Since its premiere in 1986, the Kissinger Sommer has developed into an internationally respected music festival thanks to its high artistic level. It is easy to forget that the original intention was not to provide the world with top musical performances, but that it was primarily economic-political aspects that got the festival off the ground. The former "Weltbad Kissingen" had lost half its hinterland and many cultural contacts due to the division of Germany after the Second World War and its immediate proximity to the Iron Curtain.
The tradition of music making had been torn down, but the magnificent halls were still there and called out for adequate use. It took until 1984 for the then Lord Mayor of Kissingen, Georg Straus, to travel to Bonn with Eduard Lintner, Member of Parliament for the constituency, and a delegation. The catchword was "Zonenrandförderung" – subsidies from the Inner German and Foreign Ministries to strengthen structurally weak communities along the border. For the people of Kissingen, the first priority was to fill an occupancy gap in the hotel industry during the summer months. No one would have thought at the time that this would lead to the birth of an internationally renowned festival.
»Europe in Culture«
But after a rather shy start, it very soon became a model for success. Not only because the visitors and musicians loved the venues and the somewhat dreamy, very personal ambience of the small spa town on the Saale. But also because those responsible had found a founding artistic director in Kari Kahl-Wolfsjäger, who had excellent connections to the international musical elite and did not have to persuade the artists to come to a new festival.
The slogan "Europe in Culture" became the leitmotif.
The slogan "Europe in Culture" became the leitmotif. It was meant to build bridges and open doors at the interface of the two power blocs. A sensible, if not easy task, because dealing with the state agencies of the Eastern Bloc cost nerves. Each year the focus was on a different country: Hungary was followed by Poland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The GDR was included and considered every year.
The encounters of artists from East and West proved to be extraordinarily exciting and not entirely easy; they first had to find a common language after years of isolation. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the festival, now in the middle of Europe, became a meeting place for the musical cultures of East and West. And it became a four-and-a-half-week cultural event.
From Klangwerkstatt to KlavierOlymp
Even if the festival's programmatic emphasis was on the easily sellable music of the Romantic period, the presentation of New Music played an important role. World premieres took place especially in the first years – of course not always to everyone's delight. But there were also chamber music series such as the "KlangWerkstatt" or, since 2006, the unique "LiederWerkstatt". Works of the recent past are also part of the compulsory programme of the six young pianists who are invited to the "Kissinger KlavierOlymp" every autumn. The list of big names who have been guests at the Kissinger Sommer so far reads like a "Gotha of the international music scene". Among the orchestras, something like a hard core has emerged: Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and others. But there were also occasional guests like the Athens State Orchestra or the China Philharmonic Orchestra. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen has acted as the festival orchestra of the Kissinger Sommer for the last five years.
From junior springboard to powder elite
The musical elite also joined hands on the podium, with conductors – and increasingly female conductors in recent years – such as Herbert Blomstedt, Mariss Jansons, Jiří Bělohlávek, Paavo Järvi, Daniel Harding, Andris Nelsons, Christoph Eschenbach, Kent Nagano, Lorin Maazel, Lawrence Foster, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Karina Canellakis or, this year, Joana Mallwitz. Many young artists also started their careers with concerts in Bad Kissingen, such as Frank Peter Zimmermann, Alban Gerhardt, Baiba Skride, Alisa Weilerstein, Igor Levit and Ruth Ziesak. But also the established ones were always happy to join in: Cecilia Bartoli, Grigory Sokolov, Sir András Schiff, Diana Damrau, Lang Lang and many others. Swjatoslaw Richter even cancelled Schleswig-Holstein in 1994 to play in Bad Kissingen. The mixture of established experience and young high talent has worked excellently every year..
The mixture of established experience and young high talent has worked excellently every year.
Of course, there are also names behind these successes. One in particular: Kari Kahl-Wolfsjäger. During her 30-year tenure, she succeeded in positioning the festival internationally with programmes suitable for the masses and attractive musicians for a growing audience, and in making it the city's most important economic factor. On the basis of the tried-and-tested classical and romantic periods, she created offerings from a wide range to the present. Her successor in 2017 was Tilman Schlömp. The musicologist took over the tried and tested, but also introduced new concepts, such as developments and turning points linked to specific years. He also successfully introduced education projects. Schlömp had the great misfortune that Corona destroyed his entire planning for 2020 due to the festival's cancellation. With the programme of the 2022 festival under the motto "Vienna. Budapest. Prague. Bad Kissingen", Alexander Steinbeis took over the reins of the Kissinger Sommer as its third artistic director and brought formats such as free Prélude concerts and the "Symphonic Mob" to Bad Kissingen.
Friends and Partners
To this day, the city of Bad Kissingen is the sponsor and thus the main financier of the festival. In addition to significant funding from the Free State of Bavaria, the District of Lower Franconia and the County of Bad Kissingen, the "Förderverein Kissinger Sommer", which has a large number of members, is the most important individual sponsor. Without the generous support of these friends and partners, the Kissinger Sommer would not be what it is today.