16th Morgenland Festival Osnabruck

A virtual journey of sound across the Balkans

As a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, the Osnabruck Morgenland Festival took place via YouTube for the first time – transporting us to new cultural regions through music. Marian Brehmer attended several of the virtual concerts

Bells ring and the camera flies, via drone, towards a white monastery canopied by delicate domes, the Danube a streak of blue in the distance. Inside the Serbian Orthodox Vavedenje monastery, singing rings out, a style of singing nearly two thousand years old. Divna Ljubojevic’s ethereal voice echoes, accompanied by the Melodi ensemble, praised by many reviewers as "angelic", resonating throughout the monastery for a good thirty minutes, while the camera pans over flickering candles and gilded icons.

The old recitations of the Eastern Church are just one of the elements of this year’s Morgenland Festival, dedicated this year to the musical traditions of the Balkans. Ljubojevic is a household name in her native Serbia: in the early nineties, the fifty-year-old artist began singing the old Christian liturgies in the Belgrade monastery every Saturday, reviving a musical traditional which had to some extent been forgotten in her home country. Ljubojevic has been teaching choral and church music since the nineties and played a part in the country’s spiritual renaissance following the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Spiritual music, a cappella

The Byzantine anthems represent a deeply spiritual music performed entirely without instruments, drawing attention to the tonal possibilities of the human voice. On this midsummer evening, at the third concert to be held during the Morgenland Festival, the listener feels as if they have travelled back to a distant century, transported instantly to archaic, sacred Ancient Byzantium. Except with all the technological trimmings of a 21st century festival.

Even in early March, it was clear to founder and festival director Michael Dreyer that there would be no possibility of live concerts in June – the traditional ‘Morgenland Month’ in Osnabrcck, Lower Saxony. The festival was in the midst of its final preparations when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and fundamentally changed the life of culture in many parts of the world.

However, despite – or perhaps because of – the pandemic, the organisers were keen to make it possible for all the scheduled musicians to perform, and to get paid. Hardly any group worldwide has been hit so hard by COVID-19 as freelance artists – particularly because in most countries, as in Germany, there has been no financial support for those working freelance in the cultural sector. They opted for an online version of the festival, followed by a slimmed-down live edition, which will take place from 2 - 6 December.

The concept for the online festival saw the musicians create recordings in places which were significant to them, and these were then edited into short films by the festival team. These virtual concerts streamed at 7 pm on the festival’s YouTube channel until 27 June. Around 16,000 viewers tuned in to the festival in its first few days.

From emergency stop gap to unique format

"It started out as something of a stop gap, but I’ve since learnt to really love the online edition," says Dreyer, discussing the new format. Last year, the Morgenland Festival celebrated its 15th year together with an international family of artists and music lovers, which the festival has brought together over the years.

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