He has been orchestra director here before: around the turn of the millennium, Thomas Schmidt-Ott – a trained cellist and a doctorate in cultural management – worked for the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin during the era of chief conductor Kent Nagano. He then went to Bayerischer Rundfunk. But because he always wanted to experience more than Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Co., he joined the start-up of a completely different company in 2008: “TUI Cruises”. He developed the cultural and entertainment program for this newcomer to the cruise industry, was instrumental in the construction of theatres, concert halls and clubs on the new ships and produced Broadway-style shows.
For 14 years, Schmidt-Ott was head of programming at “TUI Cruises” while the cruise market was booming. Artists of all genres came on board for events: the Vienna Philharmonic with Christian Thielemann, the Wacken Open Air with world-famous metal bands. And then came the Corona crisis. The pleasure boats were shut down on speech – at the same time the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin was urgently looking for support because there was a change in management.
From classic to the cruise industry and back
Thomas Schmidt-Ott accepted the invitation of his old employer as an interim consultant. But it wasn’t long before chief conductor Robin Ticciati asked him if he would like to become DSO orchestra director for the second time. After careful consideration, he agreed – and was immediately confronted with the task of organizing the move of the DSO to the ICC. Because the orchestra’s traditional rehearsal hall on the RBB site on Masurenallee was to make way for Patricia Schlesinger’s media house project. The orchestra has set itself up temporarily in the congress spaceship, the rental contract only runs for two years.
In addition to the traditional subscription series in the Philharmonie, this season Schmidt-Ott has its own scent brand with the series “The Art of UnFuge”, in which DSO musicians perform with well-known cabaret artists in the Steglitz Schlossparktheater. The series with stars like Mathias Richling or Torsten Sträter is sold out. It will be similar, according to Schmidt-Ott’s forecast, with the project “Beautiful Sounds”: Together with Radioeins music director Anja Caspary, the DSO team developed a new live format under the aegis of Rammstein orchestrator Sven Helbig.
The years in the entertainment business have changed Thomas Schmidt-Ott’s view of the established classical music business in Germany. He fears nothing more than that classic music will develop in the direction of a “bubble”. “Our cultural mission must be a cultural enthusiasm mission,” he thinks, and for years he has seen the wrong priorities: “We convey culture, we explain cultural contexts, musical, aesthetic facts. We educate. Education is a top priority in many houses.” However, the most important thing is all too often neglected: “Having fun with it, emotionalizing it.”
The aim of all efforts must not be to educate, but to touch, surprise and enchant. “The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester has to exceed the expectations of its audience at every concert,” postulates Schmidt-Ott. And then talks about his neighbor, a Berlin brewer who would never go to a classical concert. His argument: It’s far too boring for me. “We have to reach people with this attitude and convince them otherwise,” says Schmidt-Ott. “And that just doesn’t work with the explanation of what is in Beethoven’s Heiligenstätter Testament. I’m more of a rock’n’roller: That only works if going to a concert with us is an emotionally strong experience.”
The 57-year-old likes to provoke – and is not afraid to mess with the veterans in the industry. “Regardless of whether it’s Karlheinz Stockhausen or Ludovico Einaudi, György Kurtag or Udo Lindenberg: any music that touches people is good music,” he says. And that’s why I can very well imagine an evening in the Philharmonie, where a musical meditation by the neo-classic Einaudi is played before Anton Bruckner’s 9th symphony. “I know for sure – and I’m completely relaxed about it – that many purists turn away with horror at this idea.”
But an orchestra like the DSO in particular has to strive for a pioneering role when it comes to reaching completely new audiences with new ideas and works. We’re more of a kind of E-Lamborghini, if there is one at all: innovative, lively, incredibly agile and always a trendsetter.”
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