Music for the Thinking Ear

Music for the Thinking Ear

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

The Pierre Boulez Saal

Daniel Barenboim with Pierre Boulez

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

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

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

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

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.

A Sunday of Films and Fools

A Sunday of Films and Fools

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.

A Tip-top Night Out

A Tip-top Night Out

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.

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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.

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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.

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The original cast of Frau Luna in 1899

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘Cabaret‘ in the Tipi, 2016

Railway Triangle Park

Railway Triangle Park

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.

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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.

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An urban oasis

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Beach Volleyball in the Westpark

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Picnics and playparks in the Ostpark

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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.

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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 Christmas Treat

A Christmas Treat

The Advent atmosphere is in full swing in Berlin. Bright white lights sparkle in the trees and shop windows glitter with gold and silver. Over 60 Christmas markets are on offer. From the grand and gaudy, to the fairy-tale or funky, the urban or eco, there is something for everyone. The scent of roasted nuts and Glühwein fills the air and all that remains to complete the scene is a light dusting of snow. But it’s not cold enough yet…

Christmas lights on the Ku’damm

This is where the Deutsche Oper comes to the rescue with their lavish and beautiful production of La Bohème, originally created by Götz Friedrich in 1988. This romantic opera is a Christmas treat to rival The Nutcracker. Snow falls on the rooftops of Paris and the young Bohemians are freezing and starving in their garret, drinking wine and warming their hands to a fire stoked with burning poetry.

Rodolpho falls in love with Mimi, as snow lightly falls in the background

The Christmas Eve café scene is a riot of people, children with toys, a marching band of soldiers, flame-throwers and fireworks. The entire opera seems to come straight from a Lautrec painting brought to life. The audience only need to focus on the era and the music without any directorial distractions, just as Puccini intended.

 

The entire cast take a bow at the end of Scene Two

It goes without saying that the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra are all sublime. The Deutsche Oper never falls short of the mark and last night in a full house the applause was thunderous. There are seven more performances of La Bohème this December, so catch it if you can – or next time it comes round. The Deutsche Oper is such a fabulous, welcoming place to be. Wonderful, easy to read surtitles are provided in both English and German for every production and the technical effects are always superb. For tickets and further information in English follow this link.