Walking from Cologne’s Ludwig Museum of Modern Art to the Hohenzollernbrücke (which gates are covered with love-locks all the way to the other side of the Rhine), you pass a square that is strictly guarded by staff wearing yellow vests. This square turns out to be the roof of the underground Kölner Philharmonie. Between 29 April and 8 May, after two years of silence, the Acht Brücken Festival (Eight Bridges Festival) takes place again in Cologne. This year’s theme is ‘Musik der Zeit’, (Music of the Time) and the Kölner Philharmonie has two female composers on its programme: Sofia Gubaidulina and Liza Lim. The concerts are broadcast live by both the WDR and the BBC.

Sofia Gubaidulina
Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina, born in Russia in 1931, now living in Germany, composed Stimmen … verstummen…  (‘Voices … silence…’) in 1986. The announcement: ‘Tonight we honour the Russian culture, not a dictator’ generates a heartfelt applause from the three-quarters filled house. The twelve-movement symphony is an intriguing dialogue between the organ and the symphony orchestra. Drums and percussion play an important part in this 35-minute work. After several orchestral sound explosions, silence descends on the stage in part nine. The conductor performs a pantomime in which, at his signal, only the timpani make some sounds. Finally, the orchestra concludes in heavenly harmony.

Then the music critic Eleonore Büning takes the stage. On behalf of 160 colleagues, she presents the prize for the album of the year: Vertigo by Christophe Bertrand, performed by the WDR Symphony Orchestra. Bertrand’s parents are present to receive the prize on behalf of the composer who took his own life in 2010 at the age of 31.

Emily Hindrichs, Liza Lim, Cristian Macelaru en WDR Sinfonieorchester
Emily Hindrichs, Liza Lim, Cristian Macelaru en WDR Sinfonieorchester

After the interval, the newly completed work Annunciation Triptych by the Australian composer Liza Lim (1966) is premiered. For her three-part work, Lim was inspired by three icons of feminine spirituality: Sappho, Maria and Fatima. In the second part, the heartbeat of Maria’s unborn child is its central motif. In part three, the American soprano Emily Hinrichs walks from her seat in the audience to the stage. She sings the words by Sebastian Viebahn:

 She moved through crowds

like a bunch of flowers.

Breathless was I like a young mare

she was a light-wave through my hands.

Nations were at war

and men fallling faster than

leaves on that Indian summer,

but she was the beginning of the day.

flowers do not grow on rifles

believe me they rise and never bend.

They use colours as we use words.

Following conductor Cristian Macelaru’s instructions the audience sings along wordlessly in a unity that can only be found in art.