The case for contemporary repertoire

German conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens is known for his passion for modern and contemporary repertoire. He tells IAM why orchestras today have a responsibility to programme and record the works of great 20th and 21st century composers

I have felt for a long time that classical music is much greater than the usual 20 pieces we typically hear, which are played all over the place. Of course, we deeply love those masterpieces, but there is more to discover, more of an adventure to be had with this music.

Earlier this year, for instance, I gave the Italian premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Double Concerto and conducted Ravi Shankar’s Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No 2 with the Dresden Philharmonic. These pieces were suggestions by the orchestras in Dresden and Torino, as they know that I am always interested in new discoveries and unusual repertoire. I think you have to be inquisitive as a conductor, and as an artist.

I feel that orchestras today have a responsibility to programme 20th and 21st-century repertoire. Orchestras are not just museums for the great art of the past – though the Mona Lisa, of course, has a place – but must also provide space for modern art too. Art has to live a contemporary life, it is an investment in the future. The modern art of today will become the classics of tomorrow.

A lot of people in arts management think that contemporary music will be a ‘box office killer’, but in my experience, the modern audience is far more advanced than we give them credit for. I believe that we are slowly returning to the old times when people experienced and expected every night at least one new composition. Mozart, Beethoven … they surprised their audience every night with new ideas. We should aspire to do the same.

Of course, there are challenges when taking on this type of repertoire, both for the audience and the musicians. New music needs to be put into context and carefully programmed to make sure it is understood. As for the players, the modern orchestral musician is well educated and everybody is brought up with a lot of contemporary music. The technical skills to play this music are all over Europe, and indeed the rest of the world – they just need to be put to use. Through my work I hope to set an example of how this can be done.

Karl-Heinz Steffens introduces Modern Times, a project which has seen him record the works of Dutilleux, Ginastera, Dallapiccola, Zimmermann and many more with the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. He returns to London’s Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra on 25 March in the dual roles of conductor and soloist. Steffens will conduct an all-Brahms programme including Ein Deutsches Requiem with soprano Elsa Dreisig, baritone Michael Kraus and the Philharmonia Chorus, preceded by the composer’s Clarinet Quintet alongside members of the Philharmonia. Visit Philharmonia’s website for tickets.