Off to Bamberg

20-22. Januar 2017

Having spent a year studying at Würzburg University in Franconia, northern Bavaria, it is always a pleasure to return to the south of Germany.  And so being sent by work to Bamberg, another lovely Franconian town about 100km east of Würzburg and 4.5 train hours from Berlin, seemed like a pretty good deal.

A city of 70,000 inhabitants, Bamberg is spread over seven hills, which has led to it being nicknamed the “Franconian Rome”.  Much of the historic centre is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and under beautiful blue skies, shining sun and a crisp carpet of snow, it was definitely not leaving any room for doubt of its worthiness of such a tag. Klein Venedig  (“Little Venice”) is particularly attractive, a row of half-timbered fishermen’s houses from the 19th century along one bank of the river Regnitz. I also like story of the Altes Rathaus: legend has it that the bishop didn’t grant the citizens of Bamberg any land for the construction of a town hall.  This prompted the townspeople to ram huge wooden beams into the bed and build their town hall there, creating an artificial island. The Old Town Hall is painted with really impressive frescoes and 3D trompe d’oeil effects – unfortunately I didn’t take any photos so you will just have to take my word for it.

One of the things that Bambergers are extremely proud of is their resident orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony. This is proven by the fact that an impressive 10% of the city’s population have a subscription to the orchestra’s local concert series!  Far from being a mere provincial ensemble, the Bamberg Symphony is one of the most-travelled orchestras in Germany.  Their recent tour to the USA reminded me of the Jesus College Cambridge Chapel Choir trip a few years ago, where the choristers nearly didn’t make it back in time for Christmas due to uncooperative weather.  I missed out on this tour as I was…on my year abroad in Würzburg.

The Bamberg Symphony also founded the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, the first winner of which was the then-unknown Gustavo Dudamel in 2004, now world-famous, not least for his involvement with the Venezuelan music education programme El Sistema.  He is also the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic and on 1st January 2017 was the youngest-ever conductor to lead the Vienna Philharmonic’s famous New Year’s Day Concert (he is 35).

Jakub Hrůša
Jakub Hrůša

The Bamberg Symphony also has a young conductor: in September 2016, 35-year-old Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša took over the position of Chief Conductor from Jonathan Nott.  Consequently, the orchestra has been celebrating a return to its Czech roots: the orchestra was formed in 1946, mainly from Germans who had been expelled from Czechoslovakia, previously members of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague.  Over the years, the Bamberg Symphony has often been recognised for its “Bohemian sound”.   Perhaps fittingly, their first recording with Jakub Hrůša is a (superb) interpretation of Smetana’s Má Vlast.

Some of you may be interested in reading this Q&A with Jakub Hrůša, recently published by The Arts Desk.

The concert on Saturday evening was fantastic, but to avoid boring those of you who have already found this post too long, there will be more on that later.  Sunday featured a guided tour of the town, a long-overdue catch up with one of my Cambridge contemporaries, who is currently studying a Masters degree at Bamberg University, and a long train journey back to Berlin after a lovely weekend.

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