In May 2022, a great event in honor of Josef Ganz took place in Bern/Switzerland, the concert “Über ds Chrüz” with Swiss blues singer Philipp Fankhauser, composer and conductor Sebastian Schwab, british conductor, organist and pianist Wayne Marshall and the Bern Symphony Orchestra. A world-class event – and Josef Ganz right in the middle of it.
With the kind permission of the Casino Bern, we can publish an excerpt from the program booklet, translated into English. First we go more in depth about the concert, then we present the interview with Philipp Fankhauser and Sebastian Schwab.
About the Concert
Tonight the paths of artists cross, who otherwise rarely or never meet in their everyday life on stage. Classical symphony orchestra meets blues music! The first concert experiment of this kind with Lo & Leduc has already shown that such a meeting of seemingly incompatible styles has the potential for new and rousing sound energies. Bühnen Bern and Casino Bern are continuing the idea as a series.
Philipp Fankhauser, one of the internationally best-known Swiss blues musicians, met with his band the Bern Symphony Orchestra. Wayne Marshall, until recently chief conductor of the WDR-Funkhausorchesters and well known in Bern for his inspiring interpretations of the music of Gershwin and Bernstein, was conducting. As a blues and jazz specialist, he brought with him the best prerequisites for this daring experiment. When blues and classical music meet, both should have their say: Fankhauser’s songs, newly arranged for band and symphony orchestra by Sebastian Schwab, were at the center of the program, as are two compositions by George Gershwin. The 20-minute orchestral work “An American in Paris” and the overture to “Strike Up the Band”, a landmark in the history of the Broadway musical, let us hear that a “classical” symphony orchestra is capable of groove, swing, coolness, blues romanticism and the most wonderful shades of humor.
World premiere with Josef Ganz
The collaboration between classical music and blues was crowned with the premiere of a joint work created especially for “Über ds Chrüz” by Philipp Fankhauser and Sebastian Schwab. “Ode to Josef Ganz – the forgotten Jewish engineer behind Hitler’s Volkswagen” is about the life and work of the car designer Josef Ganz, who since the 1920s was highly committed to the idea of the “small car for everyone”. He coined the name (May) Beetle and owned numerous patents until he had to flee to Switzerland due to political developments and later emigrate to Australia. Josef Ganz died impoverished at the other end of the world in 1967. It was not until 2002 that the Dutchman Paul Schilperoord discovered his archive in Melbourne. Sebastian Schwab translates the motifs of this story into orchestral music, with Philipp Fankhauser as narrator inserting selected texts on the life of the car designer.
Interview Philipp Fankhauser and Sebastian Schwab
@Fankhauser: How did the historical figure of Josef Ganz find his way into “Über ds Chrüz”? Who was he, and what connects you to him?
Rather by chance, I came across the film “Ganz – How I lost my Beetle” by Suzanne Raes, at the end of 2020. And because, as a descendant of a Jewish grandfather from Nuremberg, I am very familiar with the subject of National Socialism, Josef Ganz’s life story deeply shook me and set my strong sense of justice ablaze. There are also certain parallels to blues music: Elvis Presley’s steep rise was based on the composition “That’s Alright Mama”. The author, the blues musician Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, however, only received a vanishing fraction of the royalties due to him after many years. Or the song “Sweet Home Chicago” was written by the Blues Brothers, one hears from time to time. No, it was written by Robert Johnson. To whom honor is due, that is what I stand up for.
The fact that this ode came about at all is, to a certain extent, due to the pandemic. The concerts were originally planned for May 2020, long before I saw the film. At that time, in winter 2019/2020, it was my intention to write a song of praise for Bern together with Sebastian. That would probably have made an ode, too.
@Fankhauser: An ode is a very old musical form, it goes back to ancient tragedy. At the same time, the word initially simply means “song”. But an ode to anyone can be more than a song. What was your initial idea for the “Ode to Josef Ganz”? Are there any other odes among your songs?
After you asked me this question, I called Sebastian Schwab to ask his opinion about the word “ode”. To me, ode sounds like “song of praise”, “bowing to” or even “song for”. Sebastian also understood the word in this way, especially Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, and together we decided that our bow to Josef Ganz should be an ode. The story is a true tragedy anyway, and thanks to Sebastian Schwab’s music, it is also a song. As to the text of the ode: I have refrained from writing my own text; that did not seem appropriate to me. On the other hand, I will read historical text passages and anecdotes from the life of Josef Ganz, based on texts written by Suzanne Raes and Paul Schilperoord, to the music of Sebastian. Truly an experiment, and I have great respect, not to say some jitters, for it!
@Schwab: What musical form do you have in mind when you hear this story?
The piece begins with muffled beats of the bass drum breaking the silence. I imagined the heartbeat of Josef Ganz at the moment when he realized that he had been completely robbed of his intellectual property. After that I wanted to compose emotional emptiness and despair. Phrases lead to nothing, longing is not fulfilled. About it text by and about Josef Ganz, as Philipp described. These melodramatic parts alternate with the folk song “Maikäfer, flieg” in various variations. A song that evokes associations: to the VW Beetle, to wartime, to the children’s song “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf” – symbolic of the inventor’s “fatherly” love for his car.
@Schwab: You had also arranged the songs of Lo & Leduc for the first edition of “Über ds Chrüz” for the Bern Symphony Orchestra. What is different now when you work with the timbres of a blues band?
Lo & Leduc have their origins in hip-hop. Their music is designed to form the framework for the rapped lyrics. That’s why I had to think structurally for the orchestral arrangements, the beats are straight and stable. With Philipp, in the blues, it’s different: the music thinks from the melody line, its rhythm is softer, laid-back, what we like to call “groove.” So I have to think mainly the arcs between the phrases. With Lo & Leduc the sound had to be edgier, with Philipp more palatable. Both have their great appeal and their own charm.
@Fankhauser: Is “Über ds Chrüz” the first time for you to combine your music with the sound of a classical orchestra? What do you expect from this experiment?
Thirty years ago I had the honor to perform a song together with my band, a chamber orchestra and the great pianist Michael Studer in Thun, on the occasion of the festivities for the renovation of the paddle steamer “Blüemlisalp”. Unfortunately there is no recording of it. With great anticipation and also a certain tension I await the two concert evenings in the Casino Bern. Performing with Wayne Marshall and the BSO is a great honor for me and I am firmly convinced that this blues classic will sound quite exquisite.