On New Year’s Eve, 1991, the Berlin Philharmonic gave its annual New Year’s concert in the city’s Schauspielhaus. The Wall was still fresh in the minds of Berliners from both the former West and East; the two cities had only resorbed as one a little over a year earlier. Under the baton of Claudio Abbado, the program included Beethoven’s incidental music for Goethe’s “Egmont,” with soprano Cheryl Studer and actor Bruno Ganz.

It’s a galvanizing performance: Still with the aura of his starring role in “Wings of Desire,” Ganz alternates as the narrator and Egmont himself. Yet he’s far from the serene angel that he played in Wim Wenders’s 1987 film (at times, his bellowing give us a preview of his role in 2004’s “Downfall”). His fluency with Goethe’s text allows him to cry havoc and let slip the umlauts of Sturm und Drang.

Ganz makes a mountain out of each syllable in lines like: “Dich schließt der Feind von allen Seiten ein! Es blinken Schwerter; Freunde, höhern Mut! Im Rücken habt ihr Eltern, Weiber, Kinder!” (The translation, via American playwright Philip Boehm: “The foes are closing in; I see the flash of swords. Take courage, my friends. Remember, you have parents, wives, and children at your backs.”) His final speech, as Egmont goes to his death, dissolves into Beethovenian fanfare on par with the “Eroica” Symphony. The energy of the 1990s—anxious, voracious, and optimistic—is captured in this performance like lightning in a bottle.

Liev Schreiber, Karen Slack, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Liev Schreiber, Karen Slack, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

While the character himself may in part be a victim of circumstance (nobody expects the Eighty Years’ War), “Egmont” as a performance piece is a champion of circumstance. It resonates even more fully in 2020 with a performance, not from the Berlin Konzerthaus, but from a park bandshell in Hillsdale, New Jersey. Here, under CDC guidelines, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recorded a performance of “Egmont” that will be available to stream for six days via Idagio’s Global Concert Hall, beginning on Saturday, October 17 at 8pm EDT. Separated by more than two centuries from when Beethoven, in the wake of Napoleon’s siege of Vienna, composed his incidental music for Goethe’s politically-charged play, it’s the sort of work that seems to have landed perfectly in the present moment. Spooky action at a social distance.

The finales, however, couldn’t be more different. The rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic’s percussion section is replaced with a quiet pulse from a single snare drum. In the dual role of narrator and Egmont, Liev Schreiber reads the same lines in Boehm’s translation, a faithful—yet accessible—rendering of Goethe’s stylized text. But Schreiber’s performance is almost deadpan at times, equal parts Spalding Gray and Kurt Loder. In a world where outrage is our new baseline, it’s no less gripping.

“Egmont” had been planned as part of Orpheus’s season-opening program (titled “Speaking Truth to Power”) at Carnegie Hall, paired with Valerie Coleman’s Maya Angelou–inspired “Phenomenal Women” (not part of the Idagio webcast). As 2020 unfolded from an impeachment inquiry and a pandemic into a full-bodied reckoning of supremacy and systemic oppression, the relevance Goethe’s story of a historical figure resisting foreign oppression became more immediate. As he translated the text, Boehm (who has also translated works by Kafka and Herta Müller) found that the analogies were unavoidable.

Karen Slack records with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Karen Slack records with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

“There is a great deal of fecklessness in contemporary politics,” Boehm says in a Zoom call from his hometown of Houston. “And when you see that in the Senate, when you see people abandoning their personal principles, and [then you read a play about] someone for whom the concept of honor is so important, that would allow himself to be beheaded than to risk any blemish on his honor… Whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t not think about that.” Even though his “Egmont” is not an update (we’re still in the 16th-century Spanish occupation of what are now the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) the subtext is there in the translation, almost from the beginning:

Many wish their rulers nothing but good will, while others hope the current state won’t last … Many just abide the present, keeping still,though in their hearts they’re yearning for the past.

Goethe’s work is, as Schreiber put it on a recent call near his home in New York, “a difficult piece of text.” This is in part due to the style of Sturm und Drang that was prevalent in Goethe’s writing from that era; a style now considered pejorative in contemporary America (16 years later and I still think about Howard Dean and what might have been, were it not for that scream). Boehm boils the challenge down to a very simple-to-ask, not-easy-to-answer question: What did this mean in Goethe’s time, and how can we look for something within the text that will mean the same thing for us in our time?

“There’s a lot of bombast in the original that I tried to get out, but some of it has to be there,” Boehm explains. “The declamation and the idea of declaiming; we didn’t have technology [in Goethe’s time], and so you had to be able to project your voice… I think in the US, we’re so afraid of being melodramatic or overly melodramatic that we sometimes lose the sense of drama when it is called for.”

Part of this challenge was mollified through Schreiber’s performance. As well-known for his stage work as he is for his film and television roles, Schreiber’s naturalist approach to Shakespeare (the English-language equivalent of Goethe), came from a similar place of reconciling past and present, and “understanding how much of the new forms you could inject without losing the power of the verse.” His deliberately understated performance is architected to run perpendicular to Beethoven’s score.

While the text of “Egmont” is a major area of focus, Beethoven’s score, written in the interim between his disillusionment over Napoleon and his isolation under Metternich and the Congress of Vienna, is another key component. “It’s Beethoven who brings us into a world that Goethe sketched out,” says Boehm. “No one’s going to sit through five acts of ‘Egmont’ these days, I think, but they’re going to listen to the music and then reflect, perhaps, on what’s going on.”

Taken as a whole, music and text, “Egmont” presents a problem that is not unfamiliar to audiences in 2020: How do you maintain personal integrity in a morally-bankrupt power structure? “Maybe this is ‘Egmont’’s time,” says soprano Karen Slack, who sings Klärchen in the Orpheus performance. “There is this sacred, hallowed, holy veil around classical music. Which: No more. It can’t be that way anymore.”

Beyond the obvious parallels that can be found between the text of “Egmont” and the sum of all parts associated with the 2020 U.S. election, Slack points out that speaking truth to power is a multi-sided conversation. The themes of “Egmont” ring true even within the classical music industry. Slack herself has been candid about her struggles with navigating that industry as an African-American soprano with a penchant (and talent) for dramatic German repertoire. In a recent conversation with Thomas Hampson, she she shared that she was once cautioned against her preference for singing “the blonder roles,” referring to the heroines of Strauss and Wagner.  

While Slack is “never gonna stop singing Strauss,” she stresses that equity cannot be won without an exhaustive reexamination of canon and repertoire: “We definitely should go back to the masters, but again, there are other masters.” One of the reasons she was initially attracted to Orpheus’s “Egmont” project was that it paired Beethoven’s work with a thematically similar piece not only written by a Black female composer, but also based on the work of a Black female poet.

Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra record Egmont—with CDC measures taken against COVID-19
Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra record Egmont—with CDC measures taken against COVID-19

But the road to justice isn’t as straightforward or navigable as it would seem with a hashtag, a diversity consultant, or a new commission.

“It’s gonna be messy; it’s gonna be inappropriate,” Slack concedes of the individuals, ensembles, and organizations committing and recommitting to inclusion and equity (Slack herself recently joined the Portland Opera as one of two new artistic advisors with this commitment in mind). “At times, I think that those who wanna get it right will be the ones who make the most mistakes, because they’re trying. We have to be patient, and it’s hard to ask someone who you’ve held back to be patient. So there has to be grace on both sides.”

Beyond the organizations, Slack points to the entire ecosystem that supports the classical music industry and their shared responsibility for both speaking truth to power and restructuring those same systems. If agencies aren’t seeking out new talent beyond the usual haunts, she explains, then talent is much more likely to fall through the cracks before ever being considered by an orchestra or opera house. And here, she’s on a roll. “The next thing is the publishers,” she adds. “Partly the reason why we don’t know who these [composers] are is because they don’t get published. And so this music sits in a box in a basement of the great-great granddaughter of whoever… and these masterpieces just die or get thrown in the trash.”

Liev and Orpheus
Liev and Orpheus

The response that Slack is seeing from the next generation of artists fascinates her: “Young musicians are really pissed off with these organizations and these institutions, that they’ve been denied the opportunity to study and to perform these unheard works. They have these vast stories, and I’m finding it very fascinating that these young musicians are like, No, I’m not gonna do the top ten.

At best, it seems self-ironic to then suggest that these young musicians’ energy and actions mirror those of one of the most famous composers in the canon, indeed a composer who helped to codify the canon. But therein lies the cyclical nature of classical music: You always have history at your back. ¶