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A source of pride for a depressed Ruhr town: The Bochum Symphony Orchestra with its musical director Steven Sloane (photograph by Christoph Fein)

In the thick of the biggest European migration since the 1940s, with nuclear powers playing Russian roulette in Syrian skies, a Labour leader who wants to drop our defences and a Europe that is rebuilding its borders, the act of writing about music can seem futile, if not positively escapist. What benefit is there in contemplating the work of composers, the merits of interpreters and the putative meaning of black notes that fly in and above five stave lines like crows at the dawn of Armageddon?

In times of crisis we are enjoined to keep calm and carry on. But carrying on is the hardest thing to do when there is no correlation between the overriding abnormality and our concentrated preoccupation with very small things. What, in a word, is the point?

I am writing this paragraph in Germany, a land wary of abnormality, in a Ruhr town that has lost its coal, steel, and lately its car production. I am here for the 80th birthday concerts of an Israeli composer, Noam Sheriff, and the 50th anniversary of German-Israeli relations, itself a courageous act by two states to address past abnormality with civil discourse. The town of Bochum, pop. 365,000 and falling, is an unlikely place to celebrate anything. Depression clouds streets of discount shops and kebab houses.

The Ruhr University of Bochum is a showcase of 1960s concrete brutalism that makes London’s South Bank look positively Palladian; it is said to have the nation’s highest student suicide rate. The university concert hall is decked out in a vomitorium shade of Agent Orange crossed with Hare Krishna, and acoustics to match. Bochum, at first sight, has nothing to commend it.

Apart, that is, from a symphony orchestra of the highest quality, led by the Lucerne Festival concertmaster Raphael Christ and conducted for the past 20 years by Steven Sloane, formerly music director of Opera North, in Leeds. Identifying the orchestra as a source of pride, Bochum, nearly bankrupt, has grasped music as a means of salvation. Sloane, the orchestra’s executive director as well as its chief conductor, persuaded the town to let him build a new concert hall and then called on its citizens to help. Out of a budget of €35 million, half has been donated by individuals, in gifts from €5 upwards. 

The hall is being constructed around a mid-19th-century church, its deconsecrated nave offering a long corridor of light in ambient gloom. Every gifted euro cent, every inch of space, is being made to count. Teaching and rehearsal studios occupy the peripheral rooms. When it opens next summer, there will be music in the hall from morning to night, all year round. The contrast with Simon Rattle’s half-baked plan for a half-billion pound vanity hall in the City of London could hardly be more pronounced. As London looks to its bankers, Bochum looks to its bootstraps. No question which has a better understanding of the value of music in an age of uncertainty.

Uncertainty, anxiety, call it what you will: that age has been the lifespan of Noam Sheriff, a composer born into a land without music and a language that was being reinvented from scripture. Mother-tongue is the primary resource of every writer and musician; Sheriff is of a generation whose language is not maternal but sui generis

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Jeffrey Levenson
November 7th, 2015
2:11 AM
Spot on Norman!

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