A New Concert Hall in Berlin
8/03/17. Berlin has a new concert space, The Pierre Boulez Hall, named for the French composer and conductor. It opened this past weekend under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Located in the former Magazin (1952-55), or storage depot, for the nearby State Opera House on Unter den Linden, it gives some substance to a formerly very arid part of Berlin’s heart, not far from the German Foreign Ministry. Downtown Mitte seems a little thicker somehow, a little better for it, a little less like a graveyard of Prussian decadence. I’ll try to tell you why.
First there’s the programming, which is astonishingly good. Barenboim and the Hall’s director, Ole Bækhøj, want to promote both familiar repertoire and new music––you will find both in the same program (although it must be said that with the exception of Elliott Carter and Arab contributions, almost all the new music is by European men). It’s also a Schubert anniversary year, and already this week you have Radu Lupu playing four-hand piano music with Barenboim, and Christian Gerhaher singing the Winterreise. The Chamber Music Hall of the Berlin Philharmonie is already one of the best places in the world to hear this kind of music, and so I feel so lucky with the glut of choice, along with all the other venues in this city, since the Pierre Boulez Saal has opened. What beautiful news to see Classical music expanding to packed audiences in the German capital.
The Hall is also the resident performance space of The Barenboim-Said Akademie (BSA), which opened its doors this past fall to 37 students (it will be 90 at capacity) from the Middle East. The idea of the progenitor West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (est. 1999) was to promote international understanding and peace by bringing Israeli and Arab musicians together. The presence of such a peace project in what was the heart of the former Nazi capital is a poignant reminder of how things can actually get better, and not worse, over time. I think we all need, these days, this kind of optimism.
And what of the hall itself? Well, I’m so enthusiastic about the programming and the BSA’s mission, I hate to complain… but…perhaps this is just a matter of taste. I must confess I don’t like architect Frank Gehry’s work very much. Perhaps I’m tired of all this name dropping––so much Boulez, so much Barenboim (there were two on-stage Saturday, both excellent of course), so much Star-chitect. Why do we need this imprimatur when it would be more elegant for the music (or architecture) to speak for itself? I feel the weight of German hierarchy-worship. Although I am impressed that Gehry donated his services for free.
The press photos (pictured here) look rather better than the reality. Still, I like that every seat seems to be close to the conductor; I like the way the Berlin sky is visible high above the stage. The old metallic storage doors of the Magazin are visible on the upper floors of the foyer––giving the hall a touch of Berlin industrial. And, most importantly, there are great acoustics that can flexibly accommodate different volumes: something masterfully illustrated during the opening concert with instrument combinations ranging from a solo clarinet fantasy by Jörg Widmann, to the Mozart Piano Quartet in E -flat major (K. 493), to Boulez’s Sur Incises (1998) for three pianos, three harps, and three percussion groups. It was beautiful to hear soprano Anna Prohaska‘s voice fill the space for a Schubert lyrical scene.
But there are obvious––and perhaps irrelevant, given the hall’s mission and general functionality––design flaws, such as the unnecessarily elaborate lighting system, which had the whole audience in a fit of laughter at the opening as it repeatedly blinded them. Or the awkwardness of the foyer area, too tight around the well of the stairs, where it’s simply too packed for people both to get their jackets from the garderobe and leave the building with ease. Meanwhile––and this is my problem with Gehry––I don’t understand why there need to be doors on the upper floors that lead into mid-air (“suicide doors” says my partner), or for so many materials––douglas fir, steel, glass, different coloured painted surfaces––all to coexist so uncomfortably, and pieced together at such irregular angles in the detailing. Why do we need an undulating po-mo curve for the ring of upper balcony seats; what purpose does that serve? Why (recalling the Los Angeles Disney Hall ugly-carpet controversy) does the astonishingly bold cloth pattern on the hall’s seats make one think we are on a Nordic cruise? Why does the ensemble of the hall make one feel like one is in the boardroom of a national airline? There is something corporate and excessive in this design, but I hardly care.
It’s wonderful this hall exists, and I can always close my eyes to listen.