Darkness has finally fallen on the 4th of July in Berlin: almost eleven in the evening and the rain has let up just enough for the Americans to start their fireworks. I can hear them pounding away to celebrate the official opening of the new American embassy today next to the Brandenburg Gate with George Bush, the Elder, cutting the ribbon.
A block away from where I’m now writing, framed in one of the large window of this Art Nouveau apartment, shines the newly renovated clock tower of the Schöneberg Town Hall where Willy Brandt held forth as Berlin’s Mayor during some of the hottest days of the Cold War, and where Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner“ speech. The square-jawed figures atop the Town Hall look-on impassively as the rockets glare redly over the center of the action in the New Berlin.
I began my celebrations as any true patriot, especially a musical one, would: with a trip to the Schöneberg District’s incomparable Hans Wurst Nachfahren, Puppet Theatre. Luckily I had my kids in tow, since I suspect that unattached and unshaven men appearing at morning performances of children’s theatre is a practice likely frowned on even in this notoriously permissive city.
We could hardly believe our luck that this morning’s show was the Brementown Musicians, with score by the Kurt Weill of modern puppet theater, Rainer Rubbert. This is in no way meant to be a back-handed compliment to the composer.. If I had to choose from the embarrassment of riches in Berlin’s operatic treasure chest – there are still three world-class opera houses in this city of little more than three million residents – I would go for a Rubbert show over Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart at the Deutsche Oper, the Komische Opera, or the Staatsoper, the ascendant house of the three, one ruled by the despotic and politically-connected Daniel Barenboim.
Rubbert has “serious“ credits to his name, and is currently at work on a full-length, five act opera called Kleist, whose historical protaganist commits suicide after shooting his mortally-ill female companion. I didn’t bother to inform my own kids on the subject matter of the composer’s current project. I’m not sure if plumbing the depths or entertaining the kiddies is a more demanding task.
Rubbert’s score for The Brementown Musicians calls for a small ensemble of instruments accompanying four voices, those of the puppeteers, each of whom plays one of the animals and one of the robbers. The music achieves the near impossible, that which only the rarest of books and theatre for children also manages: to captivate the young and unjaded, while offering complexity, depth, irony, and many other good things to the overseers of the underage.
Show me another composer who can take of a minor swing groove, lace it with contrapuntal ingenuity, and use melodic contour, harmonic emphasis to profile each character and I’ll call him or her a genius, too. Yet clever fugues, and winking quotations from the composer’s vast lexicon, one that extends from Motown to Berg to Bach and to the folk songs of the Alps and to many other styles, are never overdone or self-servingly intrusive. Never has erudition been so fun as at the Hans Wurst Puppet Theatre on the Winterfeld Platz in Schoeneberg, Berlin. To be in the hands of a skilful and tasteful and endlessly inventive composer with excellent, characterful, and unabashedly natural singers, who also happen to be fabulous actors and puppeteers—all before eleven o’clock in the morning–is enough to restore all faith in the goodness of humanity and the world itself!
The small black-box theatre in a charming early 19th-cenury building near one of Berlin’s best children’s playground’s was packed with two school classes. If Mr. Rubbert’s Kleist makes it to the Met – as it should, but doubtless will not – he’ll never find as honest and accurate a bunch of critics as these children. They demanded an encore and duly got one.
Thus armed by the uplifting qualities of great and practical art, I deposited my own kids with friends and cycled through the gathering downpour towards the Brandenburg Gate to see if I would indeed be able to exercise my highly developed skills at Schadenfreude. What right-thinking visitor to Berlin would not similarly yearn for a wash-out of the Americans’ Big Show?
The German newspapers were for the most part negative in their reaction to the American Embassy, designed by Buzz Yudell and John Ruble back in 1995, and radically adjusted—and shrunk—in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, not to mention the Nairobi attack of 1998, and the obsessive security concerns of American embassies the world over.
Snuggling ostentatiously alongside the Brandenburg Gate, the completed American Embassy fills in the last open spot on the Parisier Platz. While the German architecture critics hammered the new building, allow me to strike a momentarily defensive tone and point out that it isn’t as bad as the ersatz fortress of the French Embassy across the plaza, though Jens Bisky, writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung was certainly right to complain about the entrance to the new American building with its goofy little S-shaped canopy. Bisky complained that this dumb detail makes the building look like ‚“a provincial swimming pool.“ My answer to that: “is there anything more American than an provincial swimming pool?“
Meanwhile, the Tagespiegel, the West Berlin newspaper of Cold War vintage and viewpoints, saw promise in the building, while recognizing some of the silliness in its already dated brand of flippant post-modernism. Putting a brave face on things, Stephan-Andreas Casdorf argued that although the building looked like a “Court House in Fresno“ – believe me, it doesn’t – it nonetheless helped to make a now–complete set of buildings flanking the Brandenburg Gate a “friendly ensemble.“
Friendly if you a turn a blind eye to the sunken bollards that can spring up with the press of a button should terrorist tanks come blasting out of the heavily forested Tiegarten park across the street.
What no one seems to ask is why there is an embassy in the first place. In this age of high-definition communications and jet travel what real purpose can it serve. The New American Embassy is huge and one has to ask what all those people are doing in there, especially the ambassador himself, William R. Timken, Jr. a fat-cat industrialist and former chairman of the National Manufacturers’ Association. He’s been in the job for almost three years and still doesn’t speak any German. One can hardly imagine that his is a nuanced approached to diplomacy at any level.
In an interview published today in the special insert on the Embassy published in the Tagespiegel, Timken had the diplomatic sensitivity to argue that it was a good thing that the old Blücher Palace had been conveniently destroyed by allied bombs, so that the glorious new embassy could be designed and built on the cleared spot. Apparently oblivious to the heated discussions over the last several years in Germany surrounding the saturation bombing that destroyed nearly two hundred of the country’s cities, Timken would unlikely be forgiven if he similarly thanked Osama for clearing away the loathsome Two Towers to allow a fresh architectural start for that expensive piece of real estate at the tip of Manhattan.
Himself a puppet, Timken would be advised to work on his German by spending his mornings at the Hans Wurst Theater and ask himself why a singing donkey on his way to Bremen has more to contribute to this city and to the world than he does.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omni. He can be reached at email@example.com