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.
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.
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