I’ve spent three of the last dozen years living in Berlin, arguably the classical musical capital of the world. The city’s vast and varied offerings are accessible, affordable, imaginative, and generally of the highest caliber.
This past week I’ve been listening in on—and watching—the most exciting musical event of the still-young season there: the cycle of Beethoven Symphonies simulcast from the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Simon Rattle. Courtesy of the Berlin Digital Concert Hall I do this from distant Ithaca, New York in the very middle of the Empire State.
The Beethoven concerts begin at eight in the evening European time, and so on this Columbus Day past I sat down at two o’clock on a glowing auctumnal afternoon and took in the first and third symphonies with which the Berliners began their televised five-day run, which concludes tonight. (The orchestra performed the same series last week without the simulcast cameras.) A seven-day subscription to the Berlin Digital Concert Hall costs less than ten Euros, a full year only 149. For this paltry sum you can have access not only to the simulcasts but also a huge number of archived concerts, all to be marveled at on your laptop with a decent set of headphones or on a monstro-screen surrounded by a battery of state-of-the-art speakers.
There’s lots else going on musically in Berlin, but temporarily banished from my adopted city, I cannot be distracted by all the other concerts. I’ve got my seat in the digital concert hall.
Berlin’s cultural richness has partly to do with redundancies still lingering a quarter century after Germany’s reunification. Until the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 the competition between East and West meant both sides had to have their own prestigious institutions of high culture. At the top of that list were—and still are—symphony orchestras and opera houses.
While some of the cultural by-products of the Cold War have been downsized, much remains: there are three opera houses and at least two major symphonies in Berlin. This might seem surprising since the city-state of Berlin has been effectively bankrupt for a long time: between 1990 until 2011 the city’s deficit ballooned to more than sixty billion euros. Current hopes of balancing the budget by 2016 seem far-fetched, especially given that the city is a principal stakeholder in the Berlin Brandenburg Airport and that outlandish, ineptly managed, and massively delayed project is still not yet finished. Its costs threaten to cross the six billion dollar mark, more than twice original projections.
Even while hemorrhaging money on this and other ill-conceived infrastructure schemes, Berlin has mostly kept up its cultural profile, realizing rightly that this is crucial to its brand. Accordingly, ever-larger infusions of Euros have been going to the Berlin State Opera. Its venerable house is on the broad central boulevard Unter den Linden facing the mighty equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, the music-and-war-loving monarch who founded the institution directly after assuming the Prussian throne in 1740.
The original building finished in 1742 was bombed to oblivion in 1945. Since 2009 the post-war reconstruction has itself been undergoing major renovations, and the re-opening originally planned for last month has now been pushed back to 2017. Needless to say the costs have been overshot by a figure now approaching a cool one hundred million. Why the city fathers and mothers and all those in between couldn’t have simply set up the opera house in the futuristic airport, thereby killing two bloated birds with one budgetary stone, is a question more than a few wags have posed. Civic prestige is built in no small part on landing big planes and big singers.
In the wealthy district of Charlottenburg in the former West Berlin the German Opera soldiers on, in spite of lesser funds and a rather unforgiving box of a building from the early sixties. Donald Runnicles, long the music director of the San Francisco Opera, left that post in 2009 to take over the flagging enterprise and it has been showing signs of renewed life.
But Berlin’s most interesting opera company is also the most adventurous one: amble down Unter den Linden in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate, past Old Fritz on his horse, and you’ll soon come to the Comic Opera, founded in socialist East Berlin and now a bastion of theatrical innovation—unexpected, fun, and occasionally foolish. Sometimes it tries and fails—but the place always tries.
It was named Opera Company of the Year at the International Opera Awards held in London last April— a richly deserved honor, even if I personally have been rather nonplussed by many of Artistic Director Barrie Kosky’s gags and goofs from the time I first encountered his work in the form of a humdrum Marriage of Figaro littered with the usual postmodern props and cheap tricks, from toothbrushes to golf clubs to power drills.
But the Comic Opera is also the place where Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s production of Handel’s Xerxes premiered in 2012. This miraculous mix of musical drama and comedy is still in the house’s repertory and, should you be lucky enough to see it, will make for one of the most vibrant, imaginative, uplifting nights you’ll ever spend in any theater. If you’re within striking distance of Berlin at the end of February or in March this coming year and can take in this marvel of “early” music on the modern stage, it will keep your spirits up for a long time after. I’ve also heard glowing reports about young American director Lydia Steier’s sumptuous imagining of Handel’s masterful Giulio Cesare. Steier studied voice at Oberlin Conservatory, and after taking her M. F. A. in theater directing at Carnegie Mellon, she moved in 2002 to Berlin (Oberlin, but without the collegiate “O” at the front), and has been making a name for herself in Europe since.
A decade ago during my first two-year sojourn in Berlin, I spent many evenings in the Comic Opera, then under the musical directorship of Kirill Petrenko. I was there, for example, on an opening night when he led the orchestra in a dismembering of the finale of Don Giovanni, an assault commanded by the irreverent—many would say irresponsible—stage director Peter Konwitschny. However one viewed the on-stage wreckage, one had to admire the precision and verve of Petrenko’s conducting as he carried out his mission to serve Mozart’s music, even as it was laid waste to, while still supporting the dramatic vision of the quixotic Konwitschny. Petrenko was then already a consummate leader: not a show-off, but nonetheless full of strength, and animated by sparkling imagination informed by scholarly rigor. There was a never a doubt that this was a young, authoritative conductor who knew what he wanted and how to get it.
Now just forty-three, Petrenko was recently chosen, against most predictions, to succeed Sir Simon Rattle as director of the best orchestra in the city—and the world: the Berlin Philharmonic. Other more eminent figures from among the elite ranks of the international celebrity conductors were passed over, but, thinking back to his days at the Comic Opera, I for one am happy at the orchestra’s choice.
In Berlin since 2002, Rattle will stay on as artistic director of the Philharmonic until the end of the 2017-2018, even though he’ll by then have also taken up his next position as the head of the London Symphony Orchestra: such are the powers and appeal of the star conductors that they can moonlight in the limelight of big-time podiums like these.
For the time being, however, Rattle is still the brightest, liveliest, most compelling silver-haired jewel in Berlin’s cultural crown. Watching him start the Beethoven cycle on Monday I was sure that I too could sense something of the frisson of anticipation that always courses through the celebrated concert hall, the Philharmonie, as he raises his baton. Such is Rattle’s rapture on the podium, that he reminds me of a saint being transported to heaven. And so it was even as he conjured the archly comic opening chord of a symphony heard first in public in Vienna in April of 1800: it begins with a dominant seventh chord on C in a symphony in that same key, thus lightly but irreverently slapping away the welcoming harmonic handshake that traditional tonality extended towards him. With the lightest of comic touches Beethoven begins his ultimately transformative confrontation with the central instrumental genre of the century past and, thanks to his towering contribution, to the century stretching ahead.
Watching this Beethoven cycle from afar taking place in an acoustically ideal and architecturally uplifting setting where I’ve enjoyed so many concerts over the years, is a bit like surveilling by hidden camera a Thanksgiving dinner, friends and family feasting, joking, and laughing as you look on, remembering what it is like to be there in the cheap seats (also the best) right behind the stage—practically in the orchestra. Yet even this sense of incompleteness, of partial pleasure and the regrets of isolation, can’t change the truth that, however you are able, experiencing these Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic makes you feel good to be alive in whatever part of the world you find yourself.