For the next few weeks, I will be traveling back and forth to Stuttgart, Germany, where I am serving on the jury of a triennial lieder (classical song) competition. The contest is the brainchild of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie, directed by the pianist and accompanist Hartmut Höll. Among his other accomplishments, Höll was the longtime accompanist in concerts and on CD’s of the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Among the other jurors is Japanese-born mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai, known as the “Maria Callas of classical song,” whose CD’s with Höll of music by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms on the excellent small record label Capriccio are among the most exciting in recent decades. Shirai’s stark emotional expressivity and Höll’s spiky, freewheeling playing, and the way both performers yield to one another, all make for a fascinating dialogue that sets the bar high for younger contestants.
It will also be intriguing to see how the 44 piano-vocal teams from 25 countries, including China, Brazil, and Israel, fare (the finale is not until October 8, so stay tuned). Meanwhile, Stuttgart, which I last visited a decade ago, continues to grow as a bustling business town, focused on Neue Messe Stuttgart, its vast new Trade Fair Center. There is a new Mercedes Benz Museum, and next fall it will be joined by a Porsche Museum. When I was last in Stuttgart in the 1990’s, I was presented to the town’s then-mayor, a nattily attired elderly gentleman who stuck out his hand and said, “Rommel.” Turned out it was Manfred Rommel, son of the notorious “Desert Fox” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who served as Stuttgart mayor from 1974 to 1996, during which time he showed a distinct interest in the local arts scene.
The younger Rommel was succeeded as mayor by Wolfgang Schuster, who, if anything, is even more dedicated to celebrating the arts than was his predecessor. New York’s own Michael Bloomberg allowed Central Park to be defaced in order to promote his friend and dinner guest Christo, creator of the witless “Gates” project (an NYC architect informed me that the full extent of infrastructure damage to Central Park was never made public). By contrast, Stuttgart’s Schuster seems fully aware that he has a serious legacy to protect and promote. No Stuttgart organization pursues this goal more responsibly than the Hugo-Wolf-Akademie, which organizes concerts at local sites of historic resonance, like “Hölderlin’s tower” in nearby Tübingen, where the 18th century poet Friedrich Hölderlin spent the last decades of his life besieged by mental illness.
Not everyone in the Stuttgart region is obsessed with lieder and romantic poetry; pop culture, especially of the American variety, still conquers all in some quarters. Every local newspaper devoted extensive space to reporting the hot news that Peter Falk, TV’s world-famous Columbo, is now 80. Most kids hereabouts are more drawn to Tokio Hotel, an adrogynous boy band led by Bill Kaulitz, than anything by Schumann or Wolf, two composers featured in this year’s lieder contest. Still, Hartmut Höll and his Wolf-Akademie deserve hearty thanks for fighting the good fight for what is humane and permanent in the arts.