For fans of classical music, a trip to Berlin wouldn’t be complete without tickets to hear the Berlin Philharmoniker. Ranked second last year in the World’s Best Symphony Orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic – as they are generally referred to in the English-speaking world – has a huge international following and their concerts sell out very quickly. You have to be well-organised to secure a seat in the Philharmonie, home to this outstanding ensemble of musicians. For the subscription concerts, many of the seats have been sold in advance to season ticket holders and this reduces the number of tickets available for the general public.

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The Philharmonie – home to the Berlin Philharmoniker

When I lived in Berlin in the 1980s I queued all night on several occasions in order to see the legendary Herbert von Karajan conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Nowadays, with Sir Simon Rattle holding the baton, the queue is even longer although it doesn’t involve camping outside the entrance of the Philharmonie. Instead, you get online at 8am (9am Berlin time) on a designated Sunday morning and this is what I did last week to buy tickets for a concert on 23rd April. Even then, I was unable to get two tickets together in the price range I wanted. I didn’t give up though. Some tickets are reserved for telephone customers and when the lines opened at 11am (12 noon German time) I eventually got through and was lucky. My two hot tickets arrived in the post a couple of days ago.

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Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1987

If you look on the Berlin Philharmonic website you will see details of all the concerts for the current season, which started in August 2014 and runs until the end of June 2015. Since last Sunday, when the tickets for the general public were released for the rest of this season’s concerts, many of them are now sold out. So when the new season’s programme is announced, it will be important to find out when tickets go on sale so you can be sure of getting seats.

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The well-known logo of the Berlin Philharmonic

In the meantime you can always join the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. Here you can see and hear the Philharmonic’s concerts, live or on demand, not only under recent conductors, but even concerts conducted by such maestros as Claudio Abbado and Herbert von Karajan. The wonderful ‘Violins of Hope’ concert which I wrote about in January is also now available in the Digital Concert Hall. There are  several movies to watch, including Wim Wenders’ film about the Philharmonie building, ‘Cathedrals of Culture’ and the Berlin Philharmonic’s, ‘Trip to Asia’ which was shown in German cinemas. Perhaps most interesting of all is the film, ‘The Reichsorchester’ which tells the story of the Berlin Philharmoniker under the Nazis and looks at the relationship between art and power. It contains archive material with excerpts from concerts during the Third Reich and shows how Goebbels used the orchestra and the Philharmonie for Nazi events.

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If you are in Berlin on a Tuesday you can go along to one of the free lunchtime concerts in the foyer of the Philharmonie. The programme of chamber music lasts for just under an hour and features musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic and scholars of its Orchestra Academy, instrumentalists of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orcester and the Staatskapelle Berlin and students at Berlin’s music conservatories. It is all very informal and you may have to stand or sit on the staircases. Concerts start at 1pm and there’s a reasonably priced lunch on offer as well. You may even see Sir Simon Rattle himself there.

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A free Tuesday lunchtime concert in the foyer of the Philharmonie

Tours of the Philharmonie take place daily at 1.30 pm except over Christmas and during July and August. This iconic building on the edge of West Berlin next to Potsdamer Platz is now just over fifty years old and caused quite a controversy when it opened. In the 1920s the architect, Hans Scharoun, had a vision of the perfect theatre space: “One person opposite another, arranged in circles in sweeping, suspended arcs around soaring crystal pyramids”. Thirty-five years later, he developed the main concert hall of the Philharmonie from this idea, with the concert platform and the musicians forming the central focal point.

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Inside the Philharmonie

When it opened in 1963 the West Berliners gave it the nickname of ‘Zirkus Karajani’ (Karajan’s Circus) and were initially critical of its architecture. It is now considered a masterpiece and provided the inspiration for the circus tent design of the Sony Center which towers over it on Potsdamer Platz. The Panoramapunkt at the top of the Kolhoff buildling on Potsdamer Platz provides a great aerial view of the Philharmonie and the Kulturforum which surrounds it. This complex of buildings by the Tiergarten was developed to provide a cultural centre for West Berlin when it was cut off from its cultural heart by the Berlin Wall.

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View from the Panoramapunkt at Potsdamer Platz

The Philharmonie has wonderful acoustics and the tiered seats are so cleverly grouped that there is not a bad seat in the house. On concert nights the audience congregates on the ground floor at tables around the bars then disperses up various staircases and pours into the light-filled auditorium from all points of the compass. It is an ingenious use of space. I always try and choose a seat where I have a good view of the conductor’s face. When Sir Simon Rattle returns to London it will be hard for him to find such a perfect concert hall as the Philharmonie.

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