20 Years of the SAP Symphony Orchestra: From Walldorf to the World-Famous Elbphilharmonie

In 1997, SAP colleagues teamed up to found the SAP Symphony Orchestra. Find out the whole story of humble beginnings, big dreams, and sold-out concert halls.

It all began when Johanna Weitkamp posted a message on SAP’s online bulletin board asking: “Does anyone here play an instrument?” She had 25 replies. “We just took it from there,” says Johanna in her typical to-the-point manner. But there’s no mistaking her pride in the orchestra: “We built it up from nothing. Now we dare to play things we had previously never even dreamed of.”

It is hard to imagine that daring to dream big might ever have been a problem for Johanna. She started out studying orchestra conducting in Leipzig, Germany, and worked for a number of theaters and orchestras in what was then East Germany. By the time the Iron Curtain fell, she was already living and conducting in West Germany, and had decided to take a degree in information science. She joined SAP as a software developer in 1997. Her love affair with music, though, was far from over.


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Johanna recalls the orchestra’s modest beginnings and how it has evolved step by step. In that time it has never shied away from tackling major works like Mozart’s Magic Flute, in which SAP Co-Founder Klaus Tschira played a leading role, or Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Other big projects have included the concert marking the 40th anniversary of SAP, accompanying the celebrated opera singer Rolando Villazón.

SAP has also been a source of inspiration. Back in 2013, the orchestra staged Machine Music and Music Machines – Can Computers Compose?, a part-theater, part-concert performance on what is now highly topical in the world of IT: artificial intelligence.

Unique SAP “Fusion Style”

“Every orchestra has its own unique character trait,” says Christian Stumpf, a project manager at SAP and, for the past eight years, one of the orchestra’s first violinists. For the past four years, he has led the orchestra along with Johanna, putting his heart and soul into securing and organizing concerts, working with event managers and finding the right musicians for the job. “What makes us special is the wide variety of pieces we play,” says Christian.

The orchestra confidently switches from Mendelssohn’s Reformation to chansons by Austrian-Swiss composer Udo Jürgens, and creates its own SAP fusion style by bringing together unlikely pairings such as Joseph Haydn and the Pointer Sisters, and Mozart and the Alan Parson Project.

It is also unusual that the person holding the baton is a woman: Even today, conducting remains a male preserve. Marin Alsop from the United States and Susanna Mälkki from Finland are two of the few women who have made it to the very top. This does not phase Johanna: “When I began studying conducting, there was only one other woman on the course. Though we were a rarity, I always found that orchestras responded very well to us.”

“You Cannot Play a Concert as 60 Soloists”

In another break with convention, company employees play alongside professional musicians as one orchestra. They all get along well together but the amateurs really have to give it their all. SAP’s Sami Sharif, bass trombonist, says: “It fascinating to play in an orchestra like this one. I learn so much from the professionals.”

It is not just the amateurs who benefit. Ralf Schwarz has been a professional clarinet player for 30 years and leads the brass section rehearsals: “The standard has improved enormously over the past years. The amateurs have made incredible progress, and the orchestra has achieved a more rounded sound.” What does a professional musician like Ralf Schwarz appreciate about SAP’s orchestra? “It is the strong team spirit, which is absolutely vital when performing. You cannot play a concert as 60 soloists, you have to play as one team.”

Good Music for a Good Cause

It’s not always possible for the musicians to leave the pressures of their day jobs behind. “It can be a challenge to fit everything in,” says Sami, who, as part of SAP’s salesforce, is often in meetings with customers. “But it is also a great honor. What could be better than making music and representing your company for a good cause?”

All proceeds from the orchestra’s concerts go to charity. “It goes hand-in-hand with SAP’s corporate social responsibility, and we can be proud of that,” says Christian.

“Life can be full of all sorts of disappointments. But there is one thing which never lets you down, and that is music.”

– Johanna Weitkamp

Is the orchestra then part of SAP’s social and cultural agenda? Is it one of the prestige projects of a global player? Or is it intended to give amateur musicians the opportunity to make the most of their talents and help them switch off from work, while demonstrating to the world just how talented SAP employees are?

Maybe all of these things, but as far as the musicians are concerned, it’s all about the art. Johanna Weitkamp embodies this perspective: “Life can be full of all sorts of disappointments. But there is one thing which never lets you down, and that is music.”

The orchestra approaches each work with absolute discipline and strives to give the best performance it can. “It’s always a great joy to me when I notice that the musicians have researched the composer, and they are really getting a feeling of what the piece is all about. And that they embark on the journey, no matter how tough it might be in places,” says Johanna.

The Next Landmark: Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie

When the big day dawns and the orchestra is on stage performing, all of the hard work and difficulties of the rehearsals melt away. “From the very moment the baton is raised, only one thing matters: playing music that moves the audience. With such talented musicians, their musicality, discipline, and teamwork, the SAP Symphony Orchestra achieves this again and again,” says Luka Mucic, chief financial officer of SAP and an avid fan.

As to the future, Johanna Weitkamp and Christian Stumpf want to do more with musicians from other genres and make symphony music accessible to a broader audience. The next landmark concert is the orchestra’s performance, scheduled for 2018 or 2019, at the new world-famous Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany. According to Christian, there can be no higher accolade than that.

Will the SAP Symphony Orchestra present a classical program of music or surprise the audience in Hamburg with a crossover? We look forward to finding out.

The SAP Symphony Orchestra in Numbers

  • 60 to 90 musicians, depending on the musical work
  • 20 years of music-making
  • 439 concerts
  • 189,000 tickets sold
  • 42 players in the string section
  • 27 players in the wind section and of other instruments
  • 12,000 concert-goers a year
  • 10,000 minutes of rehearsal a year
  • 106 beneficiary organizations