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Beethoven Fest director, early Gustavo Dudamel champion, moves on

October 07, 2013|By Chris Kraul
  • Ilona Schmiel is becoming the general director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra.
Ilona Schmiel is becoming the general director of Zurich's Tonhalle… (Chris Kraul )

BONN -- After a decade as general director of the Beethoven Festival, Ilona Schmiel answered her final curtain call Saturday night before moving on to a new job in Zurich.

During her 10 years at the helm, Schmiel steered German's classical music festival it to higher stature and visibility, in no small part because of her advocacy of young talent, including the L.A. Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel.

At a going-away reception after the final concert, Schmiel was feted by local officials including Bonn Mayor Jurgen Nimptsch and Chamber of Commerce head Wolfgang Griesl, who thanked her for stimulating the local economy as well as artistic sensibilities.

This year’s month-long  festival brought 75,000 visitors to Bonn -- up from 40,000 in 2004 the year she took over - encouraging news amid declining audiences for classical music in much of the world.

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Until recently, the festival had a spotty tradition. Inaugurated in 1845 to mark the 75th birthday of  native son and festival namesake Ludwig van Beethoven, it was suspended for lack of funds in 1993, then restarted in 1999.

Schmiel, who is leaving to become the general director of Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, seems to be leaving the festival on solid ground. She has carved a special niche for the 67-concert festival, no mean feat in a crowded European festival calendar.

To do so, she leveraged personal charm, Bonn’s special status as Beethoven’s birthplace and a talent for cultivating important corporate sponsors such as DHL and Deutsche Post.  

Regular performers included Christian Tetzlaff, the violin soloist Saturday night and one of the reigning kings of the concert stage. He was backed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding, another rising star. Leading Beethoven interpreters Andras Schiff, a pianist, and the Borodin String Quartet also appeared this year.

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But Schmiel’s hallmark was her fierce advocacy of youth orchestras such as the Istanbul University Conservatory Symphony, which performed Thursday night.  Iraqi and Egyptian youth orchestras also made recent appearances. The most frequent youth headliner has been El Sistema, as the Venezuelan youth orchestra program is called,  which has sent three orchestras to perform a total of five times.

In 2004, Schmiel took a chance on then-unknown Gustavo Dudamel, an El Sistema product who had just won a conducting competition in Germany, hiring him to fill in for the ailing conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. It was Dudamel’s first European professional performance and he was a smash hit. 

“It wasn’t that much of a risk really. I was familiar with El Sistema, so I knew about Gustavo and that he was destined for big things,” Schmiel said in an interview Saturday before the concert in her backstage office in the Beethovenhalle, the city’s main auditorium.

Trained as an opera singer, Schmiel, 46, shifted to arts management in her 20s after she damaged her vocal chords. She worked in Bremen, Germany before arriving in Bonn.

If she  has any regrets about leaving, one may be a bit of unfinished business: a new concert hall. The 1,600-seat Beethovenhalle is 40 years old with woeful acoustics and sight lines. Community efforts to build a new one have come to naught.

As sorry as city officials and aficionados are to see Schmiel go, there is a keen sense of anticipation of  her replacement: Nike Wagner, the great granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner. She comes from having directed the Weimar arts festival and having helped run the Bayreauth opera festival begun by her composer ancestor.

An author of several books and holder of a doctorate from Northwestern University, Wagner has stirred controversy by criticizing Bayreuth’s artistic direction and its use of public funds.

 Kraul is a Bogota-based special correspondent.


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