first glance like a mistake is, when push comes to shove, nothing more than a further step for a musician who wants to move forward and knows that her genre, so called “classical music”, must explore new venues and fresh strategies lest it be mothballed as yesterday’s art. Where is classical music, whose very name spells tradition, headed in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? In a posh concert hall or occasionally in a stylish nightclub? “It felt like I was in the lion’s den. But I definitely wanted to put the audience into contact with the music I love and believe in, music that packs such a huge emotional punch. An audience which, sad to say, I’ll never find in the Philharmonie. So I thought to myself: OK, if there’s a bunch of people who’ll never go to the Philharmonie, I’ll have to go to them. I’ll ‘stalk’ them, so to speak, and go to their club.”
The first challenge was to find a repertoire suitable for a club gig. How demanding should it be? How “easy” should it not be? Difficult questions, to be sure, and no wonder that the choice of repertoire was at the top of Ms Mutter’s agenda: “I looked at a lot of repertoire, and I really mean a lot. The result was a kaleidoscopic view of the variety of music history, and the variety of music for the violin”. Thus Anne-Sophie Mutter, who was accompanied on both club appearances by pianist Lambert Orkis and her own Virtuosi, young scholarship holders from her foundation for up-and-coming talent: “I definitely wanted to put my Virtuosi on stage. They’re an integral part of my life. They come from Austria, Poland, the United States, South Korea, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Russia and Spain, and they have ideas as to what music can accomplish in society. In the final analysis, the point is to come together with music and to build bridges, not between generations, but between the cultural differences we’ve erected, between the religious and sometimes dogmatic walls that stand between us. As Heine so nicely put it, ‘Beneath our clothes we’re all naked’.
And so the Yellow Lounge Programme came about, ranging from the Baroque to the present day. Obviously Vivaldi, the master of tone-painting, had to be there with his Four Seasons. Then came the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, a Jamaican rumba, Gershwin’s Preludes, Aaron Copland’s country fiddling and the title theme from Schindler’s List. An expertly prepared journey from past to present.
Even so, the world star had butterflies in her stomach when it was about to begin. “I was very tense, and I’m otherwise never nervous. It was perhaps the first time in my life that I had to struggle with expectations”. But as soon as she stepped onto the stage, surrounded by her musicians and an attentive audience, and tucked her trusty Strad under her chin, she seemed completely present and yet remote, engrossed in her playing. The music she otherwise plays behind a sort of cordon sanitaire in the world’s great concert halls acquired an incredible intensity, if only from her proximity to the listeners. She guided her musicians through the programme with passion and sang-froid, chatted and joked with listeners in a manner barely imaginable in the places where classical music is normally at home. All this did the music a good turn, emphasising its vitality and – let’s say it – modernity. The audience, to Ms Mutter’s great joy, was equally euphoric in its response: “The applause was moving. But the other side of emotionality in a concert is the sharing of silence, listening with subtlety, tension, perhaps even amazement. And that’s something I sensed particularly strongly in the club. It’s precisely what music builds on, what it waits for: to grow from the intimacy of silence, from completely personal and sometimes whispered meaning into a giant flower, a grand message. I will always cherish the enthusiasm of the audience in these two intimate club appearances – that we managed to become truly one in the silence and the sharing of this very intimate moment.”
And the Strad? It had to be sent for maintenance work to what its owner calls “The Spa”, where everything about the noble instrument is tidied up to meet the challenges of new centuries and exciting new venues.
Christoph Dallach; Translation: J. Bradford Robinson