Stephan Gehmacher, Philharmonie director: “Classical music will always be at the core of the programme”
Photo: Mike Zenari
The Philharmonie has become a classical music venue of international renown. But its director Stephan Gehmacher is convinced it can be even more influential on the cultural scene.
Duncan Roberts: You said in a recent interview that you have a great love of music. But where did that love of music stem from?
Stephan Gehmacher: In my case education played an important role. Simply the family I grew up in. Music was always a topic throughout my childhood. I seemed to like the idea of talking about music, listening to and playing music myself. There was no way to escape. But I never thought about becoming a professional musician. However, during my law studies I worked at the Salzburg festival in various departments. After I finished, the artistic director at the time was looking for a PA. I applied, thinking I could stop my law career for a year, but I didn’t get it. However, two weeks later an even more interesting job as concert manager opened, and I interviewed for that. And that was it; I stayed there and never felt like I should return to law. One job came after another, so there was never a need to reconsider the decision.
How important is high culture in attracting businesses and talent to Luxembourg?
It’s obvious that a city or region that wants to attract people to work and live needs a culture offer. Because Luxembourg is such an international place, they created institutions that have an international programme. Like the Grand Théâtre chose not to be a local repertoire theatre, but it brings the best of the world to Luxembourg and makes local audiences, and sometimes artists, interact with them. And that attracts people like me and many collaborators to the Philharmonie. Also, if you talk with international musicians and artists, they name Luxembourg along with all the worldwide capitals of music. It has become one of the places where the world’s most interesting musicians want to play. It is fascinating to see how that has developed.
We were lucky that the architect [Christian de Portzamparc] and the people who shaped the project in the beginning took some good decisions. We have a concert hall that is the perfect size, has perfect acoustics, wonderful architecture. It is a place people want to be, on stage as well as a member of the audience. The challenge, nevertheless, remains to bring that together for a limited audience.
The OPL seems to be touring even more intensely than before, how important is this for the orchestra’s international reputation and for the development of its musicians?
The orchestra has quite a rich history. With the opening of the Philharmonie in 2005 they were challenged with being put in the international context. As a consequence, in 2012 the OPL and the Philharmonie merged with the challenge of how to create more local identity with the orchestra. How do you get someone moving from London or Paris to identify with the local orchestra, especially when international orchestra come here to perform? On the other hand, we also wanted to develop the orchestra internationally. I think we have reached a new level. A sign of that is that we have received invitations for tours that allows us to act as an ambassador for Luxembourg. And the more they give, the more they get.
Opened in 2005, the Philharmonie is an iconic concert hall, now attracting world-renowned musicians and orchestras as well as putting on a programme for younger audiences. It hosts some 450 concerts a year and pulls in audiences of over 150,000. Photo: Mike Zenari
Last year the Philharmonie hosted around 450 concerts. How do you cope with the sheer logistics of that?
The output is, of course, teamwork, and everyone has to play their role. Starting from the production to the marketing and front of house and ticketing, it’s a well-oiled machine. The real challenge is when we step out of our comfort zone for things like the Rainy Days festival, where we host concerts in people’s houses for example. Then you see how well the machine functions, but also how sensitive it is when you do something really different.
We have a fairly unique concept of working with a project manager for every concert or series. They steer the development of the project across the fields, which has proven to be very efficient so that not every decision has to go up and down the hierarchy.
The programme has become even more diverse in recent years. Is there no danger you may step on some toes by booking artists like Einstürzende Neubauten or Olafur Arnalds who might otherwise play in other venues?
We are careful. Classical music will always be at the core of the programme, but we want to look left and right and see what’s there, what’s interesting for our audience but also for us as an institution. The questions is, do we assume that people who come to Nils Frahm or Olafur Arnalds will only come for them, or can we also interest them, in the long or short run, in classical music? I don’t yet have an answer. I am convinced that both worlds will come together, which doesn’t mean mixing the repertoire but mixing how they are presented.
How important is the young people’s programme in encouraging children to enjoy music?
I think from the beginning, under my predecessor [Matthias Naske], the idea was to offer a programme to every generation. But not in the sense that children are our future audience, but to really take them seriously as our current audience. I think we have found the right programme for all those under 12. We have not yet found the ideal way, and I don’t think anyone has, for teenage audiences--it’s the hardest age group to programme for. Uniquely, in Luxembourg, the student audience is also difficult. Those who are here seem less interested in the culture offer.
Finally, like many other cultural institutions the Philharmonie closes during the major school holidays. Are there any plans to change this?
Gradually we have started to open on the first and second weekend of the autumn, carnival and Easter holidays. We do have some programme during the Easter week. But, like every concert hall in the world, we also need a 3- or 4-week break in the summer to perform all the technical work that is required. We can only do that when the house is not operational. And I don’t think there is yet the critical mass of tourists to fill our concert hall in the summer. Furthermore, especially during the EU summit weeks, it is often very difficult to find good hotel accommodation for our artists at a good price. But we will continue extending our summer by holding the big open-air concert in the Kinnekswiss park.