Life & Style

Berlin's Young Euro Classic music festival defies coronavirus

Every year, hundreds of young musicians from all over the world come to Berlin to play at the Young Euro Classic, one of the largest international youth orchestra festivals. They all have one thing in common: their love of classical music.

The German capital is a hub for the new generation of classical musicians. “The youth orchestras that come from far away are particularly keen to play German classical music here and show that they belong,” Dieter Rexroth, artistic director and one of the festival’s founding fathers, told DW.

Stage for international youth orchestras

Young Euro Classic was launched 20 years ago at a time when many Eastern European states were joining the European Union (EU). “We wanted to send a message to young European musicians with this festival,” Rexroth said.

Gradually, youth orchestras from non-European countries, including the US, China and Japan, began to participate. Orchestras from Latin America, Australia and Arab countries also showed interest in taking part. The Miagi Youth Orchestra from South Africa, including trompeter Isaac Lincoln (above), performed at the festival in 2012.

“The classical orchestral music we play may have been born in Europe, but people all over the world are familiar with it,” Rexroth said.

The Berlin festival attracts about 24,000 visitors, young and old, every year, and its tickets sell very well.

“We have young people from the most diverse countries and cultures, and they bring with them classical music that is influenced by the folk music of their native countries,” Rexroth said, adding that greatly contributes to the enthusiastic mood.

A young woman playing a stringed instrument looks up during an orchestra performance (Andrew McCoy)

The festival brings together young classical music talent from around the world

A chamber music revamp

This year, everything is different.

Orchestras from Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Canada and Cuba that were supposed to perform in Berlin cannot travel because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Rexroth did not want to cancel the festival, so instead of presenting large international orchestras, a pared-down version offers chamber music performances from August 1 to 10. The concerts will take place before live audiences — under hygiene and distancing rules, of course.

The musicians are international students living in Berlin. Rexroth chose them in cooperation with Berlin’s musical universities and institutions. Musicians from the National Youth Orchestra of Germany and the European Union Youth Orchestra will also perform.

The European Youth Orchestra performs at the Young Euro Classic festival in 2019 (Peter Adamik)

The European Youth Orchestra performs at the festival every year (above, in 2019)

Hwayoon Lee, a South Korean violist who studies at the Berlin University of the Arts and is supported by the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation, is one of the students who has been chosen to play at the festival. Lee feels an inherent longing for the past in classical music.

“I think it’s because Koreans can’t be without roots,” Lee told DW. Korea has many holidays with traditional music, she said, adding that classical music also has a festive character. “It’s the festive and the traditional that I associate with my native country.”

Violist Hwayoon Lee and pianist Anna Naretto perform onstage (Kronberg Academy/Andreas Malkmus)

Hwayoon Lee, a 25-year-old violist, performs across Europe as she studies in Berlin. Above, with pianist Anna Naretto.

Classical music, classic ideals

Since the orchestras from all over the world won’t be traveling to Berlin this year, Rexroth created a program focusing on composers who shaped musical life in major European cities like Paris, St. Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin. Classical Romantic composers such as Johann Strauss are featured alongside representatives of contemporary music like Anton Webern.

The program also specifically includes classical composers who incorporated folk music from their native countries or other foreign cultures, such as Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas, who looked at his country’s folklore and tradition. His Greek dances will open the festival on the first evening under the motto “Greece and Europe.”

Ancient Greece stands for democratic ideals that have shaped the EU and are very important to the Young Euro Classic organizers. They see the orchestra as a “utopian coexistence,” a model of a society where people shape their lives according to the European values of freedom, equality and solidarity.

Classical music contributes to this cooperation, Rexroth said. “Classical music is an expression of what we understand by human dignity. It expresses precisely this ideal of humanity — all people are equal,” he added.

Orchestras in times of the pandemic

Rexroth believes the coronavirus pandemic may significantly change the world of orchestras and highlighted that there may not be enough funds to finance large orchestras or fill vacant orchestra positions with new young talent.

Dieter Rexroth, head of the Young Euro Classic festival in Berlin (Kai Bienert)

Rexroth is the head of the Young Euro Classic festival in Berlin

But Lee, who at 25 has already found success on concert stages in Germany and across Europe, is optimistic. During the lockdown, she recorded her music and posted the videos on the internet. “Doctors help with medical care, and I tried in my own way to help people in isolation with music.”

Now, she is happy to finally be able to play on a real stage for a real audience again. “It’s great to perform at the Young Euro Festival after the long coronavirus crisis,” Lee said. “Playing on this stage was a dream of mine, and I never thought it would come true.”



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