By Sigurd Neubauer
Thomas Hummel initially wanted to study business, but his father insisted that he first had to devote himself to music and to the viola in particular. Years later, the younger Hummel was eventually able to pursue both when he established the Usedom Music Festival in 1994.
In May, he will be hosting the New York Philharmonic for a residency program which will feature, among others, celebrated German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, legendary American baritone Thomas Hampson and acclaimed Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki.
For Hummel, bringing the New York Philharmonic to Usedom is something he has been planning for a decade. He first discussed it with the orchestra’s legendary maestro, now deceased Kurt Mazur, in 2012, who promptly responded: “Everyone wants the New York Philharmonic,” Hummel recalls.
The timing of the orchestra’s impending arrival comes at a time of great geopolitical upheaval in lieu of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which once again puts the German island of Usedom at the center of unfolding history.
During World War II, research for the development of strategic weapons was carried out on Usedom’s Peenemünde military base. The top-secret military research facility, where Nazi Germany sought to develop advanced rockets, has since been transformed into a museum. In 2020, a concert hall was established on its premises where the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Maestro Jaap van Zweden will be performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s haunting Symphony No. 9.
The symphony, of course, has clear historical connotations to World War II and to the conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The New York Philharmonic will also perform Andre Previn’s violin concerto “Anne-Sophie,” which the late composer and maestro dedicated to his wife, Anne-Sophie Mutter.
For Hummel, symbolism is important. “I wanted to invite the New York Philharmonic to Peenemünde to counter the message of a painting at the museum depicting the bombing of New York City,” he says.
A spokesman for the Historical Technical Museum, Peenemünde, Kai Hampel, explains that no direct link between the painting by Hermann Oberth and a missile attack on New York City during World War II could be established.
Nonetheless, by inviting the New York Philharmonic to Peenemünde, Hummel wants to celebrate peace between Germany and the United States through the performance of classical music at the very military research facility from where the Nazis sought to develop strategic weapons.
“Because of the pandemic, everything was delayed but the decision to host the orchestra was finalized in December 2021,” Hummel reveals. The planning process, however, began when he hired Tanya Dorn, a specialist in music promotion, who helped in November 2018 to secure the orchestra’s commitment to come to Usdeom.
Hummel adds that the Minister President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Manuela Schwesig, had signed off on it as the provincial German government would fund the New York Philharmonic’s visit to Usedom through $1 million grant.
“Schwesig immediately understood the significance of this project and what it represents,” Hummel explains.
While it will be the orchestra’s first international trip since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, few observers, including Hummel, could have predicted in December 2021 the impending Russia-Ukraine war.
Even if history does not always repeat itself, it often rhymes. Germany, once again, finds itself at the forefront of a broader European struggle against Russia, which clearly sets the stage for the New York Philharmonic’s upcoming visit. A parallel to Ley’s painting can also be found as Russian missile attacks are targeting various Ukrainian cities on a nearly daily basis.
A history of the Usedom Music Festival
In a wide-ranging interview with Man & Culture, Hummel describes how he established the Usedom Music Festival in 1994 and how its mission and scope have expanded over the past three decades.
“After the unification of Germany in 1990, there was a new market in the country,” he explains while recalling that he wanted to capitalize on the new opportunities this period in history had ushered in. “It was a very dynamic moment,” Hummel adds while explaining that at the time, the history of Peenemunde was not widely known.
In October 2002, Hummel organized the festival’s first Peenemünde concert which featured legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich as the conductor with the NDR Symphony (today NDR Elbphilharmonic Orchestra) and the BBC Choir.” The festival was founded in 1994.
“The purpose of the inaugural concert was to bring piece and move away from the legacy of World War II, including fighting anti-Semitism,” Humel says. It was also meant to demonstrate the potential of Usedom as a tourist destination in a unified Germany, he adds.
“To establish a music festival of this scale, one has to have patience,” Hummel explains. His vision for the festival was to bring people together, including Germans and Jews, at the island off the Baltic Sea which also links Germany and Poland.
At the inaugural festival, a Jewish-themed program was added when a priest lit a menorah in a local church, Hummel explains. Over the years, starting in 2014, Jewish music along with synagogue visits have been added to the festival program.
In 2009, Hummel established the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. The orchestra, Hummel explains with pride, has developed a specialty where all of its musicians perform by heart, including the maestro who is conducting without a score. “This allows the orchestra to connect better with its audience,” Hummel says.
During the New York Philharmonic’s upcoming visit, selected members of Baltic Sea Philharmonic will be imbedded into the orchestra during the various concerts.
In 2010, Hummel added a literature festival to his programming.
Prior to establishing the Usedom Music Festival, Hummel had worked for various festivals.
He, however, learned his craft early on when he managed the international tours of his composer father, Berthold Hummel, to New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and the United States.
Years later, at the Usedom Music Festival, Hummel is both the music director and general manager, which in German is known as intendant.
When touring with his father, Hummel concluded at the time that “sitting in the orchestra only wasn’t enough for him”.