As the ethereal sounds of Stockhausen’s Sternklang evaporated into a warm summer night’s breeze in Hannover’s Berggarten on Saturday 29 August this year, and a socially-distanced audience of 500 broke into applause, I took stock of what was an extraordinary moment for music-making in what are extraordinary times: 21 musicians assembled from five different countries and three music groups, unified as a single ensemble for over 2.5 hours, all in the midst of an international pandemic.

A contemporary music concert can be a complex affair to organise at the best of times, often involving innovative stage layouts, multiple setup changes and numerous unusual instruments, electronics, lighting and so on. However Stockhausen’s Sternklang calls for nothing short of ripping up the rule book and rethinking the whole concept of a ‘concert’.

Sternklang’s subtitle is ‘Park Music for Five Groups’, revealing two defining characteristics of what is often considered Stockhausen’s seminal work: it is performed in a park, by five ensembles who are dispersed throughout the park. In performance, this creates a truly breath-taking setting, with the audience experiencing other-worldly sounds coming from all around them whilst the sun sets and a canopy of stars reveal themselves above.

For the team behind the scenes, it creates a number of interesting quandaries – from how to keep musicians safe and dry in the Great Outdoors to how to provide power and amplification to five separate stages in a park.

Of course, the musicians need to rehearse together beforehand – and for practicalities this should be an indoor venue. Luckily for us, Hannover is home to Deutsche Messe AG – an enormous conferencing facility (think Birmingham NEC but even bigger). This venue would act as our rehearsal venue, and as the poor weather alternative to the park, Hannover’s Berggarten. As part of the Deutsche Messe AG complex, there are ‘Pavillions’ which sit under a stunning cathedral-like wooden canopy. We stationed ourselves at this venue for three days of rehearsals.

Four of the five groups were inside a pavilion building – each about the size of a sports hall, with Nordic Voices (a quartet of singers from Oslo) and our percussionist Julian (who acts as a unifying central point between all ensembles) outside, under the lofty canopy. Julian’s percussion setup includes an enormous Tam-Tam, which stands over 2m tall when suspended from its stand – and is particularly susceptible to gusts of wind.

In spite of ominous predictions on my weather app, the first two days were almost too good to be true – long warm afternoons of golden sunshine and clear skies. On the third day, Wednesday (the day we needed to make a decision about whether or not to move everything to the park), the remnants of Storm Francis battered the Pavillions making it too dangerous to rehearse outside. In fact, when we arrived on the Wednesday morning, the wind had blown over the small tent that had sheltered Nordic Voices! Ever-resourceful, we managed to continue rehearsals with a much smaller Tam-Tam indoors, and Nordic Voices brought into a foyer space, but weren’t sure if it would be possible to move to the park.

Ever the optimist, at the end of the day’s rehearsals, Artistic Director Stephan Meier brought everyone together and casually stated ‘and of course, we are rehearsing at the Berggarten tomorrow’! A decision made, we hastily checked our weather apps – fine in the morning, a bit wet on Thursday evening, torrential rain on Friday, sunshine on Saturday (the day of the performance).

Lo and behold, on waking, a day of bright sunshine welcomed us to Hannover’s stunning gardens on Thursday.

The gardens, still open to the public, were a hive of activity – covered stages had already been erected, but there were numerous flight cases and boxes of equipment, chairs and cabling, tables and lights to bring in. The Berggarten’s paths didn’t allow for our trucks to drive into the gardens themselves, so a forklift truck was employed to move everything very carefully into position. 

The power sources were connected, the speakers lifted into position and finally, we were able to make music, outdoors, at the park. I had to pinch myself as we started out first dry-run that evening. It was really happening!

On Thursday evening we had the devastating news that, because the Norwegian government had reclassified Germany as a ‘red’ country, Nordic Voices needed to fly back to Oslo early on Friday. Friday also turned out to be another stunning, sun-drenched day (how we were so lucky, I will never know). Throughout the day, the German technical team and our Sound Designers worked on a solution to have Nordic Voices with us virtually – the deadline was 7.30pm which was when the second run-through was to begin. It seemed unlikely to be possible until, at 7.20pm, Stephan and Nordic Voices waved to one another via live link, Nordic Voices beamed to a TV screen placed in front of the chairs they’d sat in just the evening before.

Saturday was another glorious day and, after Stephan had been interviewed for the West Midlands Weekender via my own shaky mobile-phone handiwork, we welcomed a limited audience of 500 into the gardens. To see our musicians finally, finally, performing in front of a live audience was something to behold.

Of course, a common thread running through our production was the conditions and uncertainty placed on us because of the pandemic. In March, we had to postpone what would have been our first Sternklang performance due to the lockdowns across Europe. By June, we had been able to confirm that, if travel was possible, we would be able to proceed with a Hannover performance in late August. By late July, BCMG musicians were back rehearsing in CBSO Centre with carefully implemented precautions such as temperature checks at the start of rehearsals to make sure we didn’t have COVID symptoms, a thorough continuous cleaning regime and increased distance and ventilation of the rehearsal space. We had originally planned to travel by rail, but just as we were preparing to purchase tickets, Belgium went back on to the UK’s quarantine list. So instead, we booked flights, with one group from Birmingham and another from London. The group in Birmingham were to transfer in Amsterdam – and just days after booking, the Netherlands also went on the dreaded list, so we had to rebook via a rather unconventional route through Munich. We supplied everyone with medical grade masks, and I spent countless hours poring over Airline, Rail and Tram regulations to ensure that our musicians would always be as safe as could be given the circumstances. In Germany, we provided everyone with COVID-secure separately packed meals (so people didn’t need to rely on eating out in public places), untold quantities of gloves and hand sanitiser.

And yet, in all the adversity, music shone through. BCMG’s musicians Julian, Patricia, James, Kyle, Uli, James, Lore, Bridget, David, Tony and Sean, joined with colleagues from across Europe to perform a piece of music that represents nothing less than the universe itself. ‘Star sounds’ which hover mystically, transport themselves from musician to musician, group to group and from ensemble to audience.

It was an enormous privilege to support this project in my role, and to work alongside Stephan, Sarah, Julia, Wolfgang, Willi and all those others, too numerous to name, who brought about the success of the project.

Now, we just have to do it all again for more audiences in other cities – watch this space!