Arts Review

Curious Conjunctions in Berlin

The foyer of the Berliner Philharmonie buzzes with excitement as droves wend their way through the many slopes, staircases, bridges and balconies of the building to access the heart of architect’s Hans Scharoun’s structure—the three interlacing pentagons of the Großer Saal. The tent-like ceiling and irregularly terraced seating surround the stage and create a somewhat informal, festive atmosphere. A lebhaft rhythm of chatter, gesticulations toward the stage, and the staggered rise and fall of the seating process coalesces into an anticipatory Vorspiel for the event about to occur. If one didn’t know otherwise, one would next expect the entrance of the Berliner Philharmoniker for the performance of some grandiose Romantic work, such is the sense of expectancy from the crowd. What follows, however, is a short program of Baroque works for organ, taking place at 11 a.m. on a chilly Sunday morning in February. Granted, the organist is the renowned early-music keyboardist and conductor, Ton Koopman. In many other cities, however, this concert would be a hard sell: 11 a.m. on Sunday is not exactly prime time, and though Koopman is well known as an inter­preter of early music, this concert is performed not on an eighteenth- century instrument but on the hall’s hulking four-manual, 1960s symphonic organ by Karl Schuke. It’s a fantastic instrument, but Koopman’s technique and sonic aesthetic has little relationship to how this kind of organ functions and sounds. For all these reasons, then, this concert seems an improbable event. But Berlin is not like other cities when it comes to classical music. Curious, marvelous, improbable, and ingenious conjunctions involving classical music are around every corner.

Karl Schuke organ. (c) Peter Adamik

Berlin supports three opera companies, seven major orchestras, a slew of chamber music series, new music series, old music series, and several professional training academies—all of this for a population of just around 3.5 million, less than half that of New York City. The fervor with which performances are attended is matched by the quantity and quality of the infrastructure in which these events take place. Along with the structures of postwar construction and renovation such as the Berliner Philharmonie (constructed 1960–1963), Berlin Konzerthaus (rebuilt 1984), and Komische Oper (restored 1986–1989), several consid­erable new projects have recently come to fruition. The Staatsoper Unter den Linden has recently undergone an extensive renovation (€400 million), as much for the purpose of refurbishing this eighteenth-century monument of German cultural history as giving it an acoustic facelift. The city’s newest concert venue, the Pierre Boulez Saal, opened last March with a price tag of approximately €€33.7 million. Certainly, the state is to be thanked in part for this incredible flourishing of the arts. In the face of looming foreclosure of at least one of the opera companies in 2004, the Stiftung Oper in Berlin (Berlin Opera Founda­tion) stepped in to ensure the long-term existence of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Komische Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Staatsballett Berlin and Bühnenservice Berlin (Stage Services Company). The foundation receives around €€142.9 million a year from the State of Berlin and €€1.8 million a year from the federal government; supplemental federal grants covered roughly half of the renovation costs for the Staatsoper. But neither do these institutions lack for support from their Berlin audiences. Concerts in any of the major venues sell out months in advance, and the tickets aren’t cheap.

The first major premiere since the renovations to the Staatsoper was a new production of Tristan und Isolde, which I attended on February 18. Expectations were high. The reopening of the Staatsoper in October 2017 had encountered a number of setbacks and was met with tepid critical reception. Many have been disappointed with the acoustic results of the pricey renovations, and production of Schumann’s Faust for the opening (which filled in after the last-minute cancellation of a modern work) confused rather than charmed. A new Tristan, however, by the award-winning Russian stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov, acclaimed for his innovative productions, seemed as good a chance as any to win over the thus-far skeptical public.

As the meltingly sensuous opening strains of Tristan filled the newly-constructed Rococo interior of the theater, the curtain lifted to reveal Isolde and Brangäne sporting pantsuit numbers inside the cabin of a luxury yacht. Bougie casual. Flat-screen television screens displayed satellite weather projections and a “live feed” from “on deck.” In a rather literal way, the first act simply transplanted the drama’s original feudal nautical setting to the sea vessel of choice for what remains of European gentry. This translation approach was adopted consistently throughout the production. The setting for Act II (King Marke’s castle) was tastefully decorated in a modern Scandinavian aesthetic scheme. The party that opens the scene traipsed out on stage in designer cocktail-attire, bearing drinks in one hand and hunting rifles in the other; we are meant to understand the scene as portraying a glitzy hunting lodge. The last act takes place in Tristan’s childhood abode, the wallpaper and traditional tile stove in the corner evoking the first half of the twentieth century. A modern kitchen on one wall, however, lets the audience know that we are still in the present day. To complicate this literal translation, the production incorporates a video element, layered on top of the set. Flashbacks filmed in black and white are projected onto a scrim hung across the front of the stage but through which the stage action remained visible. In Acts I and II, these flashbacks show close-ups of Tristan and Isolde’s first meeting, concentrating almost obsessively upon the eyes and hands. Film snippets in Act III peek into Tristan’s family life, suggesting a correlation between Tristan’s reaction to Isolde’s absence and the trauma of childhood abandonment. The relentless and almost uncomfortable close-ups on these body parts in the videography for Acts I and II evoked for me something of Swedish film director and producer Ingmar Bergman’s aesthetic. (Of course, Bergman’s own Seventh Seal is second to none in bringing a modern mysticism to medieval subject matter.) While I think these clips were meant to add profundity through evocation of contemporary cinematic spirituality, they were used so infrequently as to seem an appendage.

What of the production as a whole? On the one hand, it might seem a facile compromise between a re-imagination of the drama and a verbatim reading of the libretto—inoffensive and unimpactful. A more charitable take, and one I’d like to consider here, is that Tcherniakiov was attempting subtly but deliberately to confound expectations of what a Wagner opera should do to the audience. Audiences expect to be ravished by the relentless sensuality of the music; to experience immediately and continuously experience transcendence from the visceral impact of the music. A quote from Bruno Walter on his first hearing of Tristan und Isolde might very well sum up what audiences want to experience: “So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically. . . . Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss. . . . A new epoch had begun: Wagner was my god, and I wanted to become his prophet.” Audiences want the production to heighten these effects at all possible opportunities. It might do this a number of different ways: it might transport the opera to the realm of the symbolic and allegorical; it might play up the archetypical and the epic; it might lean into the sensuous; it might shock. Tcherniakov’s makes none of these moves. He doesn’t go for easy and immediate emotional impact. Instead, I feel that Tcherniakov encourages the audience to struggle between the forces of the irresistible sonic pull and the nagging sense of absurdity that results from hearing and seeing the story of Tristan und Isolde played out in scenes too familiar to be enchanting or awe-inspiring and too upmarket to be edgy. Somewhat like Russian novelists Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy, he asks the audience to judge what nineteenth-century romantic ideals look like when they are manifested as behaviors by actual actors in the world. Tristan could be the guy with the nice suit sitting next to you in the theater; Isolde could be the woman annoyingly scrutinizing her hairdo in the ladies’ room at intermission.

I should note that this perspective is already embedded within Wagner’s own work: in particular, the character Brangäne (Isolde’s maid) repeatedly points to Isolde’s (figurative) blindness, to material obstacles that challenge Isolde’s relationship with Tristan, and to her own moral struggle to serve Isolde well in the impossible situations her mistress puts her in. Moving numbers by King Marke and Kurwenal trace the chaotic and destructive impact Tristan and Isolde have upon their own closest friends. From this more sober vantage point, Tristan and Isolde’s poetry is childish and chintzy; their behaviors self-absorbed and manic. Tcherniakov’s staging of the meeting of Tristan and Isolde in Act II emphasizes this external perspective: The title characters are portrayed as inane—at one point Isolde high-fives Tristan in crazed ebullience. But having experienced the drama in its outward absurdity in Act I and Act II, Isolde’s “Liebestod” is allowed to emerge with a unique and miraculous delicacy in Act III. The profound interiority Tcherniakov conjures is not in the form of the overwhelming disgorgement audiences expect and desire from Wagner; it’s a miraculous surprise. Its power comes not from incontinent catharsis, but from discretion and restraint in contrast to that more familiar Wagnerian experience. I found this way of listening to Act III an interesting one.

Musically, the opera was well played and sung. Daniel Barenboim prefers to balance heavily toward the orchestra, which sometimes put pressure on the singers to push their voices through the thick of it. My take on this was that the decision was an intentional one on Barenboim’s part—the idea seemed to be to immerse the singers, making them part of the universal sound, or the “universal stream” (as Isolde puts it in her swan song). This could only work, however, when the singers allowed this to occur and resisted the natural reaction to fight against the overwhelming orchestra. The rising orchestral tide indeed caused Andreas Schager (Tristan) and Anja Kampe (Isolde) to strain vocally to win the acoustical battle. Unfortunately, on Feb. 18 this marred the musical effect of Act II: Schager in particular seemed to claw against the orchestra, which took its toll in his sound quality, intonation, and tonic accent. I also found that each of his utterances was tagged with the mannerism of an accented crescendo on every final syllable, which put the poetry at a disadvantage. King Marke’s solo in this act, sung by Stephen Milling, represented, I thought, the best marriage of text declamation, acting, and harmony between orchestra and singer. Schager and Kampe both held their own in Act III, however, which on all fronts was the most successful act. Schager’s portrayal of Tristan’s disintegrating body and mind was done with absolute conviction both vocally and dramatically; one felt plummeted into a fraying body and mind. Kampe’s “Liebestod” began like a single match struck in an infinite gloom, then blossoming into a swell of warmth and depth that illuminated the sonic universe. She allowed at times the orchestra to oversweep her voice, then emerged again from under the myriad folds of harmony; here I thought Barenboim and Kampe finally came together with one heart.

An area of musical and artistic production in Germany that has very much taken me aback and intrigued me has to do, oddly enough, with STEM: I’ve discovered that dozens of new works are being commissioned by and created through collaborations with scientific institutions. This emerges, I think, from a commitment to accessibility and transparency in state-funded projects and a push from several state-funded agencies to make multifaceted critical and expressive approaches to knowledge a general cultural value. The take home message pushed by all of these initiatives? Artists are valuable partners to reflect upon the status and meaning of scientific methods and objects of inquiry; scientists should be thinking about the status of knowledge they are creating from many perspectives. For example, upon a visit to the Museum für Naturkunde (Natural History Museum), I was interested to learn about an extensive four-year-long pilot project called “Interventionen,” which invites a collection of creative artists to collaborate with the museum in order to create works that “open up fresh perspectives both on nature and on museum culture, to shed new light on scientific objects, and to change the way we view natural history museums in general.” The works include an installation that examines the inner lives and motivations of scientists, a film that challenges the ways that museums communicate scientific fact through desires of individuals; and an opera inspired by the experience of an “Archive of Life,” the museum’s extensive wet preservations of (dead specimen) fish. Similarly, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, an institute that studies particle physics and solar cell technology, regularly hosts collaborative projects with visual and performance artists to bring their research to the public in new ways. I experienced the recent results of one such collaboration at a lecture and concert at the Curt-Sachs-Saal in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum Berlin on February 23—composer Gerriet K. Sharma’s gleAM for loudspeaker and room.

gleAM began through an initiative by the Helmholtz-Zentrum to welcome experts from fields ranging from medicine, to philosophy, to the arts to study and consider the ramifications of scientific research conducted with a project known as BESSY II (Berlin Electron Storage Ring Society for Synchrotron Radiation). In BESSY II, an electron accelerator emits an extremely focused electromagnetic field with a certain wave length—similar to a light beam of a single color, but at higher energy. Scientists are currently working to develop and refine techniques to control and tune these electromagnetic emissions, modulating and combining waves (for example, combining several sine waves into a complex wave) in order to have the control to “build” an electromagnetic field of a desired configuration (i.e., to be able to control the amount of electromagnetic potential at any given point). Gerriet’s own acoustical work in engineering, controlling, and merging sound waves holds some resonances with this research. Using an innovative stationary speaker array, the IKO, Gerriet is able to steer sound beams precisely in order to create the impression of virtual sound sources throughout a space. The effect on the listener is compa­rable to a three-dimensional sculpture; as the apparent sound sources seem to shift location, one hears overlapping and staggered sounds as if they were physical objects. First developed by Franz Zotter at the Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics in Graz, the IKO is a single compact speaker system that organizes 20 high-quality speakers on a single unit. Gerriet’s work with the IKO speaker system shows the not-inconsiderable practical possibilities of this technology: composers using electronics in their artwork can now schlep around one compact speaker in the comfort of their own sedan, rather than four to ten units in a rented U-Haul.

In the performance in the Curt-Sachs-Saal, the IKO sound unit was placed toward the back of the stage with several panels positioned nearby to reflect the sound. Lights were dimmed for the fifty-minute work which Sharma operated from a computer station to the right of the stage. The composition used a collection of synthetic sounds, recorded noises collected from around BESSY II, and the translation of scientific data sets into audible sounds. The experience was a memorable and unique one: the motivic use of pulses and their interactions over the course of the whole work created a hypnotic effect that induced in me a (rather refreshing) state of consciousness similar to lucid dreaming. While I could perceive that the IKO was creating sound sources in different locations throughout the room and sensed sounds traveling nearer, farther away, around, and behind me, my experience was characterized less by the creation of a mental map of sounds in extended space than by the powerful illumination and awareness of my sense of perception itself. Like a swimmer floating on top of a current, I felt myself rocked, pushed, and pulled by the various currents of pulses in which I was immersed. At times, these pulses coalesced while sustained engineered sounds panned out to form a kind of sonic vista. gleAM established its own rule of time; at the end of the performance, I would not have been able to say whether the work had lasted fifteen minutes or two hours.

Did this concert help me come to a new kind of knowledge about BESSY II? To be honest—besides learning about the existence of the research project through the introduction, absolutely not. Does this matter? Sharma’s time at the Helmholtz-Zentrum resulted in a valuable and interesting piece of sound art. From an artist’s perspective, perhaps this much is enough to justify these kinds of collaborations. I would be curious to know, however, whether any of these meetings of science and the arts resulted in a more robust rumination upon knowledge, experience, and expression of scientific objects, facts, and theories. Have any of these works caused scientists to think about their own work in a new way? Have artists arrived at new understandings of their role as educators, shapers, and transmitters of knowledge? Or, to play devil’s advocate, do these collaborations tend to do more work on paper (an institution’s image) and for the pocketbook (for the artist) than for epistemology and interdisciplinary dialogue? I look forward to continuing to survey the scene.


Daniel Harding conducts Alpine Symphony. (c) Stephan Rabold

The Berlin Philharmonic conducted by guest Daniel Harding offered an unusual juxtaposition of pieces the evening of Saturday, March 3: five orchestrations of Schubert lieder on the first half of the program were paired with the glorious Alpine Symphony Op. 64 by Richard Strauss. Though perhaps anathema to some current-day Schubert purists, these little-known settings by Max Reger, Hector Berlioz, Anton Webern, and Johannes Brahms opened a window onto nineteenth- and early twentieth-century listening practices. This period was the heyday of the transcription and arrangement. Many young composers earned their daily bread through producing piano four-hand arrangements of the latest symphonic hits; songs moved from the parlor, to the stage, to massive amateur choral societies, and back again. The Schubert of these orchestral transcriptions is not the delicate seer who speaks with the Muses with his piano in his Biedermeier parlor. This Schubert rumbles and roars with titanic power in the “Erlkönig” and “Prometheus”; he paints vast and many-colored landscapes in “An die Musik” and “Du bist die Ruh.” Through these arrangements, not only was Schubert himself cast in a new light, but the individuality of the composers of the arrangements also came through. Johannes Brahms’s orchestration of “Memnon” had his fingerprints all over it: the seamless entrance of the winds with short countermelodies, the French horn calls that shine forth from the dusky textures of the strings, the many-layered textures could have been lifted from one of his symphonies. As orchestrations, I especially enjoyed Max Reger’s arrangement of the well-loved “An die Musik” and Anton Webern’s take on “Du bist die Ruh” (offered as an encore). Both Reger’s and Webern’s orchestrational choices for each stanza of the strophic forms kindled the warmth of Schubert’s exquisite harmonies and melody without overtaking them. The choice to close out the first half of the concert in Schubert’s own voice with a surviving fragment from his own oratorio for orchestra and voices, Lazarus, oder: Die Feier der Auferstehung, was a nice touch.


Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley performed with technical solidity and musical sensitivity; he projected over the orchestra while still capturing a wide range of dynamic contrast. Finley’s tone is (unusually for a bass-baritone) direct, precise, and focused, which results in a clear tonal idea of the music for the listener. I missed, however, a suppleness in bending and sculpting the folds of melodic lines. His performance of melodic leaps of 7ths, for example, I heard always as two self-contained points, not as the bounding ends of a continuous gesture. This kind of pointillism extended to Finley’s sense of intonation, which though perfectly on the money for equal temperament was never bended for the sake of expressivity—nor even acoustic purity. I remark on these aspects of the performance more as an observation of where vocal performance practice currently stands than as a criticism of Finley. The kinds of true portamenti employed by Fischer-Dieskau, Wunderlich and Schwarzkopf fizzled out in the 1960s. While some singers today are slightly more flexible at the edges of their tone (take Thomas Quasthoff, for example), we’re definitely still living in a period that, at least in the mainstream, values discrete tones over the movement between them. As the (instrumental) early music movement forges into the nineteenth- and twentieth-century repertoire, it will be interesting to see if any of the “re-found” techniques rub off onto the vocal world. I for one would welcome their return.

In the second half, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony got off to a rocky start with a cracked opening note in the horns and an unmistakable wrong note a few measures later in the trombones (resulting in an embarrassingly confident and comical B-flat major chord where B-flat minor was required). The orchestra reacted to these imperfections with all the attention a majestic beast pays to a fly on its rump. Though the orches­tra had performed admirably in the first half, it now committed to the tone poem with eagerness and determination, as if it had been champing at the bit all evening to get down to their real work. The Alpine Symphony is through-composed but comprised of discrete scenes marking natural events and places experienced over the course of a day in the Alps. These include a sunrise, entrance into the woods, a waterfall, a meadow, a fearsome storm, etc. Harding’s interpretation blurred the lines of these sections together, giving an organic impression of natural events. He was able to sustain cohesion and large shapes over the course of the fifty-minute work, patiently building anticipation and then gratifying the suspense in all the right places. A powerhouse string section was matched by stellar solos in the brass and winds. The virtuosic first-horn and trumpet solos were fiercely brilliant and right on the money; the oboe and clarinet were mesmerizingly lyrical.

The Berlin Philharmonic is a formidable group. Famously playing seconds behind the conductor’s beat, they puzzle the American musician in how they function logistically as an ensemble. Leadership seems more distributed than in orchestras in the States, with principal players appearing to make more decisions regarding timing and entrances than their American counterparts. Judging by the concert on March 3, there is more of a sense of cohesion within individual sections than across sections. The cellos, for example, have quite a different sound, timing, and technical approach than the violins: they tend to anticipate the beat ahead of the upper strings and to approach the instrument with more assertion and gusto. The violins tend to float on top of the sound. This stratification of the individual sections is dynamic, sculpting distinct sonic layers. Notwithstanding the clumsiness of the first paragraph, the beginning and ending of the symphony, depicting the emergence from and the return to “Night,” were brought off compellingly, with a clarity that seemed intelligent: the articulate and distinct parts of the orchestra moved independently, but the swarmed organic mass gave way to a kind of emergent “hive unity.” Throughout the symphony, one got the feeling that every section knew precisely what its job was; events were open and subject to the grace or misfortune of chance, yet every moment was filled with palpable intent and aplomb.

Berlin does not want for attention or reputation. It seems recently that every month or so some article is giving it a new honorific: the “coolest capital city,” “the creative capital of the world,” “the best city in the world for millennials,” even the “vegan capital of the world.” Is Berlin the “classical music capital of the world”? If it were, it would not be so just because there is a lot of good music here. Good music you can find in any big city. It would be instead because classical music has a special meaning here—a meaning that reveals itself in the throngs that show up to 11 a.m. concerts and the smart remarks I hear from my fellow audience members. To an American, in any case, it appears that classical music in Berlin has at the moment a voice esteemed enough to be hearkened to by the state, beloved enough that it never lacks for an audience, and sufficiently adept to impress just about anyone.