Saturday, May 1, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Marking the foundation of the Berliner Philharmoniker, 1 May 1882, the annual Europakonzert, initiated by Abbado in Prague in 1991 and beamed these days to more than eighty countries, takes the orchestra around unique venues and heritage sites, covered and open-air, bringing players to audiences who might otherwise rarely get the chance to hear them. Today should have been Barcelona’s turn – the Basílica de la Sagrada Família. Instead, like last year (Tel Aviv losing out then), everyone was in lockdown Berlin. Playing not in the auditorium of the Philharmonie but, innovatively, in the foyer and various surrounding levels and galleries. “Nothing is static in this foyer of the Philharmonie; it only serves function”, maintained a former intendant of the orchestra, the late Wolfgang Stresemann. “Everything is alive and seems to be in constant motion. One could almost speak of an architectural ʻperpetuum mobileʼ.”

To go with this internally/externally visionary interactive building, designed by Hans Scharoun and inaugurated by Karajan (Beethoven Nine) in October 1963, Kirill Petrenko and the management came up with a spatially determined programme devised around groups or sections playing off each other. Boris Blacher’s Fanfare for the Opening of the Philharmonie; Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question; Mozart’s Notturno for four orchestras K286 (terraced Salzburg Gartenmusik); Penderecki’s Emanations for two string orchestras facing each other (new to the Berliners, Noah Bendix-Balgley leading the first ensemble, Daishin Kashimoto the second); Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3 complete (a listener’s guide to orchestration en route from Salieri to Britten); John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

With complex logistics to overcome and over a hundred microphones, display-screens and kilometres of cable in service, the end result was an audio-visual tour de force. In surround sound, even better in person, the effects of distancing, height and geographical placement would no doubt have been the more extraordinary. Within the stereo picture remarkable things were still achieved. Not least in the horn echoes of the Mozart. Come Tchaikovsky, an expressive, exacting, climactically energised account, the full orchestra co-ordinated readily and richly in an acoustic perceptibly more resonant than the main hall but none the worse for that. It all made for an inspiring encounter.

Addressing the viewing public, striking a balance between concert and documentary, the webcast interleaved the music with snippets of information, video clips, and interviews. The sense of the place came across – the idea of a family, a protective “nest”, a second home, a meeting place, a forum for young minds, light flooding in. The many maritime allusions so far from the sea (Scharoun was a Bremerhaven man) – port and starboard red/green glass and colour coding, the portholes, the zigzagging stairs fused out of gangways and ladders. Trained in musicology and art history, Andrea Zietzschmann, intendant of the orchestra’s Foundation, infinitely experienced and cultured, personified wise, consoling humanism. Wolfgang Schäuble likewise, President of the Bundestag. “Whenever I’m in this building, everything else disappears … as soon as I’m seated and the musicians are onstage, all my problems and cares vanish. There’s now just the music – and that’s incredible.”