Noisy Music in Berlin

The English have almost always been the last to march in step to the European drummer. They dragged their feet for half a century on the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, refusing until 1752 to join the other northern European Protestant states in their changeover of 1700. More recently there’s the Euro, with many English Euroskeptics now tucking into heaping portions of schadenfreude at the currency’s woes and the attendant political turmoil on the continent. The English fear at adopting the now-battered Euro had far less to do with monetary policy than with what they saw as meddlesome, nanny-state intrusions of Brussels, continually bombarding fortress England with its dictates.

More than a decade after the Euro’s birth, I still get a kick out of playing the dumb American in village shops in the English countryside by trying to pay for my newspaper and morning bun with Euros, the effect of continental coin or, more so, the brightly colored bills being something like that of flashing a crucifix at a vampire.

Many in the English press jump at the chance to pillory EU absurdities, as in the latest BBC rules meant to implement the 2008 European regulations on workplace noise in the high temple of classic music—the concert call. This past week the Telegraph chortled at the possible that musicians playing in orchestras might be required to play more softly or abandon altogether some 19th-century staples of the repertoire if they exceed the 85 decibel limits set by Brussels back in 2008.

The story tries to kill two birds with one stone, both of them favorite (and easy) targets of the paper: Brussels and the BBC. According to the piece, the BBC has recommended that musicians sit farther apart and chew gum to safeguard their hearing, thus conjuring the ludicrous image of one hundred musicians in concert rig masticating their way through a Beethoven symphony. In the Telegraph  article, Peter Adams, the principal cellist of the English String Orchestra guffaws that “The tendency of musicians to do a lot of drinking at the end of concerts is surely a greater risk to health.” Better to be drunk and deaf, implies Adams, than merely drunk.

The Telegraph has been defending the inalienable right to orchestral loudness with such stories since the Euro guidelines were passed three years ago, chuckling then at the Bavarian State Orchestra when it scrapped a work entitled State of Siege commissioned from Swedish-Israeli composer Dror Feller because it threatened to match the din of an actual war zone.  The piece began with simulated machine gun fire, which was a demure prelude compared to the aural hostilities that subsequently ensued. The paper joked that such politically charged modernist nonsense would be chucked by the band that had asked for it in the first place; nor did the Telegraph miss the opportunity to point out that many Germanic warhorses would also have to be put out to pasture if the then-new EU rules were actually implemented.

Leave it to Germany, homeland of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms  to tackle the problem scientifically and to propose possible solutions. Researchers working for the Physical-Technical Federal Institute (Die Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt) based in Braunschweig and Berlin measured performances of Wagner’s music that sometimes reached 120 decibels; moments in Die Walküre sent the needle up to an ear-splitting130.

Even the above-quoted English cellist had to admit that things can get rough for the eardrums musicians seated just in front of the heavy artillery of the brass. An expansive University of Giessen cited by the  study demonstrated that a quarter of musicians suffered from hearing loss.

The researchers found that earplugs cut out some frequencies more successfully than others, but even good ones cannot differentiate between speech and musical sound, so that during rehearsals the directions of the conductor cannot be heard—which may be welcome by many an orchestral laborer, but in general frowned upon by the management. These German researchers have developed an acoustically discerning shield (Schallschutzschirm) particularly useful protective in back rows of the orchestra from rear assault by brass and percussion. In these sections the seating is less dense, and the players are generally set on risers, so that the barriers could be put in place without much danger of spreading the musician out so much so that they don’t fit on stage, or lose a sense of ensemble unity.

I have never seen these contraptions in a symphony hall, and it seems highly unlikely the devices will gain much acceptance in the tradition-bound world of classical music. A bit of hearing loss is deemed a fitting offering to be laid in the chill pantheon of great musical men and their works.

Against this background of English grumblings against the Brussels’ musical meddlers and their henchmen in the BBC, I made my way to the Berlin’s Philharmonie for a concert in the Berliner Festspiele with conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen leading his Philharmonia Orchestra of London in a program of music from his native Finland.

Like much else in born in the heat of the Cold War, the Philharmonie, one of the most famous and convincing concert halls ever built, is coming up on its 50th-anniversary. It was started in 1960, soon before the Berlin Wall went up nearby; the work on that nefarious barrier, condemned by American  presidents from Kennedy to Reagan, and now emulated by the Americans along their southern border, was begun fifty years ago last month.

The Philharmonie was dedicated in 1963 years later, and it has held up well. It’s true that the carpet on the maze of staircases leading up into the hall is a bit worn and paint has chipped off here and there on the handrails, but the Philharmonie, like the nearby State Library also designed by Berlin Architect Hans Scharoun retains a wacky aura of the 60s while at the same time projecting a sense of purpose and grace. Its interior is visually warm and alluring, simultaneously fantastical and practical: with excellent sight lines and a surprising feel of intimacy even though it offers some 2,500 seats. It offers in-the-round seating, and extra cheap seats (when no chorus repertoire to be performed) on benches directly behind the orchestra. Most important of all, the acoustics are exciting, resonant, and clear. The form auditorium form and therefore its sonic benefits served as the model for Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, which was dedicated by the LA Phil under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2003. Salonen has conducted in the Philharmonie many times before, but given his crucial role in the Disney Hall, a return to the Philharmonie must be for him kind of homecoming.

Now in its sixth decade, the Berlin Festspiele amount to a massive arts festival with the world-class musical offerings being only one aspect of the cultural riches that can be explored over the program’s two weeks.  This abundance helps explains why the Philhamonia’s Berlin appearance drew audience enough only to fill little more than half the seats.

In certain musical venues in Berlin—the Deutsche Oper comes to mind—concertgoers remain in the seats whose numbers appear on their tickets.  It is the same obedience to the law that causes many German pedestrians to wait patiently at a completely deserted crosswalk until they’re given a green light. Some perceive a more profound historical resonance to this kind of collective and individual behavior in Germany’s 20th-century history. The relevant German word is “Gesetztreue”—faithfulness to the law. Since I’m always eager to have my concert-Euro goes as far as possible, I’m proud of my own contribution to the German language: Platztreue—seat faithfulness.

The Philharmonie in general, and Festsspiele in particular, seems to draw a cosmopolitan audience, much of it with little respect for Platztreue. For the Philharmonia concert there were contingents of faithful Finns, identifiable by their fresh faces, the curious chirpings of their language, and their super-expensive eyewear. Hovering nearby in pursuit of better seats were also large groups of fully decked-out American women, either expats or enterprising tourists. Then to my left flank were several rows of Japanese. Their canvas bags (Gastrointerologist) advertised their profession and their ongoing Berlin conference. Within a few minutes of Salonen baton’s conjuring the first electrifying sounds from his orchestra, at least half the doctors were fast asleep.

Having gained entrance with the cheapest possible tickets at 15 Euros, I positioned myself strategically in front of the American ladies and the prime seats hovering above the side of the stage—the closest the Philharmonie has to royal boxes. When the doors closed I shot into the best one, upgrading monetary value of my tickets by about ten times.  I was just above the bass sections, so near I could read the music and almost turn their pages, and with the closest possibly view of the conductor outside of the orchestra. The feared brass howitzers were in position some twenty feet to my right. As with all the seats on the Philharmonie stage perimeter, one has the feeling of being a member of the orchestra, while at the same time, thanks to the stunning acoustics, able to hear the ensemble in both its unity and its diversity.

The program opened with Ferruccio Busoni’s Geharnischte Suite, which might be translated as “armored suite”—a harnisch being a breast plate. The four-movement suite evokes less a medieval knight on horseback than a bulky tank crushing all in its way. A contradictory mix of romantic ponderings and kitschy frills, the work was included because it was written during Busoni’s two years teaching in Helsinki at the end of the 19th century; and the first movement is dedicated to Jean Sibelius. Busoni’s lumbering dreadnought emitted brassy fusillades that tore through the EU regulations, though even these eruptions did not wake the doctors.

The Busoni could well rank as an interesting curiosity to add to a concert, but this evening one extended ultimately to three hours; dropping forty-five minutes would have brought the concert into more manageable length. Although I would have gladly spent several more hours in my royal seat, and shortening the program would also have cut into the gastroenterological slumber party to my left.

Aside from its historical value, the Busoni also made the next piece shine even more brightly, though it didn’t need this contrast to demonstrate its merit. Salonen had programmed his own Violin Concerto, composed in 2009 and first performed in LA in his last year there; the piece was given its German premier at this year’s Festspiele. Compared to the bombast and bathos of Busoni, the clarity and texture, play and proportion, rhythmic vitality and expansive lyricism of Salonen’s concerto came as a gift.  Salonen gave the young Canadian violinist Leilia Josefowicz, a fierce and riveting performer, everything a great concerto should offer a soloist, ranging from impressive virtuosity to moments that drew even a symphony hall audience into a whispered closeness. Salonen is a devotee of the 20th-century moderns and the late 19th century, and one hears influence and originality in his work: it is generous music that enthralls, amazes, and, just as importantly, welcomes the willing listener.  Salonen claims to have learned conducting so he could direct his own music better, and was so good at it that he was elevated to the elite music directors of the world by his mid twenties, famously stepping in to lead a performance of Mahler’s Third with the Philharmonia at the age of twenty-five. To see a great conductor lead his own music from the midst of the orchestra ranks is a priceless treasure—especially at the bargain rate of fifteen Euros.

After the intermission came  Sibelius’ Kullervo, designated by the composer as symphonic poem but as big and bulky as many an oratorio. Sweden’s famed male chorus, Orphei Drängar (Servants of Orpheus) and two full-voiced voiced soloists blasted away at this sprawling setting of the Finnish national epic dedicated mainly to incestuous rape and suicide—a piece both as dark as a Finnish winter night and as luminous as one of its endless summer evenings. A brilliantly clear technical conductor, Salonen poured out his soul at the podium fifty as Swedish men sang at the top of their lungs with the martial reinforcement of six horns and a full battery of trombones and trumpets. It was loud enough to be heard in Brussels and as riveting a performance—for all its mysogynistic, nationalistic nonsense—as one will ever here on a Berlin evening in early September. The sounds of the mighty brass rang in my ears all the way home.

David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. David Yearsley’s latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at