Sunday 18 March 2018

The small town that built an orchestra which conquered the world

Bamberg in northern Bavaria has a lot to commend it. Its picture-postcard medieval town centre, which includes a half-timbered town hall parked on a little island in the middle of the river Regnitz, has earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Among its claims to fame is a cathedral that holds the tomb of the 11th-Century Pope Clement II, the only Pope to be buried north of the Alps. It is also home to a world-renowned orchestra.

Now, Bamberg isn't a big place – these days, only around 70,000 live there – and a symphony orchestra in a town that has never even sustained a professional football team may seem unlikely. But we're back in 1946. The changed political landscape after World War Two, not to mention the physical destruction, meant musicians were on the move.

Across the border in Prague where a German orchestra was based, its players had been served with deportation papers. German musicians from Karlsbad – present-day Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic – and Breslau (Wroclaw in Poland) were also being expelled.

Bamberg, not far from Wagner's Bayreuth, no more than 100km from the Czech frontier, was a good place to go, not least because it had been spared the worst of the war. There was a town still standing. There were houses and flats to be had.

It became a bit of a no-brainer. With the Americans, the post-war occupying power in that part of Germany, keen to promote a cultural project, the Bamberg Symphony was born.

It was neither easy nor cheap to sustain. The town was too small to be relied on for box office backing, but the particular circumstances of the birth of the Bamberg caught the public imagination beyond Bavaria, and the regional government tapped into this.

As the now Federal Republic of Germany sought rehabilitation, the Bamberg Symphony became a kind of cultural flagship. In 1954, it went on tour. It became the first West German orchestra to play in New York, the first to play in post-war Paris.

Bamberg's reputation flourished, and it can now look back on almost 70 years of distinguished performing. There have been 6,500 concerts in more than 500 cities right across the globe. The musicians are officially recognised cultural ambassadors, carrying the title Bavarian State Philharmonic Orchestra as well.

They've been prolific in the studio, too. The music of Gustav Mahler is central to their repertoire, and they've completed the full set of his symphonies.

The principal conductor in Bamberg is Jonathan Nott, a clergyman's son from the English Midlands, and one-time choral scholar at Cambridge, who turns 50 on Christmas Day. He presides over an orchestra that is surely unique.

There can't be many that can match Bamberg's boast that fully 10 per cent of their home town's population have signed up to the Symphony. With 7,000 subscribers, Bamberg can!

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

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