A Tale of Two Cities
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A Tale of Two Cities

Dresden and Leipzig are the glorious cultural capitals of Saxony.
By Mario R. Mercado 

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Dresden Staatskapelle members in a Neustadt bar for a “meet and greet”
© Oliver Killig
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Dresdner Kreuzchor members
© Carsten Koall/Getty Images
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The interior of Dresden’s Kulturpalast
© Jörg Simanowski

THE FREE STATE OF SAXONY HAS A POPULATION OF A MERE FOUR MILLION and occupies an area smaller than New Jersey, yet its two great cities, Dresden and Leipzig, claim a cultural heritage out of proportion to their size. The range of opera on offer is startling: during the 2017–18 season, the Dresden Semper Opera presents thirty-two works, including six new productions; Leipzig Opera also produces six new stagings in a season of twenty-five operas. Both companies are producing the Ring: principal music director Christian Thielemann leads two cycles at the Semper, in January and February; in Leipzig, general music director Ulf Schirmer conducts cycles in January, April and May.

Although the opera theaters are smaller than most of their American counterparts (the Semper has 1,300 seats, Leipzig a few less), attendance confirms the high position classical music holds in German culture. Of the 250 performances presented last season in the Semper Opera, including ballet and concerts by its renowned Staatskapelle orchestra, ticket sales averaged 91 percent. 

As one crosses the Augustus Bridge into Dresden, the distinctive Semper Opera House comes into view. Much of Old Town has been resurrected after its cataclysmic destruction toward the end of World War II. (Reconstruction, which is ongoing, gained momentum after the fall of the Berlin Wall.) Yet Dresden, the seat of the Saxon electors and kings for five centuries, is far more than a re-creation of historic architecture, princely collections of paintings and the astonishing array of jewels and objets d’art housed in the storied Green Vault. The city’s vibrancy marks it as an evolving and intriguing destination.

The Semper has an attractive new space, Semper Zwei, where many of its programs for children, teenagers and families are presented. Productions range from Der Kaiser von Atlantis, the political satire-cum-parable composed by Viktor Ullmann during his time at the Terezin concentration camp, to the killer in me is the killer in you my love, a contemporary music-theater piece about adolescent angst by composer Ali N. Askin, born in Germany to Turkish parents. Recently, musicians from the Staatskapelle fanned out in a series of thirty-minute “meet and greets” in the fashionable bars of Neustadt. Combinations ranging from duos to sextets performed classical and popular music and improvisations. At one boîte, Staatskapelle percussionists mesmerized patrons with a bravura display of body drumming.

The Kantorei—the vocal ensemble of the Protestant court, and the precursor of the Staatskapelle—was established in 1548. Schütz, Hasse and Weber have been among the ensemble’s illustrious leaders. Wagner conducted first performances of The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser at the Semper, but the court theater is most identified with Richard Strauss: nine of his fifteen operas had their premieres in Dresden. The Staatskapelle is acclaimed for the sound of its winds and brass. “Woodwinds aim for a homogeneous quality,” says clarinetist Robert Oberaigner. “We say we try for the sound of an organ.”

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Staatskapelle members at a “meet and greet”
© Matthias Creutzige

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH served as Cantor of St. Thomas School in nearby Leipzig for twenty-seven years and traveled often to Dresden. His Mass in B Minor may have been intended for performance at the Catholic court. A keyboard virtuoso, Bach was one of the first to play the organ in Dresden’s Frauenkirche, by the noted builder Gottfried Silbermann. Today, the music of the Baroque master is the focus of a festival held each autumn, a hallmark of the reconstructed church (completed 1994–2005). The reconstruction included the installation of a new organ, partly modeled after the Silbermann original. 

Organ music is a striking aspect of Dresden’s cultural heritage. The Catholic cathedral, built in 1755 as the Hofkirche, houses what is considered Silbermann’s finest organ. With 3,500 pipes, it is also his largest. Mozart played it in 1789.

Last month, the Dresden Philharmonic unveiled its own gleaming concert organ in its renovated home, inaugurated in April. The orchestra of the state capital of Saxony, now led by Michael Sanderling, has almost a 150-year history. Since 1969, it has performed in the Kulturpalast, a glass-and-concrete assertion of German Democratic Republic architecture. The multipurpose venue has accommodated Bruce Springsteen and the St. Petersburg ice-skating ballet, but it was never suited to orchestral performance. The renovation, begun in 2012, completely reimagined the 1,800-seat auditorium, which is now laid out in the tiered or vineyard-style of concert halls such as the Philharmonie de Paris and the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie. 

Since the eighteenth century, the cathedral boys’ choir, or Kapellknaben, has supplied music for Catholic services. Perhaps only in Dresden could the Kapellknaben’s 300-year history be surpassed. The Kreuzchor, made up of 130 boys, ages nine to nineteen, dates to the founding of the city in the early thirteenth century. Dresden-native René Pape began his essential education in choral repertoire as an alto chorister there.

The Kreuzchor appears regularly at the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, which offers performances in venues across the city, from the Semper to Schloss Pillnitz, the Baroque summer palace in chinoiserie style. Jan Vogler, artistic director, has widened the festival’s scope to include music on period instruments, Rufus Wainwright, contemporary dance and a showcase for young artists. 

Less than a half-mile walk from Dresden’s historic center, a former nineteenth-century power plant has been transformed into Kraftwerk Mitte, a performing-arts center with two state-of-the-art stages, for the Dresden State Operetta and Theater Junge Generation, plus two smaller studio and puppet theaters. The contemporary design of the foyers and the bold red décor of the operetta theater stand in marked contrast to the brick building exterior. Wolfgang Schaller, intendant of the Operetta since 2003, persuaded city fathers to move the company from a makeshift space in a former ballroom. Schaller devised a scheme whereby employees would commit eight percent of their salaries during a twelve-year period, an aggregate sum that amounted to €12-million of the €105-million construction cost of the Kraftwerk Mitte complex, in order to secure municipal funding for a new theater. Schaller’s approach to programming offsets classic operettas and operas with family appeal with musicals ranging from Wonderful Town to Catch Me If You Can.

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The home of the Leipzig Gewandhaus
© Arco/Schoening/agefotostock

LEIPZIG, SEVENTY-FIVE MILES northwest of Dresden, has been known since medieval times for its university and as a trade center; today, it is famous for automobile manufacturing and biotechnology. The citybears a distinct character and, like Dresden, is marked by a dynamic music scene. Leipzig Opera’s resident ensemble, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, has performed as the opera’s pit band for more than 100 years. Felix Mendelssohn, Arthur Nikisch, Bruno Walter, Václav Neumann and Riccardo Chailly are among the eminent music directors in the orchestra’s history. This season, which marks the Gewandhaus’s 275thanniversary, Andris Nelsons assumes the title as the twenty-first  Gewandhauskapellmeister.  

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The opera house on Leipzig’s Augustusplatz
© Hans P. Szyszka/agefotostock

THE CITY'S FIRST CONCERT HALL was built in one of the wings of the Gewandhaus, the guildhall of the city’s cloth merchants—hence the orchestra’s distinctive name. Visitors to Leipzig, acquainted with the Gewandhaus through its recordings and tours, are often surprised by the modernity of the glass-walled building that is its current home. It opened in 1981, a product of the tenacious advocacy of Kurt Masur, the orchestra’s music director for almost thirty years.

Across the broad Augustusplatz is the opera house, built on the site of the Neues Theater, the venue for the first Ring cycle performed outside of Bayreuth. That theater was destroyed in World War II, and a replacement in an austere, neoclassical style opened in 1960. The interior, laid out along notions of socialist design, nonetheless exudes a certain mid-century glamour. Schirmer has made the operas of Wagner central to the company’s programming, which this season also features weekends devoted to Strauss, Puccini and Verdi. Next June, Leipzig celebrates the 325th anniversary of opera in Leipzig with a new production of Lulu

Minutes from the Gewandhaus is Mendelssohn-Haus, where the composer and his family lived during the last two years of his brief life. Mendelssohn, who moved to Leipzig to become music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra at age twenty-six, counts as one of history’s most versatile prodigies. Exhibitions on the ground floor document his achievements as composer, pianist, organist and founder of the conservatory. Upstairs, restored living quarters provide a glimpse of quotidian life. Mendelssohn’s modest study, furnished in Biedermeier style and painted a sunny yellow, is one of the house’s smallest spaces. His former dressing room has been made into a gallery that illuminates another of Mendelssohn’s gifts—as an artist of fine drawings and watercolors that record travels from Durham Cathedral to Florence’s Duomo.

On the western edge of the city center stands St. Thomas Church, Bach Museum and Archive. The museum provides a tantalizing glimpse into Bach’s creative world. An interactive exhibition creates the sounds of period instruments and shows the subtle differences between an oboe d’amore and an oboe da caccia. A simple, low-tech display proves even more revelatory—a model of the St. Thomas school building showing the organization of its spaces, the dormitory for the choristers and its proximity to where Bach worked. It challenges the imagination to comprehend how Bach could compose his Passions and The Art of the Fugue in a setting where his large family lived and schoolboys, whose unruly behavior was a source of constant complaint, shambled about.

The Leipzig Music Trail (Notenspur), a three-mile, self-guided tour put together by the city, outlines a remarkable legacy on a twenty-three-stop route designated by markers embedded in sidewalks; panels along the way provide commentary and an audio guide furnishes key music examples. On the trail, one comes across the memorial to native son Wagner, the residence of Clara and Robert Schumann and the wide-ranging collections of the Grassi Museum of Musical Instruments. The trail includes St. Nicholas Church, one of four churches at which Bach served simultaneously as director of music, and which was, in the late twentieth century, the setting of a historic event of resounding consequence—the Peaceful Revolution of 1989. spacer 

Mario R. Mercado , author of The Evolution of Mozart’s Pianistic Style, writes on music, theater, dance and art. 

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