The choirs are back in Bonn Minster

DOMRADIO.DE: The church room has been usable again since November. Take us with you to the Minster. How does it look now compared to before the renovation?

Markus Karas (regional and minster cantor at Bonn Minster): Anyone who witnessed the earthquake in 1992 in Bonn Minster, like me, knows that from then on there were not only cracks in the vault, but there were real shifts in the vault, one has to say. As a result, stones broke out of the vault and fell into the church, which made it necessary to close it.

You can’t see any of that anymore. A lot of plaster was removed and reapplied. That just looks fantastic. It’s probably exactly how it was done in the 1980’s color scheme. But the big difference is that we have completely new lighting technology. This means that the light now falls from the ceiling and gives the cathedral a completely different color scheme and, above all, height. The hanging chandeliers didn’t achieve this before, but there was always something cozy about it, but this radiant brightness, which we now have thanks to the new lighting technology, gives the building a whole new grandeur.

Markus Karas

“This radiant brightness, which we now have thanks to the new lighting technology, gives the building a whole new grandeur.”

And what is also completely new with regard to the renovated altars is that the alabaster altars have been cleaned using a new type of laser technology in such a way that one has the impression that 400-year-old altars are no more than four years old. It’s unbelievable, the sharp contours that were not only worked out, but of course patina and candle soot, everything is gone and it looks fantastic, just wonderful!

Well, everyone should find this way into the Minster to see this splendor of colors, especially in the high choir, which is almost completely painted with a double fresco frieze of Old and New Testament pictures – that’s incredibly great, including the apse, of course -Mosaic with the Pantocrator dominating the whole church when looking to the front. Great!

DOMRADIO.DE: And not only does it look great on the inside, it sounds great too. I’m alluding to the organ, because you didn’t just simply expand it, you also expanded it. Take us with you. How does the organ sound now?

Karas: Yes, at the three concerts that we held in May on the occasion of the reopening and, above all, the inauguration of the organ, we read in the newspaper that the organ now sounds more robust, fresher and even more balanced – that’s how it is thus described by a proven critic. And that’s it. The fact is that the flutes in particular now have an unbelievably beautiful, round sound over the entire keyboard thanks to their cleaning. And, of course, the new celesta is not just a listener, but a register, which enriches the organ’s sound palette with a facet that was missing.

DOMRADIO.DE: Perhaps you need to explain the celesta to us as a register on the organ…

Karas: So anyone who knows Harry Potter films knows that the theme is played by the celesta at the beginning. But of course you can also go into classical music, whether that’s in Mozart’s Magic Flute or the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, that’s the celesta, it’s like a piano, usually with keys. However, it is not strings that are struck with the felt hammers, but small metal plates. So you can call it a metallophone.

The technology is basically the same now in the organ, except that we don’t have the keys directly on the register, which is high up in threshold B and is therefore also variable in volume, but these felt hammers are then made whole via electrical contacts Struck just like the regular celesta and it’s an enchanting sound. It can perhaps be described as a glass harmonica, but it is exactly a metallophone with a rather extensive tonal range. Really great

And we also have a cimbalom star! It not only enriches the whole thing in terms of sound. We have now been in Sankt Remigius for four years and there are two cimbalom stars on the organ. And so it can’t be that we go back to the Münster and don’t have a star. Luckily I could convince everyone involved that we need it too. And above all, it also visually fills a triangular “hole” designed as a sun.

This resulted from the arrangement of the pipes in the substation. It was always a bit black. And apart from that, the cathedral organ is so beautiful with its fantastically designed prospectus with the many, many figures by Manfred Saul that this black hole was, I would say, a real small deficiency. This is now filled with the Zimbel-Stern, not only acoustically but also visually. Wonderful!

DOMRADIO.DE: Then let’s take a look at the four choirs at your place in Bonn Cathedral. Are they in Münster somewhere else, have they got new platforms or hasn’t that much changed at all?

Karas: So we only have a new covering on the gallery. After the experience of Sankt Remigius, where we sang a lot during the renovation, I strongly advocated a robust carpet. And now we have that too. And fortunately he didn’t swallow anything acoustically negative in any way – only positive in that you can no longer hear footsteps or other movements on the gallery. And that’s how it’s very comfortable, firstly it’s quieter now and you can also sit on it without it getting cold right away. And overall I have to say it turned out really nice.

DOMRADIO.DE: How did the choirs actually react to the fact that they were finally able to return to the Bonn Minster after so many years?

Karas: Yes, that was a great pleasure, even if the hospitality in Sankt Remigius was great. The big difference between the two church galleries is that there is a mechanical organ in Sankt Remigius, which means the console is in the middle. And that’s difficult for a conductor, especially when you have instruments with you. You always end up standing a bit too much on one side and thereby lose contact with the half of the choir standing on the other side.

Now in Bonn Minster, where the console is on the right side, we have a lot more space and, above all, the opportunity to place the orchestra in front of it again. For the choirs it was a real “coming home”. Everyone is happy.

DOMRADIO.DE: The choirs not only had to move out and now move in again, but there was the corona pandemic. How is your choral music at the Bonn Minster after this break and especially after Corona?

Karas: We didn’t really take a break. The four ensembles that we have, either alternately or together, continued in the services almost continuously throughout the pandemic. Of course, we sometimes sang very reduced, always corona-compliant, of course, also according to the respective requirements with a mask or with large distances. That’s how we rehearsed. We now had less of the zoom rehearsals, as other choirs have done successfully or at least as a makeshift, but we rehearsed above all in the church room and sang almost continuously.

There was a three-month break with one or the other choir, the Münsterschola took a little longer break, but with the four different ensembles we were able to either make up for it or compensate for it with guest ensembles, which were actually still active, so that it there was really no break at the Bonn Minster or in Sankt Remigius. It went on and on, there were a few services where we actually only sang with soloists. But that was the exception.

DOMRADIO.DE: And how has that affected membership? One hears again and again that some choirs have lost a considerable number of members, others have even gained some. How did that develop for you?

Karas: Well, I wouldn’t be able to sign with the Münster Choirs because we have too many teaching singers and singers who also work in childcare who simply said, out of consideration for the choir members, I’d rather be there for a while away, so that I don’t carry anything to you in the choir.

But fortunately we tended to stagnate and we also had a few newcomers who then helped to keep the stagnation going, so to speak. In this respect, I didn’t exactly get out of the corona pandemic as I entered it, but I have a better-sounding overall apparatus, which I have to say positively.

And that’s simply because the individual choirs had to learn to sing on their own due to the large distances, thereby demanding their voices a little more and also getting more courage, but also a little more practice in this independent singing, of course to get. And that’s a success. And I was also told by a tenor, who always sings as a soloist with us and also works as a church musician in Cologne, that the choir sounds a lot better than before the Corona pandemic. And of course I’m really happy about such feedback.

DOMRADIO.DE: The Minster is open again. What will happen now with church music? Do you think that now after the pandemic things will continue at least as they have been? Or do you see yourself taking new paths with a view to the rest of the year?

Markus Karas

“The choirs are amazingly motivated.”

Karas: Well, the past year was actually denser than ever. In the 43 years that I’ve been working as a church musician, I’ve never had so many church services with a choir or instruments, or parallel additional concerts during Advent, the Christmas season, but also most recently in May and again in August. We won’t be able to keep up like this for long, so my colleague Thiemo Dahmen and I both have to be careful not to overstep our limits and, above all, our strength.

The choirs are surprisingly motivated. I think it’s great how they’ve pulled this program along with them. Also with concerts in Cologne, for example – we were there in the chamber choir concert series on March 20th. Now in the summer there are organ concerts. And otherwise we will set many, many accents again. But not this consistency; every Sunday, every feast day with a choir – we’ll have to slow down a bit so that the engine, which is now running a little hot, doesn’t have to go to the workshop soon!

Mathias Peter conducted the interview.