A few weeks before the festivities she talked about her plans for the matinee performance, a new world premiere and her multi-faceted life as a violist, professor and festival director.
The impressive list of musical well-wishers sharing a stage with Tabea Zimmermann at Berlin's Radialsystem on 9 October points to the richness of her professional life. The violist explains: "I may have recorded two CDs with Kirill Gerstein but we've actually performed very little together in concerts. We now have the chance to play together, since he also lives in Berlin. Jörg Widmann is a close friend and we've been playing together for years; as a guest with the Arcanto Quartett or in our trio with Dénes Várjon, with whom we premiered Jörg's trio Es war einmal... ("Once upon a time..."). This long-standing bond is wonderful." Tabea Zimmermann’s commitment to contemporary music is combined with her love of teaching: "Benjamin's Viola, Viola is a very challenging piece that I play every now and again with students, and have been working on with German Tcakulov." She will also perform Dvořák's quintet with the esteemed Armida Quartett – four young musicians with whom she has become good friends. Among them is her former student, Teresa Schwamm: "Teresa is now a colleague and we make music together. A happy coincidence!"
Reflecting on her achievements is not Tabea Zimmermann’s priority as she celebrates her milestone birthday. When she does briefly consider her long career on the stage, the musician is a little amazed, having started viola lessons at the age of three and still becoming "increasingly familiar" with her instrument after 47 years. "Playing, travelling and working have accompanied me throughout my life and it is still a positive experience. I take huge pleasure in making music! There’s no end in sight yet, although in the past I would never have thought I would still be playing the viola at the age of 50." She does not know whether she will still be playing in ten years' time. "In the meantime I can, however, imagine that I will be. Of course health is something to be taken into consideration. I don't feel impaired yet but playing a stringed instrument is such a complex activity that one can surely not carry on in the same way at the age of 80."
Another reason that 50 is a significant number for her is a very personal one: Tabea Zimmermann's first husband, the conductor David Shallon, suddenly passed away shortly before his 50th birthday."Back then we wanted to have a big party but sadly never got round to it. The fact that I'm now passing over this threshold, 16 years later, is of great significance to me."
"So now I'm celebrating", concludes Tabea Zimmermann, adding that she has never done this before. The violist now feels she has been "lucky". "I have received an awful lot in life, from the Lahr Music School, my teachers in Freiburg and Sándor Végh in Salzburg: to my surprise, I've always had support and encouragement. From a very young age, I was told, 'Don't change' and 'Continue like that'. That gives you a decent following wind!" When she says this experience has given her a sense of responsibility, it is not just a cliché; it is the impetus for a whole range of activities. As well as her teaching commitments, which have become ever more important to her, there is her relatively new involvement with the Hindemith Foundation, her appointment as chair of the board of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn and her artistic directorship of the Beethoven-Woche. "I don't believe in big changes from the outside", she explains. "I have observed that in society you can only change things in your own area. For me that has a lot to do with personal contact. I don't like dealing with power structures and hierarchies."
She has increasingly arranged her own musical activities in accordance with this maxim, choosing special musical partnerships. She spent two intensive years as artist in residence with the Ensemble Resonanz, premiering Enno Poppe's viola concerto Filz among other works. The piece was recently performed again at the Musikfest Berlin to great acclaim. "The Ensemble Resonanz is a small group with a democratic attitude that has developed a very strong profile for itself. When I lead a programme with them, I have my own thoughts, but it's not about telling the others what to do. I would rather suggest something that the ensemble just cannot turn down." The collective search for new musical insights is also integral to her teaching. "Everything that I work on with my students comes into my own work and vice versa: the things that I experience during rehearsals and concerts make their way into the classroom the following week. It's a continual growth that I'm really happy about and thankful for."
Will Michael Jarrell's new viola concerto also appear in a lesson in the not too distant future? The score is on Tabea Zimmermann's music stand at home at any rate, but before it can be celebrated, there is the small matter of its world premiere. She describes this exceptionally virtuosic and formally varied work as "practically unplayable but still huge fun. I’ve premiered over 50 compositions so I’m able to enjoy a bit of confidence and hope that everything goes smoothly again.” Laughing, she adds: “But I never know for sure. For all the preparation, practice and tinkering, it only comes together during rehearsals”. This is a process that demands trust and openness from all involved. “My attitude before a world premiere is that I mustn’t judge the piece but rather make it possible for the sounds to be heard.”
Tabea Zimmermann looks to her own future with a similar openness. “The question ‘What next?’ has occupied me since my first competition, when I was asked what I would like to be doing in ten years’ time. I wasn’t and am still not able to give an answer! I'm happy that I didn’t always have everything meticulously planned out. My favourite music is always what is currently on my music stand.”
Nina Rohlfs, 09/2016 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson