Dresden Festival Soaring Sky High With Eclectic Mix

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Cellist Jan Vogler has transformed the Dresden Music Festival since becoming director in 2009.
German cellist Jan Vogler has transformed the Dresden Music Festival since becoming director in 2009.
By Paul Hyde

DRESDEN – Jan Vogler has a colorful way of describing his job as director of the Dresden Music Festival.

“You know, when I was young I loved to fly kites and wander in the woods, picking mushrooms,” said Vogler, who juggles an active international career as a cellist while overseeing the three-week classical music festival. “Now I travel the world and see beautiful things, and I think they may be wonderful for the festival. I’m still picking mushrooms and flying kites.”

Ute Lemper sang songs by Weill and Brel at the 2014 festival.
Ute Lemper sang songs by Weill and Brel at the 2014 festival.

His creative system of artistic leadership appears to be working in this historic city that was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 but rebuilt to reclaim its status as one of Europe’s undisputed jewels.

In the six years that he has led Dresden’s summer festival, the charismatic German-born Vogler has seen ticket revenues double. In 2009, revenues were €440,000. Today, that figure is more than €1 million, Vogler said.

About 60,000 people attend the festival, which offers more than three dozen separate events and a number of free concerts. One huge outdoor public sing-along, called “Dresden Sings and Makes Music,” draws upwards of 20,000 people. Attendance at ticketed events, meanwhile, remains at 95 percent capacity.

Vogler’s secret, he said, has been to broaden the appeal of the festival, now in its 37th year.  This season, in addition to opera and classical music performances, the festival also hosted pop-oriented figures, such as Ute Lemper (singing the songs of Weill, Brel, and others), and the King’s Singers (offering tunes from the Great American Songbook by Rodgers, Kern, Gershwin, and Porter). The concert by the latter, an eclectic six-member men’s vocal ensemble, sold out so quickly that a second performance was added.

Sitar player Anoushka Shankar gave a recital at the festival.
Sitar player Anoushka Shankar gave a recital at the festival.

Baritone Thomas Hampson, meanwhile, could be found this past season in Dresden singing “Mack the Knife,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” and other classic melodies accompanied by The Philharmonics, a popular seven-member ensemble with a multi-ethnic focus that includes four players from the Vienna Philharmonic.

The glamorous sitar player Anoushka Shankar also performed a recital. Youth and sex appeal certainly play a role in the festival. That’s true, of course, throughout classical music today.

“I want to tell a message that is deep but also fun,” Vogler said, speaking to a group of North American music critics as the 2014 festival was coming to a close in mid-June.  “I don’t want to present a program that is just popular, but my goal is to understand my time,” Vogler said. “This year we got it right like no time before. The spectrum is wider this year.”

Vogler’s chancy decisions occasionally raise eyebrows among the Dresden music staff. Last summer, he brought the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to the festival after catching the spirited ensemble at Carnegie Hall. That particular “kite” (to pick up on Vogler’s metaphor) soared.

“They looked at me like I was crazy,” Vogler said of his staff. “But it sold out immediately.”

The array of purely classical music events includes recitals, full orchestral concerts, and historically informed performances.

Among this year's guests were Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin.
Among this year’s guests were Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Vogler routinely secures prominent figures in the classical world. This season Hilary Hahn performed the Brahms Violin Concerto. Cameron Carpenter, one of today’s most sought-after (and eccentric) organists, offered a recital with his digital “touring organ,” which features up to 30 loudspeakers.

Every year boasts celebrated conductors and orchestras.  This summer featured Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Both offered programs honoring, in part, the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’ birth. Another Strauss highlight was a production of the German composer’s rarely performed second opera, Feuersnot, in the courtyard of  Dresden’s Residenzschloss. (Read Rebecca Schmid’s review here.)

The Mark Morris Dance Group made an appearance this year.
The Mark Morris Dance Group made an appearance this year.

The festival’s orchestra offered historically informed performances in the pit for Feuersnot and on stage for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, the latter conducted by British-born Ivor Bolton.

One of the festival’s final events this season was a concert by one of the most respected figures in the historically informed performance movement: Philippe Herreweghe directed his Collegium Vocale Gent in Dresden’s resplendent Frauenkirche, the site of several events this summer.

The Frauenkirche also was the venue for a concert honoring the late conductor Claudio Abbado, a frequent guest of the festival who died in January.  The event featured an ensemble Abbado founded, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing works by Mahler and Wagner under the direction of the Italian conductor Daniele Gatti. (Read George Loomis’ review here.)

Other classical performers this season included baritone Matthias Goerne (singing Brahms, Schubert, and Shostakovich), violinist Karen Gomyo (playing Vivaldi and Paganini), the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (performing Schubert and Mendelssohn), the piano duo (and twin sisters) Christina and Michelle Naughton (offering Schubert, Debussy, and Gershwin), and the celebrated early-music ensemble Les Arts Florissants (featuring Monteverdi madrigals).

Vogler also included a dance component this season, featuring the innovative Mark Morris Dance Group with works performed to music of Bach and Lou Harrison.

Among his other festival initiatives, Vogler has sought to make ticket prices more affordable, with admission to some concerts starting at €6. (The highest ticket prices, however, climb to €180.)

“For me, it should be a festival for everyone,” Vogler said. “I’ve always wanted the festival to be a celebration of quality in the most beautiful time in Dresden.”

Vogler chatted with North American music critics. (Paul Hyde)
Vogler chatted with North American music critics. (Paul Hyde)

Luck also has played a role in Vogler’s success. Many new Dresden hotels opened around the time Vogler began his tenure, he said.

Vogler himself, by all accounts, has been a huge asset for the festival.  As a high-profile cello soloist, he is able to leverage his considerable classical-music connections to bring in star performers such as Hahn, Chailly, Barenboim, and Herreweghe.

The energetic Vogler, who has been based in New York since the 1990s, is much in evidence during the three-week festival, greeting audience members throughout the day and chatting with musicians and journalists into the wee hours.

Ironically, Vogler was skeptical about accepting the position as director of the festival when it was first offered to him in 2009. His career as a cellist already kept him considerably busy. But a few days after receiving the offer, Vogler dined in New York with his wife and friends. The verdict at the table was unanimous: “‘Of course, you’re going to do it,’ they told me,” Vogler said.

Vogler took the job and, seven years later, seems pleased with his decision. He’s working already on the festival’s 2017 season.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News and Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America. Follow Paul on Facebook or Twitter: @PaulHyde7.