They came all the way from the Baltic States, where they are currently shooting the sequel to the RTL series “Sisi”. Dominique Davenport and Jannik Schümann play the Austrian empress and her “little ones”, as Franz Joseph I calls himself in his letters. Now they are sitting on the stage of the Max-Littmann-Saal and reading from the correspondence of the famous couple.
The program of the “Kissinger Sommer” revolves around the k. u.k. Cultural space, “Vienna – Budapest – Prague – Bad Kissingen” is the motto. In its heyday, the spa town attracted the sick and the rich from all over Europe. Sisi was a guest six times, Bismarck came regularly, the nobility, the upper classes, but also artists such as Rossini, Fontane, Max Liebermann and Richard Strauss.
Nowadays, the clientele is no longer so sophisticated, but the big names in classical music come to the summer festival. The Wiener Symphoniker are playing this evening. Then director Alexander Steinbeis comes on stage and invites you to a reading by Dominique Davenport and Jannik Schümann, which is a bonus.
Nevertheless, a good half of the spectators left the hall. Maybe they’re fed up after the heavy program with German romance, maybe it’s too late for them – in Kissingen people go to bed early, even the kebab shops close at 9 p.m. Maybe the names of the RTL series stars don’t tell you anything either.
The “Sisi” episodes each had up to 2.5 million viewers when they were broadcast in December 2021. If the director had scheduled the reading as a separate event and advertised it at the region’s high schools and on social media, the young people who the classical music organizers are looking at with longing would probably have run into him.
Steinbeis wants to modernize the “Kissinger Sommer”, which was founded in 1986. And he wants to get closer to the audience. But without pandering, without compromising on the seriousness of the content. His concerts are traditionally designed for visitors who get involved with the works and performers. And these guests come too. After Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn, the Dutch pianists Lucas and Arthur Jussen also play Igor Stravinsky’s scandalous ballet “Le Sacre du printemps” in the ludicrously difficult version for two pianos, which sounds so radically modern as if the work had not been composed in 1913 , but yesterday. Lucas then turns to the hall and thanks the audience for their concentration. That was felt in a blissful way while playing.
Alexander Steinbeis is happy to receive such guests in Kissingen, but the former orchestra director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin wants to attract other target groups. He makes them free introductory offers, such as the series of talks “Have a coffee with…!”, which he moderates himself. So communication is a top priority. It’s not a crowd that comes to talk with the Czech Philharmonic’s young conductor Petr Popelka in the morning after the Czech Philharmonic’s guest performance, but those sitting in the White Hall of the Regent’s Building are curious and ask questions.
Another novelty introduced by Steinbeis are the free Prélude concerts. They take place at changing locations, in the open air, in order to reach as many random listeners as possible. During their afternoon performance in front of the casino, the professionals from Prague stoically play against the persistent ringing of bells and the pop music background noise of the nearby “Strandbad” bar on the banks of the Saale. Still, many stop and listen for a while.
The next day, at the prelude of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra on the Altenberg, even 70 interested people did not shy away from the steep climb to the Sisi monument. To the dismay of her entourage, the Empress loved to leave the Kurpark to climb up here. The view over the city and the lovely landscape of Lower Franconia on the south-eastern edge of the Rhön is a real reward.
The greatest trump card when courting cultural tourists is of an architectural nature. The Neo-Renaissance-style colonnades, which provide Italian flair even on gray days, date from the 1830s, and the elegant ensemble as it is today was created by Max Littmann in the beginning of the 20th century. He had just earned his first merits in Munich with the Prinzregententheater when he was commissioned in 1904 to build a stage for Bad Kissingen. His Kurtheater has survived the passage of time unscathed, and is especially impressive inside with the fabric-covered walls with the silver Art Nouveau pattern on a green background and the ceiling painting with the “Cranes of Ibycus”.
Littmann shaped stage construction in Germany like no other. The Stuttgart Opera House came from him, democratically conceived, box-free temples to the Muses in Weimar, Posen, Hildesheim, Neustrelitz and the first Schiller Theater in Charlottenburg, which was destroyed in the war. For the 22,000-inhabitant community of Kissingen, he created two concert halls that even metropolises can envy the spa town for. He turned the old conversation hall into an ideal place for chamber music with 340 seats after his 2640 square meter foyer opened in 1911, a light-flooded basilica for drinkers of medicinal water.
In 1913, the 1,160-seat hall for orchestral concerts was added, playing eclectic baroque forms on the outside and in the foyers, while the interior is completely clad in cherry wood, from the coffered ceiling to the walls decorated with fine ebony inlays to the creaking parquet floor. The semicircular stage is unusual, the chandeliers are exquisite, with their many crystal chains and colored glass fringes, they look like they were made for Charleston dancers.
The hall named after Littmann is one that “sounds by itself”, as singer Waltraud Meier enthuses. The acoustics are very present, they almost jump at the audience – which is conducive to attention. Alexander Steinbeis was therefore able to present great artists such as the cellist Alban Gerhardt, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya or the conductor Joana Mallwitz in his first season. The opening concert with soprano Annette Dasch and the HR Symphony Orchestra can be found on “Arte Concert”. On the festival’s YouTube channel, for example, there are Kent Nagano and the DSO, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra.