Magazine article The New Yorker

Overtures

Magazine article The New Yorker

Overtures

Article excerpt

The Berlin Philharmonie, Hans Scharoun's gold-yellow masterpiece of late-modern design, was once a temple in a wilderness. Even in 1995, when I last visited Berlin, the wreckage of history was all around: the gray crevasses where the Wall had stood; the Wilhelmine villas crumbling in the woods; the eerie meadow covering the site of Hitler's bunker. Now the Philharmonie presides at the far end of the new avenues of Potsdamer Platz, its tilted, tentlike forms grabbing the eye at every turn. The "new Berlin" takes its cue from the Philharmonie, and the heightened glamour of the hall creates an exceptional challenge for the musicians who work within it. The Berlin Philharmonic, commonly and plausibly described as the greatest orchestra in the world, must now reach out to younger generations of Berliners. The orchestra took up that challenge by electing as its next conductor not another jet-set maestro but the passionate, obstinate, charismatic Simon Rattle, who, in the eighties and nineties, turned down many job offers to remain with the City of Birmingham Symphony. In Birmingham, Rattle brought a local orchestra to the attention of the world; in Berlin, his task is to make a world-famous orchestra local again, to prove that it matters to a financially unsettled city.

To conduct the Berlin Philharmonic is to be the unofficial chairman of the board of classical music. The authority of the post derives not only from the splendor of the orchestra--its intimidating blend of virtuosity and intelligence--but also from the lustre of those who have led it in the past: Hans von Bulow, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan. It is not surprising that when Rattle took over from his immediate predecessor, the diffident but deep-thinking Claudio Abbado, the city made an extraordinary fuss. Walking around the city before the recent German election, you might have thought that Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and his challenger Edmund Stoiber were being upstaged by an eccentric write-in candidate named Sir Simon. ("Welcome Sir Simon," the posters said, in English, not German.) The opening concert, on September 7th, attracted the Federal President and the mayor of Berlin, along with Harald Schmidt, the German David Letterman. Ninety-eight music critics attended--an orchestra of second guessers. The reviews ranged from the wildly enthusiastic to the mildly skeptical, but no one questioned that Rattle had seized the moment.

Rattle has walked into the middle of a complicated situation. Back in the Cold War, Berlin's music was fodder for propaganda--East and West had rival opera houses, rival concert orchestras, rival radio orchestras, and so on. Now these institutions must justify their subsidies to a unified city. According to one ominous report in circulation, the budget for opera may be cut from a hundred and fourteen million euros to fifty-five million. Rattle cannily cemented his position long before arriving on the podium: he refused to sign his contract until the orchestra had been made an independent foundation and the players' salaries raised. More recently, the papers were reporting an imbroglio involving Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, the imaginative and aggressive Intendant of the Philharmonic, who, not long ago, was causing consternation at Carnegie Hall. Ohnesorg evidently removed two plantings from the Philharmonie's foyer in order to make room for a much needed intermission bar. Guardians of Scharoun's architectural legacy were aghast--the Philharmonie was being "degraded to banality," one said--and politicians disliked the peremptory way in which Ohnesorg pushed through his plan. Bigger problems may ensue if the Intendant continues to show "poor style," as Thomas Flierl, the culture senator, put it.

The September 7th concert fell a little short of the impossibly high expectations that had been created for it. Rattle began with Thomas Ades's 1997 work "Asyla" ("Asylums"), which also appeared on the conductor's final program in Birmingham. …

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