Toasts And Standing O: Berliners Citywide Hail Live Music’s Renewal


Kirill Petrenko leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the opening concert of its 2021-22 season at the Philharmonie. (Photo by Stephan Rabold)

BERLIN — Berlin’s music scene came to life again over the past week with two of its greatest orchestras leading the way.

Konzerthaus Berlin 200th Anniversary Jubilee Concert

Berlin’s Konzerthaus Orchestra, formerly the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, celebrated the 200th anniversary of its magnificent hall, the Konzerthaus Berlin, with a jubilee concert Aug. 26 conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, the orchestra’s music director. The concert, which also served as the opening night for the orchestra’s season (and Berlin’s music season, for that matter), featured an unusual program of five works including a premiere and two guest soloists.

The Konzerthaus, built as the Royal Theater, was inaugurated on June 18, 1821, with Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. An imposing structure, it occupies a prominent position in the center of Gendarmenmarkt Square in what was East Berlin before the wall came down. The ornate hall, which seats 1,418, is rectangular, with two U-shaped tiers, much like New York’s David Geffen Hall (or at least like it was before renovation), though in this case the acoustics are world class. The façade is under renovation.

The centennial was first celebrated with a new production of Der Freischütz last June. Because of COVID restrictions, however, this was presented only as a live stream to an outdoor audience in the square. Der Freischutz will be streamed again in September.

Germany is apparently like the U.S. in the variety of responses to COVID. For this concert, vaccination status was not checked, and patrons could remove their masks once they were seated. Seating was reduced, however, with an empty seat between each party of one or two. Musicians, who arrived casually, like in the U.S., rather than making an entrance at once as is usual in Europe, did not wear masks, and there were no plexiglass barriers for brass and winds. They did not share music stands, however. The audience was clearly overjoyed to once again experience a live concert and welcomed the musicians enthusiastically.

Martin Helmchen was soloist with the Konzerthaus Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. (Photo by Martin Walz)

Up first was a five-minute piece written in 1958 by composer-conductor Willem van Otterloo, Intrada for Brass and Percussion, a lively, dissonant fanfare with percussion crescendos, expertly rendered by the orchestra’s brasses. We then heard the premiere of Xylo, a 10-minute piece by Samir Odeh-Tamimi, a Palestinian-Israeli composer. Xylo is fun to watch, as most of the musicians double as noisemakers with quirky instruments ranging from Chinese clappers to tin cans strung together, and the percussion section is kept busy as well. Meanwhile, the score includes microtones and lots of glissandi. The piece is interesting because it’s the kind of modernism that was in vogue in the middle of the last century and now seems almost quaint, but entertaining.

The highlight of the evening was a piece that had its first performance in this hall one week after it opened in 1821, Weber’s Concert Piece in F-minor for Piano and Orchestra, a highly virtuosic concerto (even if it isn’t called that) from a composer who has fallen out of fashion. The pianist, Martin Helmchen, has mostly performed in Europe but stands out even from the glut of extremely fine young pianists on the circuit for his astonishing technical skills, here married to a real sense of poetry. The performance was enjoyable for the beauty of a fine concerto well played but also as a dazzling show, with Helmchen’s meteoric fingering and his expressive physical performance. After an attack, he jumped back from the keyboard, flinging his body around. Eschenbach has worked extensively with Henchen, and they were in perfect sync.

The hall has one of the finest organs in Germany, built by the Dresden firm of Jehmlich, and to show it off on this occasion, we got a performance of Bach’s fantasia “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott,” played by America’s iconoclastic Cameron Carpenter. Though he seemed rather subdued in his appearance (the mohawk haircut is missing, and he was dressed conservatively), his playing was radical as ever, with eccentric pacing and ornamentation. The audience seemed thrilled, and he got the biggest applause of the evening.

Christoph Eschenbach acknowledges the applause during the Konzerthaus Orchestra’s 200th Anniversary Jubilee Concert. (Martin Walz)

Eschenbach took a slow and delicate approach to the first movements of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn (also called the St. Anthony Variations), heightening the contrast to the wild finale. Along the way, he showed off his musicians, treating their solo passages as mini-concertos.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Opening Night

The next night (Aug. 27) was the formal opening night of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmonie, the culmination of a weeklong celebration that included an outdoor concert in the Waldbühne (Forest Stage) venue in Olympia Park, where 6,000 fans braved pouring rain to cheer them on, along with some chamber concerts featuring the orchestra’s musicians.

Unlike at the Konzerthaus, vaccination proof was required for admission, with the wearing of N95style masks strictly enforced in the hall. All seats were filled, however, with no spacing. The musicians, without masks, filed in together at the beginning of the concert, to a huge ovation. And here they did share music stands.

Kirill Petrenko became the Philharmonic’s music director at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, so this will (hopefully) be his first full regular season. His career took him from the Meiningin Theater (opera) to the Bavarian State Opera and now to Berlin: coincidentally, the same trajectory as Hans von Bülow. And like von Bülow, he started with Beethoven in his first official Philharmonic concert — in Petrenko’s case, the Ninth Symphony.

This season’s opener was built around Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the Great C Major, another towering work of Germanic Romanticism. But first we heard two very different Romantic works in an evening that nicely surveyed this era. First came the overture to Weber’s final opera, Oberon, and in it we can hear the development of an authentic German voice for opera, often built from folk tunes, that broke with the Italian tradition and ultimately led to Wagner. Petrenko vividly emphasized the work’s contrasts in a lively performance.

The Berlin Philharmonie performing on opening night under Kirill Petrenko at the Philharmonie. (Stephan Rabold)

Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Weber was an inspired choice. The hybrid work, written in the early 1940s for a modern orchestra during the composer’s exile in New York, is colorful and extravagant but true to the obscure Weber music it resurrects. It’s a showpiece, and this performance proved that the Berlin Philharmonic had lost none of its technical brilliance during the long COVID break.

At intermission, the Germans greeted each other excitedly, celebrating over champagne. And then it was time for the big event. In the U.S., Schubert’s Great Symphony is usually referred to as Schubert’s Ninth, but German musicologists tend to cite it as either the Seventh or the Eighth. It was first called “Great” to distinguish it from the shorter Sixth Symphony, also in C major. But the term has now come to describe it more broadly as a tribute to its seminal importance as well as its length (50 minutes at this performance).

Petrenko took the first two movements quite slowly, the better to expose the transparent textures from his orchestra and the structure of the work. There is an innate sadness in these movements, and Petrenko brought that forward. The third movement is a scherzo, here played at an energetic pace. In the fourth movement, he emphasized the Beethoven quotes as well as the Beethoven-like spirit of the piece. And at the end, when three of the six themes from this movement are playing at once, the clarity was such that you could actually hear each of them.

Part of the pleasure of this concert came from watching Petrenko, a very physical conductor. In the first two movements of the Schubert, he bobbed up and down like a jumping jack, then bent around like a Slinky. For the scherzo, he became a toreador, with stiff posture and coordinated arm/shoulder movements as if he were holding a cape.

The audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation, something still relatively rare in Germany. This might partly reflect the fact that they were just ecstatic to be back in the Philharmonie, but it was deserved.