The Berliner Philharmoniker is an orchestra that’s regularly referred to as the Best in the World. Now, the idea of judging orchestras is, to me, nonsensical. Once we’re talking about a certain level of highly trained musicians with a substantial track record of performances and recordings, whether those musicians are in London, Chicago, Tokyo, or Boston, we can be sure that we’re past technical challenges of pulling off a performance and into the realm of hearing some sort of creation of an artistic vision.
That said, my experience is that there really is something special about the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s partly based on history, but when you see the orchestra in concert (whether in person or via their superb Digital Concert Hall), you’ll see that tradition and legacy are only a small part of the picture. It’s a young orchestra, with dynamic players from in every position.
You can learn quite a bit more about the orchestra and the reasons behind its consistently terrific performances in a recent blog post by New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock.
One aspect of the Berlin Philharmonic I think we in Boston can relate to is the orchestra’s relationship to its concert hall. A great concert hall isn’t necessarily required to cultivate a great orchestra (just look at the histories of the major orchestras in Chicago, Philadelphia, and London, just as a start), but it can really help. Symphony Hall in Boston very directly shapes the particularly gorgeous sounds of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and so it is in Berlin. The Philharmonie has allowed the Berlin Philharmonic to work regularly in a space that encourages in its musicians that subtle form of non-verbal, chamber-music-like communication that’s invariably part of the equation when it comes to great orchestra.
It wasn’t always the case. When Hans Scharoun’s modernist masterpiece first opened, replacing after many years a hall destroyed in World War II (left), the Philharmonie was, if not an acoustical disaster, at least a great disappointment. But in a rare instance of a bad-to-mediocre hall being transformed into an absolutely superb one, modifications were made over the years to create one of the great concert halls of the world.
What distinguishes the Philharmonie from other amazing concert halls like our Symphony Hall and the vaunted Musikverein in Vienna is the relationship of the audience. Intentionally built to bring to the audience a more direct, visceral, connected experience, the stage is set at the bottom of a bowl, with the audience surrounding it. In a series of four concerts I attended a few years ago, I found that the experience really is remarkable. And yet, amazingly, in the four places I sat in the hall, the acoustic was even, blended, and true.
Beyond the experience of hearing music in the hall, I also found the architecture of the building itself to be inspiring. To once again draw comparison to Symphony Hall, walking into the lobby of the building takes you very definitively to a different time. But while Symphony Hall takes you to the early 20th century ambition and optimism of Boston, the Philharmonie transports you to that very troubled time of a divided Berlin in the early 1960’s.
It’s an era of architecture that hasn’t worn well overall, in my opinion, but like so much of Berlin, the building tells an important story, and one that connects to what the Philharmonic has been and is now to Berlin, Germany, and the world. And in that sense, it's architecture that's beautiful and exciting.
If you’d like to share your experience of visiting the Philharmonie or hearing the Philharmonic, feel free to add a comment below.
(images via Wikimedia Commons)