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1999 – 2008: Finally Happy
…I cannot be engaged”, Nikolaus Harnoncourt once said in an interview about his stance on artistic freedom. He meant that he was not willing to submit to the conditions of conventional music making and certainly not to the rules that govern its market. This provocative lack of interest in being directed by others for money complies with his devotion, when necessary, to engaging himself to use his own status to help younger artists, such as Cecilia Bartoli, Anna Netrebko and Pierre Laurent Aimard, along the path to world success. This is also especially true when it comes to removing the prejudices that keep us from understanding a work of art, for example with regard to “light entertainment”. Several musical histories, for example, describe Jacques Offenbach as not only a king of melodies, but also a highly political, acerbic satirist. However, we have Nikolaus Harnoncourt to thank for being able to hear this in Offenbach’s music and understand what an incredible composer Offenbach was, how deep and black the abysses of his music were. Harnoncourt also showed us what lies behind Georges Bizet’s Carmen, a piece so poorly managed it has become a run of the mill piece; In fact, Carmen was never as evocative, never as dark as in Harnoncourt’s and Andrea Breth ‘s 2005 styriarte production. The fact that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has twice entrusted Harnoncourt with the highlight of the New Year’s Concert, broadcast around the world, illustrates the paradigm shift which has since taken place. Nikolaus Harnoncourt does not indulge his audience. His staging of the father son conflict in the Strauss household with the furious, reactionary Radetzky March was not made less severe simply because most listeners know it as a soft clap along march. However, the difference is that today most listeners are not only willing, they are in fact very eager to listen to this version. They understand that a musician must ask radical questions in order to do the piece and its composer justice, in order to come as close as possible to what the creator wanted to express, his idea, his concept, his vision. Throughout this process, Harnoncourt faced the additional the challenge of having to tackle the completely absurd mistakes that have been made throughout the centuries, starting with the small, seemingly harmless ones. One such mistaken belief is that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Idomeneo is the most cumbersome of Mozart’s operas, a completely unsuccessful opera seria with a few beautiful moments. And when, as a conductor, one is faced with the impossible task of also directing the piece in order to stage it according to Mozart’s wishes, Nikolaus Harnoncourt rises to meet the challenge. In doing so, he discovers new aspects of an already world famous composer, which is what happened at the 2008 styriarte festival. Anyone who encountered Harnoncourt after one of those performances, with the Heinz Spoerli Zürich ballet company dancing the complete ballet and music performed by Concentus Musicus Wien, would be able to echo Camus sentiment: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”…
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