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.
Mid-February is a great time to visit Berlin, with the Berlinale film festival plus a carnival to beat the winter blues. And it’s all wrapped up a week before the Oscars in Hollywood and the carnival celebrations in the rest of Germany. Just like Berlin to be ahead of the game. Now in its 67th year, the Berlinale is as popular as ever. It’s a true peoples’ event, with a reputation for political integrity and cutting through red carpet hype. Tickets are reasonably easy to come by; quite a number are available online three days before the event and there are four ticket outlets in the city centre, with plenty on sale over the ten days of the festival. For a round-up of this year’s films and winners go to the Berlinale website
One of the best things about the Berlinale is the final Sunday, known as ‘Publikumstag’ (audience’s day). The prize-winners have been announced and the stars have gone home, but many of the films are shown again and tickets only cost eight euros. The venues are still packed full and the applause at the end of each showing is just as enthusiastic. This is genuine appreciation of the art of film-making in a city that has always loved the cinema.
This year the Berlinale Publikumstag coincided with the annual Berlin Karneval procession along the Kurfürstendamm. The carnival season in Germany, also known as the ‘Fünfte Jahreszeit’ (Fifth Season) begins each year on 11 November at 11:11 a.m. when the planning starts, and finishes on Ash Wednesday of the following year. The main festivities take place on or around the Monday before Ash Wednesday – ‘Rosenmontag’, but carnival week itself officially starts on ‘Weiberfastnacht’ (Women’s Carnival) ,the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Follow this link for more German carnival detail.
Berlin is not traditionally a carnival city – the main ones are in Roman Catholic parts of Germany and the most famous parade of all takes place in Köln (Cologne). But Berlin loves a party and has plenty of local carnival guilds who want to join in. The Berlin procession this year took place on the Sunday before carnival week starts in the rest of the country. After the terrorist attack at the Christmas Market on 19th December, there was some debate about whether the procession would still go ahead. But it got the green light – amid strengthened security precautions and with the proviso that there should be five hundred metres of silence when it passed Breidscheidplatz, where the atrocity took place.
Over 200,000 people turned out to watch the carnival procession, many of them in fancy dress themselves. The colourful floats and bands set off at precisely eleven minutes past eleven from Olivaerplatz with 2,000 revellers making their merry way along the Ku’damm towards Wittenbergplatz, showering 30 tons of sweets into the crowd, who shouted back carnival greetings such as ‘Hai Jo’(Berliners) and ‘Alaaf’ (Rhinelanders). There are many local traditions associated with carnival, but all over Germany the participants are known as ‘Narren’ (fools) and often behave accordingly. It’s a time to let your hair down before the seriousness of Lent and poke fun at the establishment.
Later in the day, I managed to catch two films on ‘Publikumstag’. The first was ‘A Prominent Patient’ (original title: Masaryk), described in one review as a ‘stately, handsomely-mounted biopic of Czech wartime statesman Jan Masaryk’. Set in 1938/39, it focuses on the political intrigue leading up to the Second World War and tells the story of the son of Czechoslovakia’s first president, a diplomat who loved jazz and cocaine. It was a perfect film to see in Berlin. Interestingly, the sub-titles (where needed) were only in English. Most foreign films in the Berlinale are subtitled in both English and German.
The second film was ‘Helle Nächte’ (Bright Nights). A mourning father (played by Georg Friedrich from Austria won the Silver Bear award for best actor) tries to rekindle his relationship with his 14-year old son after years of absence and lack of communication. He takes him on a car trip across northern Norway during the summer solstice, hoping it is not too late. Much remained unsaid in this film, but it rang true. It also had the definite plus of being shown in the huge Friedrichstadtpalast, a theatre normally used for glitzy variety shows and where the air conditioning mist floats out of the top of the seats.
For the final blog of 2016 here is something joyful – a recommendation for a tip-top night out to a Berlin comic operetta; something to lift the spirit and warm the soul. It is dedicated to those people who were tragically involved in the terrible Christmas market massacre of 19th December. I had been standing on that very spot only a week before, buying Christmas Lebkuchen hearts, and while the dreadful event was unfolding I was posting my last blog about four magical markets. It is a very sombre scene now on Breitscheidplatz, where a mass of candles and flowers marks the scene of the murders.
Flowers and Candles on Breitscheidplatz
But Berlin is the ultimate city of resolute survival. Tonight, there will be more fireworks than ever at the Brandenburg Gate and the show will go on at every venue imaginable. For a night out that conjures up the cabaret atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, I can recommend the Tipi am Kanzleramt, a marquee theatre hidden away in the Tiergarten, only a stone’s throw from Angela Merkel’s office and the Reichstag. The Tipi is a permanent venue for variety acts, cabaret, musicals and chansons, but has the nostalgic feel of a Spiegeltent, where travelling artistes bring music, magic and a touch of decadence to the general public.
The Tipi am Kanzleramt
Until the end of January, Berliners are flocking to see ‘Frau Luna’ (Mrs Moon), a ‘burlesque and fantastic operetta’, composed by Paul Lincke, and first performed in 1899. Lincke had previously worked at the Folies Bergères in Paris and in 1908, he became principal conductor and composer for the Metropol Theater, whose spectacular revues were the capital’s biggest attraction. He is considered to be the father of operetta in Berlin, and has the same significance for the German capital as Johann Strauss for Vienna and Jacques Offenbach for Paris. On his 75th birthday, Lincke was made an honorary citizen of Berlin. Now this new production marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.
The original cast of Frau Luna in 1899
German postage stamp commemorating Paul Lincke
Frau Luna has a crazy storyline, which involves a group of ordinary Berliners going to the moon on a home-made craft. It’s full of mad scenes and characters, but the main theme of escapism and chasing dreams comes clearly through. There are plenty of foot-tapping and hand-clapping songs, especially ‘Das ist die Berliner Luft’, (‘That’s the Berlin air’) which is Lincke’s most famous composition and has become the well-loved anthem of Berlin. (Follow this link to see the Berlin Philharmonic perform it as a march). Frau Luna is not considered suitable for non-German speakers because of the German dialogue and jokes, but the music has instant appeal and there are slick dance routines. My English-speaking friend loved the glamour of the whole spectacle, staged in festive silver, black and white. You can get a flavour of the show from this trailer on You Tube.
The 2016 production of Frau Luna
Not all the entertainment happens on stage in the Tipi am Kanzleramt. Members of the audience sit at tables and can order (or pre-order) food and drink. The menu features Berlin specialities as well as beers, wines and Sekt from Germany and Austria and prices are quite reasonable. People-watching becomes part of the fun and the traditionally-dressed waiters provide impeccable service, under considerable pressure.
The audience arriving in the Tipi
The Tipi programme also includes plenty of shows and acts in English. In summer 2017, it features ‘Cabaret – the Musical’ once again and the Kit Kat Club will be recreated in the Tipi tent theatre. Tickets can be bought online and need to be booked early, especially for the best seats. Follow this link for the Tipi website.
‘Cabaret‘ in the Tipi, 2016
Last December I wrote about two fairy-tale Christmas markets on the outer edges of West Berlin. For this year, here are four city centre markets with great atmosphere and historic charm. The setting is a key factor and even without the merest sprinkling of snow, these markets have backdrops that make them special. They are most magical after dusk, when the stalls and trees are strung with lights. Look out for the traditional ‘Herrenhuter Sterne’ (Moravian stars) which originated in 1830; they hang outside stalls and shops all over Germany and have a unique glow.
Traditional Herrenhuter Stern
The market in the grand courtyard of Schloβ Charlottenburg has a tempting variety of food stalls on offer, many of them in festive-shaped constructions. Try the venison goulasch, the suckling pig or the fried green cabbage, as well as any kind of sausage imaginable. Mulled wine comes in different flavours with extra shots and the mug only costs an extra two euros as a souvenir.
Magical skyline at Charlottenburg
Every kind of ‘Wurst’
The Charlottenburg market has plenty of Christmas decoration and craft stalls too. Here the traditional wooden ‘Weihnachtspyramide’ and carved figures are better value than in the shops, but make sure they originate from the ‘Erzgebirge’ (Ore mountains) if you want the genuine article. The huge wooden nativity scene and the musicians playing Christmas carols add to the nostalgic feel, but there’s an element of the modern fairground in the mix.
Carols and the ‘candy train’
Another popular market laid out in front of beautiful historic buildings is the ‘Weihnachtszauber’ market on Gendarmenmarkt, where the Konzerthaus, flanked by the impressive twin French and German churches, provides a dream setting. There’s a charge of one euro to enter this market, although it doesn’t seem to keep the numbers down. Last Friday evening it was extremely full and we had to fight our way through the crowds. In the middle of the market is a stage for the live entertainment and many of the stalls are crammed into large tents. It’s all very jolly, especially in the food tents with their Bierfest atmosphere and cheerful service. The Gendarmenmarkt market runs until New Year’s Eve.
In front of the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt
If you are looking for something more low-key and smaller-scale, take a stroll along Sophienstrasse, just a couple of minutes from the Hackescher Markt. This an ‘Ökomarkt’, where all the goods have ecological or organic pedigree and are generally hand-crafted. Sophienstrasse is lined with beautifully-restored buildings, including the oldest baroque church in Berlin, Sophienkirche. The shops have traditional medieval metal signs hanging outside and the old-fashioned street lamps and metal railings of the church cemetery contribute to a Dickensian atmosphere. This market is only open on Advent weekends until 7pm. No Easyjet revellers here.
The Advent scene on Sophienstrasse
You can also escape the tourists at the ‘Lucia market’ in Prenzlauer Berg, named after the Nordic goddess of light. Set up in the ‘Kulturbrauerei’, a former brewery complex from the 19th century, the market stalls feature traditional Scandinavian handicrafts, food and drink. The historic brick buildings form a spectacular backdrop and there is a family feel to this market, with its carousels and children’s art gallery. The Glühwein flows for the adults, including several unusual Scandinavian varieties. Next to one of the drink stalls is an added attraction; a wood-fired stove where market-goers can sit on benches warmed by electric radiators and slip their arms into a thick sheepskin coat.
Something for all the family at the Lucia Markt
With its vast tracts of forests and parks, Berlin has always been a green metropolis. Now the city centre has a growing number of urban oases created out of wasteland (‘Brachland’) left behind by wartime destruction or the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. One of the latest triumphs is the Park am Gleisdreieck (‘Park on the Railway Triangle’). It is a wonderful example of how a wilderness of overgrown and disused railway tracks and yards can be transformed into a beautiful and vibrant recreational space.
Panorama view of the park
This large park in Kreuzberg and Schöneberg has been created from a former railway junction, which was badly bombed in the Second World War and left as wasteland. It became part of a Reichsbahn enclave belonging to the GDR and remained untouched for decades. Left to its own natural devices, it developed a rich diversity of vegetation. A citizens’ group was formed with the aim of ensuring that this refuge for flora and fauna did not fall into the hands of developers, and in the end they were successful. The planning process took the views of local residents into account and the result is a resounding victory for ‘people power’. It was also a multi-cultural venture, with immigrant women helping with planting and gardening. Very Kreuzberg.
An urban oasis
The Rosenduft (‘rose scent’) garden
A railway track running north-south and leading to the Deutsches Technikmuseum still separates the grounds of the Park am Gleisdreieck and a museum train operates along it in the summer months. The 42-acre Ostpark was opened in September 2011 and the 22-acre Westpark on 1st June 2013. In March 2014, the smaller Flaschenhalspark (‘Bottleneck Park’), completed the project, making a trio of parks in the Gleisdreieck. The whole complex stretches from the Landwehr Canal to the Monument Bridge.
The museum train
Each part of the park has a different character. The Westpark features expansive lawns, play zones and beach volleyball courts. The Ostpark boasts a nature discovery area, a skateboard half-pipe, a little maple and oak forest and even an outdoor dance floor. Historic relics such as railway tracks, signals and ramps have been integrated into the landscaping as a permanent reminder of the past use of the land, especially in the Flaschenhalspark. There is always something magical about spotting overgrown, disused railway tracks amongst trees. The imagination starts to run free.
Old tracks among the trees
The Park am Gleisdreieck has something to offer everyone – young and old, walkers and cyclists, joggers and ramblers. I went there recently on a Sunday and was enchanted. Despite being so popular, there are plenty of quiet corners and interesting views. Locals were enjoying picnics and barbecues on the grass and there are a number of kiosks and pavilions with tables in the shade, where you can stop for drinks and snacks.
Beach Volleyball in the Westpark
Picnics and playparks in the Ostpark
The coolest kiosk is ‘Café Eule’
The various park entrances are listed below. The Yorckstrasse entrance is a good place to start if you want a stroll through nature before hitting the more populated areas. Because the original pre-1945 ‘railway triangle’ was formed from the viaducts of overhead rails, the park feels as if it is on a plateau, magically above street life and yet so close to it. There is something wistful and poetic about this urban retreat. The essence of pre-war Berlin still lingers, providing simple outdoor pleasures for city dwellers.
Ostpark U1 U7 Underground Station Möckernbrücke Entrance Tempelhofer Ufer/Ecke Möckernstraße
S1 S2 S25 U7 S-Bahn and Underground Station Yorckstraβe, Bus M19, N7 Entrance Yorckstrasse
Westpark U2 Underground Station Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park, Bus M 29 Entrance Schöneberger Ufer
U1 U2 Underground Station Gleisdreieck Entrance Schöneberger Straße
U1 Underground Stations Kurfürstenstraße and Bülowstraße Entrance Kurfürstenstraße
U2 Underground Station Bülowstraße Entrance Bülowstraße
A night out at the Admiralspalast
The words ‘Berlin’ and ‘cabaret’ are synonymous. The songs from the 1920s and 1930s echo down the years, and capture the essential Berlin feeling. Like a magic carpet of sound they transport you effortlessly back to a time when the German capital was renowned for its creativity and risqué edginess. Packed with catchy melodies and witty lyrics, the popular hits from the Weimar era paint a musical picture of the Zeitgeist. Nobody plays them better than the iconic Berlin-based band, Max Raabe & Palast Orchester, and the historic Admiralspalast next to Friedrichstraße Station provides the perfect setting. Last month, the band was back there, with their sell-our show, ‘Eine Nacht in Berlin’ (A Night in Berlin) and I had made sure of tickets by booking six months ahead.
The hot ticket
The German word ‘Palast’ (palace) says it all; both the band and the building have style and glamour. It is sheer professionalism and a unique sound that makes Max Raabe & Palast Orchester so special. Their shows are slick and seamless and capture the sound of those pre-war years that the Americans call‘Roaring’ and the Germans call ‘Golden’ – and the heyday of the Admiralspalast. Max Raabe founded the Palast Orchester in 1986, with 11 fellow students at the Berlin Academy of Arts, where he graduated as a baritone singer. The band initially used original musical arrangements from the 1920s and 1930s that Raabe picked up at various Berlin flea markets. Then they worked on learning them before giving their first public performance in 1987. They had their first hit 5 years later, with an original song, ‘Kein Schwein ruft mich an’ (Nobody calls me up). You can follow this link to listen and read more about Max Raabe on the Goethe Institute website.
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester
The band’s repertoire is mainly a homage to composers from the pre-war era of German and American popular songs, but they also perform contemporary music in the same vintage musical style. Non-German speakers might miss the humour in some of the lyrics, but Max Raabe’s singing is so accomplished and expressive that it hardly matters. There are instrumental numbers too, and in true jazz style the band members – who are traditionally all male, with the exception of the violinist – have a chance to show off their individual talent.
Queuing to get into the show
On the evening I heard them at the Admiralspalast we were treated to six extra numbers in English at the end of the show, as it was being recorded for an American TV channel. They included perfect renderings of ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘Mack the Knife’. Next season the band is appearing in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In the past they have performed in the Cadogan Hall in London, the Carnegie Hall in New York and in Israel. But to really tune into the band’s Berlin connection, it has to be the Admiralspalast. Tickets are already on sale for March 2017 on the band’s website.
Street view of the Admiralspalast
The Admiralspalast is one of the few Weimar theatres left in Berlin and like many survivors, it has had to re-invent itself to adapt to changing times. Its history dates back to 1867 when a saltwater spring was discovered on this site. The ‘Admiralsgartenbad’ opened in 1873 and soon became one of the leading public baths in Imperial Berlin. This building was demolished in 1910 and replaced a year later with the luxurious four-storey Admiralspalast, containing a skating rink, bowling alleys, restaurants, a cinema – and, allegedly, a bordello. The whole complex had over 900 rooms.
The ladies’ baths in the Admiralsgartenbad
The ice-skating rink at the Admiralspalast
An English cartoon from the 1920s
In 1920, the concept of the Admiralspalast was changed and the central skating rink was turned into a variety theatre in art déco style, with two dress circles and 1,065 seats. Ten years later the auditorium was enlarged to seat 2,200 and given a new, expressionist design. After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, the Admiralspalast was used mainly for the performance of operettas. In 1939, on the orders of Goebbels, it was given the plain, classical interior that it has retained to this day. A ‘Führerloge’(Führer’s box) was added in 1940; Hitler often slipped into the theatre to watch his favourite operetta, ‘Die lustige Witwe’ (The Merry Widow).
The Admiralspalast auditorium
The Admiralspalast escaped the World War II bombing relatively unscathed. After the war, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Communist Party of Germany in the Soviet Occupation Zone held a historic convention at the Admiralspalast where they merged to become the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which was to rule the GDR for 40 years. The building then became home to the Berlin State Opera until 1955, when restoration of the opera house on Unter den Linden was completed. During the GDR years, revues and operettas continued to be performed at the Admiralspalast, but under the name of the Metropol-Theater. The GDR Union of Journalists also had its offices inside the Admiralspalast.
The Admiralspalast as home to the Berlin State Opera
After reunification, the Admiralspalast put on shows until 1997, when it was closed and threatened with demolition. The site stood empty for several years, but was finally rescued and renovated. On August 11th, 2006, when the restoration work was still incomplete, it officially reopened with Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, directed by Klaus Maria Brandauer. This was followed by ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ and, in the summer of 2009, it became the first venue in Germany to stage Mel Brook’s cult comedy ‘The Producers’. Follow this link for an interesting review of this Nazi-lampooning show. These days, it’s mainly concerts and comedy shows that are held in the main auditorium of the Admiralspalast. Sometimes the seats are folded away – then everyone parties and dances the night away. The Admiralspalast’s website gives all the details of their entertainment programme in English.