Last week I experienced Berlin’s new concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, and fell in love with this fabulous addition to the city’s music scene. It is the brainchild of pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who wanted to create a performance space and a music academy allied to his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young musicians from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds. Barenboim was a great friend and admirer of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). They enjoyed a close musical collaboration for over forty years; you can read Barenboim’s thoughts on Boulez’s visionary thinking by following this link to an interview he gave in 2005.
The Pierre Boulez Saal
Daniel Barenboim with Pierre Boulez
Situated in the cultural heart of the city, just behind the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden and close to the Gendarmenmarkt, the Pierre Boulez Saal brings music to life in a unique way. The elliptical shaped hall is lined with Canadian cedarwood and is built into the ground, just below street level. Its mellow warmth embraces the audience in a full sweep of 360°, so that the listener is never separated from the performers by more than a few metres. This creates a direct connection with the musicians and draws the audience into their concentration. As a result, the music speaks to the mind as well as the heart.
Concert hall interior
The inaugural concert took place on Saturday 4th March 2017. More than 600 invited guests, among them the German president Joachim Gauck, finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and Berlin Mayor, Michael Müller, gathered to hear a three-and-half-hour programme which included complex works by Pierre Boulez. Also present, were architect Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyoto, who donated their services for the new hall’s design. You can still hear this concert in full by following this link or watch Barenboim talking about it on a video on the Deutsche Welle website.
The inaugural concert
Tickets for future concerts are in high demand. Lang Lang, Sir Simon Rattle and Pinchas Zukerman are among the big names who will be performing this season, quite apart from Daniel Barenboim himself. The concert I heard last week was given by students of the Barenboim-Said-Akademie. They performed two string quartets and had the audience spellbound with the intensity of their playing. It was the first afternoon ‘Studentenkonzert’ and tickets cost just 10 euros. The next one takes place on Thursday 1st June. If you subscribe to the Pierre Boulez Saaal Newsletter, you will receive details of all forthcoming concerts, including the student series.
Interior design for the buidling
Even if you don’t have tickets, it is worth visiting the Pierre Boulez Saal. Apart from the concert hall itself, there is a grand, towering foyer area with two floors of galleried exhibition space. Until 16th July 2017, ‘Klang der Utopie’ (‘The Sound of Utopia’) tells the inspiring story of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This youth orchestra, founded in 1999 by Barenboim and academic Edward Said, is named after ‘West-östlicher Divan’, an anthology of poems by Goethe. It has become a living symbol of the possibility of peaceful relations in the Middle East and shows how music transcends religious and political borders. Now that Barenboim has established his music academy in Berlin, the scope of further international cooperation among music students has been extended.
Stepping insider the foyer
There are café facilities at the Pierre Boulez Saal and tables set out in the foyer. I can recommend both the coffee and the exotic middle-eastern pastries. Today, 21st May 2017, the Pierre Boulez Saal is holding an ‘Open House’ event. There are several performances of string quartets by Elliott Carter, a New York–born composer, who lived to the age of 103 (1908-2012) and short concerts for children as well. Free tickets are available at the box office and the concert hall is open for viewing. Full details can be found on the excellent Pierre Boulez Saal website where you can also subscribe to their newsletter.
Last Sunday, I joined some Berlin friends at the Pulse of Europe demonstration on Bebelplatz, on Unter den Linden. This square, which was called ‘Opernplatz’ before the war, has a dark history. It was where the Nazi ‘Burning of the Books’ took place on May 10th 1933 – exactly 84 years ago as I write this post. But in 2017, a large friendly crowd was standing in the sunshine, waving European flags. French flags were in evidence too, on the day of the French Presidential Election.
Bebelplatz in the May sunshine
Demonstrations are an intrinsic part of Berlin’s street life. It’s a city where people feel passionately about issues and at the weekend you can almost guarantee that there will some kind of public march or rally. On May Day, protests by political extremists often descend into violence and riots, although this year the multi-cultural ‘Myfest’ in Kreuzberg went ahead in relative calm.
Peaceful revellers at Myfest 2017
Various speakers addressed the crowd from the stage. Some had planned their words, others were more spontaneous. Each person who spoke then received a small bunch of lily of the valley (in German: Maiglöckchen – ‘little May bells’) for their contribution. Their personal stories all held the same message: European unity is the only way forward. Especially memorable were the words of a Jewish Berliner who told us that the EU is “the answer to the Holocaust”. Another speaker described the EU as “the most precious gift of the 20th Century”. Many of them referred to the ideals of French political economist and diplomat, Jean Monnet, considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union in the 1950s.
The stage complete with piano
The organisers of the Pulse of Europe demonstration had distributed sheets printed with the German words of ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. After the speeches, we all sang along to this European anthem, accompanied by live piano playing on the stage. Finally, we joined hands and danced around the square. It was hard to imagine that this square had once witnessed such hatred and violence.
Dancing round the square
On one side of Bebelplatz, is the beautiful Law Faculty building of Berlin’s Humboldt University (see first photo). This used to be the University Library, from whose windows Nazi students threw books that they considered ‘unGerman’ on to the bonfire below. A hundred years earlier, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) had written the prophetic lines: “Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.” Set into the ground on Bebelplatz is a memorial to the burning of the books. It consists simply of empty bookshelves and beside it a bronze inscription with Heine’s warning.
Book Burning Memorial
When the Pulse of Europe demonstration broke up, we walked back across Unter den Linden between the Neue Wache and the Gorki Theatre and paused by the statue of Heine, sitting smiling and relaxed among the chestnut trees. Heine’s later verse and prose are full of satirical wit and irony and his radical views led to him being banned in his own country. He spent the last 25 years of his life in Paris.
Heinrich Heine statue
The ‘Exberliner’, the hip monthly magazine for the English-speaking community in Berlin (currently estimated at 50,000), has been going since 2002. Apart from cultural listings, reviews, journalistic articles, opinion columns and a large classified section, there is a regular feature called, ‘My Perfect Berlin Weekend’, where an artist, musician or writer lists their favourite Berlin haunts from Friday to Sunday night. It always makes interesting reading and has led me to think of what my own choices might me. So, here’s a plan for this Easter weekend – given that the weather is going to be cool and cloudy. I have stretched it to Easter Monday, as it is a ‘Feiertag’ (Public Holiday). Just click on the names in bold for links to further information.
20.00 Konzert zum Karfreitag (Good Friday Concert) at the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt. Hector Berlioz, ‘Grande Messe des Morts’.
21.45 Dinner at Grill Royal overlooking the River Spree on Friedrichstrasse. It’s not cheap, but hard to beat this place for both food and location. And it’s got to be fish on Good Friday.
Cool fish at the Grill Royal
11:00 Brunch at Sowohl als Auch or Anna Blume in Prenzlauer Berg. Both places are perfect.
12:30 Browse through Saturday’s Wochenmarkt am Kollwitzplatz and the surrounding small shops.
14:00 A wander through the spacious galleries of the Gemäldegalerie at the Kulturforum, with its fabulous collection of paintings from 13th to 18th Century. The special exhibition is currently ‘The Charm of the Small; Studies of Nature in Holland’s Golden Age’ (until end of June).
Botticellis in the Gemāldegalerie
16.00 Coffee and cake at Café Einstein Stammhaus in Kurfürstenstrasse. Where else.
19.30 ‘My Fair Lady’ at the Komische Oper. The interior of this opera house on Behrenstrasee, just off Unter den Linden, is exquisite and the productions are usually quite avant-garde and fun. Everything is sung in German,with English sur-titles. No prizes for guessing which My Fair Lady hit these lines come from: ‘Es grünt, so grün, wenn Spaniens Blüten blühen.’
Inside the Komische Oper
23.00 Post-show discussion, cocktail and snack at the Schwarzes Café, Kantstrasse. Always a good late-night atmosphere, slightly mad décor and friendly service.
11:00 Time for some fresh air, even if it’s not so warm. So, breakfast at the Café zum Neuen See in the Tiergarten and a wander around the park. Or maybe even hire a boat on the lake.
Sunny day at the Café zum Neuen See
12:30 Stroll through the Tiergarten to the Trödelmarkt (Flea Market) and search for pretty 1920s glassware which is getting harder to find these days.
14:00 S-Bahn from Tiergarten to Ostbahnhof where there is another Antikmarkt and I might have more luck.
15.30 Walk across to the Radialsystem V, a former pump station on the River Spree, now a meeting place and arts venue. Coffee and cake in the café, hopefully outside on the riverside terrace.
17.00 Chamber music concert in Radialsystem V, featuring works by Oliver Messiaen.
Radialsystem V on the Spree
20.00 Dinner at the Ganymed on Schiffbauerdamm. I can never resist this place, for old times’ sake. Once frequented by Bertolt Brecht, we used to go there often in GDR days when many of the staff apparently worked for the Stasi….
The elegant Ganymed
11.00 A day out at a Berlin cherry blossom festival. There’s a choice between the Britzer Baumblüte in Gutspark Britz or the one in the Gärten der Welt in Marzahn which features interesting insights into Japanese, Korean and Chinese culture.
Cherry blossom time in Marzahn
19.45 or 20.30 An evening at the cinema, at either the UCI Cinema or the Lichtblick Kino, to see ‘The Young Karl Marx’, a film I missed at the Berlinale in February and which had good reviews. The Guardian review, by Peter Bradshaw, gave the film four out of five stars and stated ‘It shouldn’t work, but it does, due to the intelligence of the acting and the stamina and concentration of the writing and directing.‘ ‘Handsome, well-acted and sincerely-intentioned’, said BBC Culture. It’s not due for international release until June. Karl Marx studied at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin.
Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.
Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum
The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.
View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today
There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.
Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel
During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.
The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel
In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.
The reconstructed Nikolaikirche
The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Inside the Nikolaikirche
In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.
The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal
The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.
The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now
But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.
The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant
Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.
The monastery ruins
Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight.
The palms of Babylon