Old Soul, New Heart

Bernard Karres

Bernhard Kerres, the Intendant of the Konzerthaus: a tradition of innovation | Photo: Konzerthaus

“In Vienna, music still makes front page news,” said Bernhard Kerres, the new Head (Intendant) of the Wiener Konzerthaus. So with respect for both the ‘old guard’ and ‘avant-garde’ to bring creative energy and attract the next generation bursting with global awareness, Kerres is challenged to breathe new life into one of the city’s great music institutions.

It is 7:30 in the evening. Bells are ringing and numbers flashing on the boards are directing people to their seats in the different halls. The aura of the Viennese establishment in conservative elegance – smart Chanel for the ladies and dark for the gents – mixes with jeans and leather jackets in the rush of energy that anticipates any one of the three or four performances to take place that night.

The Konzerthaus is a busy place. Originally conceived in 1890 as the Haus für Musikfeste, or Music Festival Hall, the building was completed in 1913, having taken three years to errect on the empty land mass the city developed hoping to attract people to what was to become the fashionable 3rd District.

The design of the Konzerthaus was revolutionary for its time, a dash of Modernism under the waning Habsburg monarchy, a superb example of Jugendstil design in the wall gilding, brass light fixtures, elegant performing spaces with ornate ceilings and inviting (perhaps even intimidating) staircases. The Grand Hall was created to accommodate four thousand people on their way to the many events, or occasional ball, as defined the era of Emperor Franz Joseph I who inaugurated the House. A larger-than-life sculpture of a particularly good-looking Beethoven dating from 1927 presides over the comings and goings.

The 40-year-old Kerres has been in residence since July. To be Intendant at the Konzerthaus is a big responsibility, comparable to a General Manager in the English speaking world. But the truth is, he doesn’t want to be labeled.

Selected from over one hundred and sixty candidates, he replaces Intendant  Christoph Lieben-Seutter (1996-2007) who left to oversee the transformation of Elb Philharmonie in Hamburg from a factory into a concert hall.

Slim, poised with slightly receding blond hair, Kerres’ formal appearance may appear at first to be made of corporate stuffing. But the bright glow, almost a twinkle, in his eye is clear the minute he relaxes into a laugh.

In a recent interview in his office, he described how his passion for music began with his first pair of black shoes for his sixth birthday.

“Now I can go to the concerts!” he had announced to his parents, and among the first he attended was one directed by renowned conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, founder of the Concentus Musicus Wien –  at the Wiener Konzerthaus. A glance under the coffee table revealed what color shoes he was wearing that day….  “Of course, black.. I would never wear brown shoes to a concert.”

Growing up in Vienna, Kerres trained and worked first as an opera singer, but went on to the University of London Business School preparing to enter the world of corporate finance. His last position was CEO of M. Tech AG in Germany, one of the leaders in the field of Intelligent Traffic Solutions.

However, his passion for music brought him full circle with the opportunity to bring his managerial talent back home – perhaps with new turns for the Konzerthaus as a former traffic king.

His selection announced, he warned the board, “You are taking a risk with me! I will be doing what is close to my heart.”

He seemed undaunted by deep-rooted tradition: “Even though the Viennese may be like old bones that break easily, I am so close to them myself, I do not see the walls I am walking through. One can move a lot of things – like rocks.”

The energy of the new generation bursting out all over Vienna was a strong element in his thinking about the future of the Konzerthaus, which he hopes to shape.

“Habits can change, not just to go to a concert and then dinner, but to encourage people to become closer to their emotions.”

Kerres sees his role as an evolving puzzle, to engage both young people and the public at large to become part of goals in the discovery of what will drive innovative ideas for years to come.  He is reluctant to be more specific than that at this time.  And perhaps that is just as well.  To enter a concert hall as the new fellow on the block can be complicated and full of resistance vis-à-vis the inner workings of the hierarchies of tradition.

In Vienna, it seems, one learns to tread carefully. Diplomacy is the height of acceptance, crucial to moving forward. His philosophy is about process.

The mission of the Konzerthaus has long prided itself on offering “living music,” from ancient and classical to contemporary, including symphonies, operas, world-class conductors and musicians, chamber music, Lieder (songs), top soloists, rising stars, jazz, experimental works —  including the exciting Klangforum for contemporary music – and a newly developed area of World Music.

Nonetheless, Bruckner, Johann Strauss, Stockhausen, Dvorjak…  all are still ‘hanging out’ among the concert offerings from earlier days.  The Konzerthaus has a different mission from the Musikverein down the street, home of the famed Vienna Philharmonic, with a strong edge to its belief in presenting up-and-coming artists Since reopening in 1945, there have been some sixteen hundred premieres. The house seeks to draw people from every walk of life, while maintaining the highest international performance standards, including its prime tenants, the Vienna  Symphony.

The annual schedule includes over three hundred and fifty concerts and events divided among the Grosser Saal (1840 seats), Mozart Saal (704 seats), Schubert Saal (336 seats) and recently added, intimate Neuer Saal. A Zyklus format (by subscription) is at the core of the house’s offerings, where one can select annually from thirty-four ‘cycles’ around a large range of themes.

To reach young people, Kerres is masterminding a new department, Education and Outreach, to encourage young people to build their identity within the larger context of culture.  The overall project is called Unisono, an Italian word for “in unison,” used in music to mean a tune sung or played as one voice.

Up to one hundred years ago, almost every street in Vienna had its own “orchestra.”  Everywhere there was music, in taverns, coffee houses and dancehalls, in church, on the street, at the Heurigen. Singing and making music was an integral part of home life. Today, while some of this tradition still survives, it is a sign of our times that the importance of music and art is diminishing in schools and communities. This is where Unisono will strive to make a meaningful contribution.

“For our project, young people do not need to have any musical background, but they can learn to find their music within themselves and discover music for themselves,” said the creator of Unisono, Monika Jeschko. “If they do not have such an opportunity when they are young, they may never walk into a concert house.”

The intent is to redefine old traditions – an initiative recently honored with the patronage of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to further the “lost music in everyday life.”

The first performance will be a Dec. 22 Sing-Along of Christmas music with the Wiener Singakademie, one of the city’s oldest and most distinguished voluntary choirs.

One of the next programs under Unisono’s umbrella will be Terra Uniqua, where four classrooms of children will be selected for a week of coaching for voice, instruments, dance and acting. Each will then create a thirty minute performance based on the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, to be presented all together at the Konzerthaus.

Contemporary art is also an interest of Kerres.’  In October, Vienna artist Victoria Coeln created a light installation for the Konzerthaus exterior, which changes how the building looks every evening, so the ‘old rock’ can be seen in an ever-changing new way.

Other planned events under the initial drive of Kerres include a Jewish music festival for next September and a year later, one of Turkish music, to ‘mind-expand’ the boundaries of the Old Empire with a 21st century vision.  This is just the beginning.

At the Konzerthaus, transition is tangible. Elisabeth Thausing became the first woman twelve years ago to be invited to join the twenty-six member board, all of whom were originally men. Her grandfather, Manfred Mauntner Markoff, a highly-regarded industrialist, was the founding member and then president of the house after the war, with a particular interest as patron of young artists.

Mauntner Markoff had his own box, where from the age of fourteen, Thausing had the opportunity to attend concerts whenever she liked, which inspired her discovery of music. She was exposed to a broad range of artists, many experimental, in keeping with the house’s reputation as a ‘home for young composers,’ a precedent for the outreach the Konzerthaus continues today.  The president of the board today is also a first as a woman, the highly-respected lawyer, Theresa Jordis.

Kerres is devoted to “living music” but, as a footnote, also to “living” chocolate (meaning freshly made), and as with Viennese music, a taste for the bitter sweat. Two years ago he attended Barry Callebaut Chocolatiers in Brussels for a certificate in the making of chocolates – a rich morsel of connoisseurship.

As Kerres develops his strategies for funding, supports tradition, and works to attract new audiences, while protecting the Konzerthaus’s progressive identity, the ground may indeed be shifting under his black shoes.  He believes people in Vienna today are open to being moved by music of whatever tradition – a dynamic forum for the present. The next chapter in this history will be how this Intendant goes forth to put a new heart in a much respected and accomplished old soul.

“The thrill,” Kerres says, “of just walking into a rehearsal in the house gives me energy for the rest of the day.”


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