Dossier :

Up-to-date yet historical, and open to debate

A silver anniversary for the Collegium Novum Zürich

Moritz Weber - 2018-09-11
Up-to-date yet historical, and open to debate - Collegium Novum Zurich at Tonhalle Maag in 2017 © FrançoisVolpe
Collegium Novum Zurich at Tonhalle Maag in 2017 © FrançoisVolpe
Up-to-date yet historical, and open to debate - Collegium Novum Zurich © Susan Schimert-Ramme
Collegium Novum Zurich © Susan Schimert-Ramme
Up-to-date yet historical, and open to debate - Collegium Novum Zurich in Baden (Switzerland) in 2017
Collegium Novum Zurich in Baden (Switzerland) in 2017

Eight years ago, Jens Schubbe was appointed the executive manager and artistic director of the Collegium Novum Zürich (CNZ). This year, the ensemble is celebrating its 25th anniversary. We’ve been talking with Schubbe about the past, the present and the future of the ensemble.

When you took on the management of the CNZ, your stated aim was to ensure that the CNZ maintained its position on the Zurich concert scene, and that it established itself internationally as one of the best ensembles around for new music. Have you achieved this?

Jens Schubbe: As far as the Zurich scene is concerned: Yes! When it comes to Europe, things are a bit more complicated. The pressure to save money became very tangible after the financial crisis, especially in the field of new music. Here too. And there are more and more specialist ensembles springing up, which makes the struggle all the more intense to get to the top in international terms. That’s why I still see potential for development with regard to our international presence. As far as the level of playing is concerned, we are certainly on a par with the top international ensembles.

25 years ago, the first director of the CNZ, Armin Brunner, was still organising pretty traditional programmes for the CNZ. Given the environment at the time, anything else would have been too risky. Is it easier today to be courageous in your programming?

JS: For me, being courageous doesn’t mean chasing down every new trend. I find it more courageous to keep to your own convictions and to leave aside certain fashions, even if it sometimes means we don’t play at certain festivals. We play music that we’re convinced is good.

Heinz Holliger "Lunea" (2013)


“Innovation, conservation and communication” was and remains the credo of the CNZ. Is this combination of the modern and the very new the ultimate recipe for success in new music?

JS: If you have no history, then you can’t determine your place in the present. We need historicity so that we have a measuring rod to enable us to assess what’s happening today. In some contemporary music events, that gets lost, I find. Both things belong together; you have to present the music of today while keeping history alive.

In recent years, the CNZ has undergone a noticeable rejuvenation process. Several long-term members have left, and younger ones have taken their place. What’s been the impact of this generational shift?

JS: We have been able to get some of the best young musicians of Switzerland to come on board. Exceptional, experienced musicians have also joined us. That certainly hasn’t been detrimental to the quality of the ensemble. It’s also striking that the CNZ has been more open to internal debate. Considerably more programme ideas come from the musicians themselves today.

For example?

JS: Solo concerts are proposed more often, and chamber music. For the latter category, we’ve established the “Sound island” concerts, and the “Bonsai concerts”.

The CNZ at Festival Archipel 2017 © François Volpe


Let’s take a look at the current season: Is every CNZ concert going to have some jubilee aspect to it?

JS: We haven’t organised every concert around the anniversary celebrations; instead, we’ll have a big event on 24 November 2018. There will be various world premières of works by composers from among our ensemble members, and also by other composers with whom we’ve often worked.  

In the programme for this season, I’ve seen the names of many composers whose works have been a particular feature of the CNZ – such as Bernd Alois Zimmermann or Mischa Käser. But where are the women composers?

JS: This time, regrettably, they’ve managed to elude us in different ways. One work that was planned just didn’t get finished; with another, we’re not allowed to perform it when we would have liked; and so on. But apart from this, the CNZ is equally happy to play works by men or women composers.


Let’s take a peek into the future. The CNZ’s last CD was released in 2015. Are you planning any new recordings?

JS: We might be bringing out an anniversary CD in the coming season. We have more or less confirmed a recording with works by the American/Cuban composer Jorge López, with whom we’ve worked several times already. But in general, CD productions are pretty expensive, and the sales are modest. At the same time, we want to keep the works alive that we play. That’s why we are putting more and more live concert recordings on our website. That’s an important way in which we can act sustainably.

Are you planning another “Conductor in Residence” in the future?

JS: Not at the moment, but we’re going to have a kind of “Composer in Residence”. We’re talking about a more intensive collaboration with Martin Jaggi. I would also like the CNZ to become more active in the realm of music theatre. Perhaps we’ll find an opportunity to programme a music theatre production in the coming season.


What do you think about the idea of having a new-music concert hall in Zurich? Many people on the scene would like that, and the Tonhalle Maag is going to be empty again in two years, when the Tonhalle Orchestra moves back to its main hall. Wouldn’t that be an ideal opportunity?

JS: Yes, that would be wonderful! But if the Tonhalle Maag is able to keep going, I fear that the commercial constraints would be too great for the new-music scene to cope. That’s why we’ve already had to reduce our presence in the Tonhalle Maag. Another possibility would be the Zurich Radio Studio, which has a hall that’s ideal in terms of both its acoustics and its size.

The CNZ rehearsing at the Zurich Radio Studio in 2014 with their long term conductor in residence Jonathan Stockhammer.


You are now handing over the executive management of the CNZ, but you’re staying on as artistic director, and at the same time you’re taking on a similar part-time post with the Dresden Philharmonic.

JS: After eight years, I have to admit that working as both the executive manager and the artistic director wears you out. That’s why I proposed to the ensemble that we should devise a different structure in which the economic, organisational and artistic responsibilities are less interwoven.