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Philharmonisches Orchester Heidelberg


Heidelberg’s philharmonic orchestra, Philharmonisches Orchester Heidelberg, has been part of the city’s theatre since 2005. It forms its own category, staging numerous concerts and accompanying opera productions. The orchestra shapes the city’s musical life with its stylistic flexibility stretching from Baroque to Modernity as well as a broad variety of concert formats. It has twice been honoured with the award for »best concert programme« by the association of German music producers, Deutscher Musikverleger-Verband, and places a strong emphasis on education. Since 2006, Heidelberg’s philharmonic orchestra has been engaging with historic staging methods as part of the festival Winter in Schwetzingen. As part of Heidelberg’s women artists’ award, the Heidelberger Künstlerinnenpreis, and its concert programmes, the orchestra regularly reflects on the works of women composers.

The Philharmonisches Orchester Heidelberg was founded on 8th April 1889 as »Städtisches Orchester«, marking the orchestra’s inclusion into City Administration. However, even before that date, Heidelberg’s music culture has always been a lively one.

Heidelberger Stadtorchester

A »Musikverein«, recorded as early as 1812, marked the beginning and was mainly comprised of lay musicians.  As of 1839, the »Heidelberger Stadtorchester« as it was called then, received funding from the city. During the first years, the city’s orchestra produced mainly entertainment music. That changed with the city’s first notable conductor Philipp Wolfrum, who – prior to this engagement – had been working with the orchestra for many years as founder and conductor of the chorus Heidelberger Bachchor. Then city music director Paul Radig and Wolfrum, who was the university’s music director at the time, both shaped Heidelberg’s music scene.

Photo: Florian Merdes

Centre of Contemporary Music

During Wolfrum’s time, Heidelberg was a centre of contemporary music and the Städtisches Orchester was an influential institution for music history: Already in 1893, the city organised Richard Strauss days. In 1901, Jean Sibelius celebrated his first international success conducting two legends from his »Lemminkäinen Suite« as part of the festival Heidelberger Tonkünstlerfest hosted by the music society Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein. In 1913, the city organised the Heidelberger Musikfest, a music festival focusing entirely on Johann Sebastian Bach and Max Reger.  The city’s new music director Kurt Overhoff provided new impetus for the concert scene, starting to direct symphony concerts as of 1931 and leading the orchestra in a new direction in the coming years. Already in 1940, Overhoff had to resign from his post due to illness. During World War II, Heidelberg’s music scene was kept alive mainly thanks to notable guest conductors.

Stages Reopen for Concerts and Operas

As soon as in August 1945, Hermann Meinhard Poppen managed to revive the concert series organised by the city and Bachverein, which was staged within the castle’s courtyard by the Städtisches Orchester and Bachverein with the support of local talents. When Fritz Henn was named musical director, concerts and operas experienced a full comeback, while Henn also significantly increased the number of public service jobs in that area.

When Karl Rucht was named director of the Städtisches Orchester in 1954, the orchestra was on the route to success. Rucht, a former solo trumpet player of the Berlin Philharmonics, already held a post as general music director of the Pfalzorchester Ludwigshafen, when he took on this second position within the Städtisches Orchester Heidelberg. Using his double position, he forged a close cooperation between the two orchestras, allowing him to stage large-scale opuses. The cooperation between the Pfalzorchester Ludwigshafen and the Städtisches Orchester Heidelberg continued on until 1960.

Photo: Annemone Taake

Educational programme

After the era Karl Rucht, Hans Blümer, first Kapellmeister of the city stage, takes over as interim director of the orchestra. While he only held an interim position between 1960 and 1961 as well as 1972 and 1973, he was very committed to his tasks, so that the provisional character of his position was never noticeable. Kurt Brass, Christian Süss and Gerhard Schäfer lead the Städtisches Orchester in the following years. Christian Süss introduced the first educational programmes: Concerts for children and adults as well as concert rehearsals that were open to the public, including school classes.

Honorary Conductor

In 1986, Mario Venzago, originally from Switzerland, took over as director of the orchestra. His time as conductor, pianist, composer and accompanying musician was shaped by a lively diversity. Venzago’s varied programme of symphony and serenade concerts was greeted with great interest and applause by the audience. He managed to increase the orchestra’s positions by eight. Mario Venzago has been honorary conductor of the Philharmonisches Orchester Heidelberg since 2007.

Reaching a Broad Audience

From 1989 until 1993, Anton Marik took over as general music director, carrying on concert and opera traditions with great care. The eleven-year long time in office of the succeeding general music director Thomas Kalb saw the emergence of an important music festival: »Heidelberger Frühling«. Dating back to Kalb’s initiative in 1997, which saw the first »Brahmsfest«, the festival today enjoys international renown. With the »Philharmonic Wonders« concerts, his successor, Volker Christ, established a successful cooperation between the Philharmonisches Orchester and the Freddy Wonder Combo, reaching a broad audience. Between 2005 and 2012, Cornelius Meister, now internationally successful, filled the role as general music director of the Philharmonisches Orchester of the City of Heidelberg. Yordan Kamdzhalov followed him as general music director until 2014. The season of 2015/2016 saw Elias Grandy take over the position as general music director of Heidelberg’s Philharmonics. The Philharmonisches Orchester Heidelberg together with the City of Heidelberg’s theatre under artistic director Holger Schultze forms an integral part of the city’s music scene, enriching the city’s cultural life in countless ways.

Stylistic Flexibility

The orchestra received the Deutsche Musikverleger-Verband’s award »best concert programme« for the seasons 1994/1995 and 2006/2007. Recently, the orchestra visited the Kölner Philharmonie as well as Antwerp and Ravenna. Concerts are regularly filmed by Deutschlandfunk and SWR. The Philharmonisches Orchester Heidelberg is characterised by its stylistic flexibility. Since 2006, the members of Heidelberg’s philharmonic orchestra have been engaging with historic staging methods as part of the festival Winter in Schwetzingen. Promoting New Music has a long tradition for the orchestra: The Philharmonisches Orchester has premiered several works that were dedicated to them. Between 2005 and 2016, the orchestra chose a different »composer for Heidelberg« each year, establishing a close cooperation with each of them.

Music pedagogy plays an essential role for the orchestra. Piccolo concerts, children’s and youth concerts complement a series of family concerts. In addition, orchestra members are active in schools and preschools, visiting them on a regular basis. In 2010, the youth project »Rap it like Heidelberg« was awarded first price in a competition held as part of the »Day of Music 2010« by Germany’s music council, Deutscher Musikrat. The project »Hingehört« addresses an older audience, proposing moderated workshop concerts. The orchestra’s members also play chamber concerts in varying formats.