I first came to love music, I mean really love music, by listening to the Berlin Philharmonic during a semester spent in Berlin. I was an avid fan that whole fall, not only attending every concert I could get tickets for, but also squeezing my way into occasional rehearsals. I got to love the building itself—not the scaly gold exterior, but that warm, intimate, beautifully shaped, acoustically perfect auditorium. I got to love the musicians, who together formed a miraculously unified yet personally distinctive ensemble. And I especially got to love the way Simon Rattle connected with both his players and his audiences, making us feel we were all part of the same exciting endeavor.
So whenever I am in the same town as the Berlin Phil, I go again, and each time I have that same sense of discovery. Over the last ten days I got to hear them four times in New York—three times at Carnegie Hall, once at the Park Avenue Armory—with results that ranged from intense satisfaction to delirious delight.
The first Carnegie concert (a longer version of the gala for which the high-flyers had paid a fortune the night before) took place on Thursday the 2nd and featured Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Some people felt that the former was a bit of flash performed brilliantly while the latter was the meaty substance; others felt the reverse. (I was in the former category, a friend I spoke to at intermission in the latter). But Simon and his band clearly felt that both pieces equally deserved their serious attention, and their conviction made the entire experience compelling. The program made me realize, for one thing, how late Romanticism could blend almost seamlessly into early Modernism; it also brought home the fact that both these Russian works were essentially about dance. At the end, Rattle returned to his podium during the fourth standing ovation, quieted the audience with his hands, and asked in a friendly tone, “Do you want us to play something else?” The roaring crowd yelled, “Yes!” and was duly treated a lovely instrumental interlude from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.
The next two concerts, on Sunday the 5th and Monday the 6th, were mildly less exciting, mainly because they consisted almost entirely of Schumann symphonies. The Berlin Phil is capable of making me love almost any composer (I became a Brahms convert after they did all four Brahms symphonies here a couple of years ago), but Schumann may pose too high a barrier—though Berlin friends who heard Rattle leading mixed Brahms-Schumann concerts there in late September told me it was a revelation. Our New York concerts could perhaps have used some Brahms to fatten them up.
The Monday concert benefited from having an interlude of Georg Friedrich Haas between Schumann’s 4th (which Rattle played in its earlier, lighter edition) and Schumann’s 3rd, which ended the program with a bang. The Haas, dark dreams, was a new piece written in 2013, and its twenty-three-minute duration could have been either five minutes or an hour: once you got into its musical zone, which involved hair-raising string-and-horn creepiness mingled with ominous drum rolls, solemn gongs, and even occasional solo melodies, you lost the sense of where you were in time and just drifted. I was grateful for its novelties and thrilled by its depths, but the grumpy old guys sitting around me (at least one of whom had slept through the initial Schumann) were clearly upset by the unexpectedness of having to listen to something new. When a small portion of the audience began booing at the end—an almost unheard-of event at Carnegie—one of my seatmates muttered his agreement with the naysayers, adding: “I hate that kind of muck!” Such attitudes made the rest of us feel a bit as if we were attending the original Rite of Spring.
The high point of the Berlin Phil’s visit, though, was their performance of the Saint Matthew Passion at the Park Avenue Armory, where they had recreated the seating structure of the Philharmonie auditorium so as to stage Peter Sellars’s production in the round. I had seen this Saint Matthew before, in Berlin, and while I did not buy tickets to either of the two New York performances (prices for this White Light Festival event started at around $275 and eventually reached a scalped $800), I managed to get my class of writing students into the all-day Saturday rehearsal, courtesy of Sellars himself. He generously seated us about ten feet from the stage, right in front of all the action, and my students and I were in heaven. We got to see 45 minutes or so of actual rehearsing, with Simon Rattle speaking quietly to the singers and players (sometimes in German, sometimes in English), getting them to redo certain bits and focusing on subtle acoustical questions while the chorus stampeded around the hall to its designated marks. And then, even more importantly, we were treated to a full run-through of the whole show, with a lunch break in the middle.
I had been moved by the performance in Berlin, but I was even more moved here, where I could read every line in English supertitles as it was being sung. And it was remarkable to sit so close to Mark Padmore as he rendered his intensely physical, searingly emotional Evangelist, the transmitter through whom this whole account of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion comes to life—comes to life even, perhaps especially, for us agnostics in the audience. I had told my students beforehand that if they were sure they were not going to write their papers on the Saint Matthew they could go home at the break if they got too tired, but almost all of them stayed for the whole 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. experience. And when I left at the end of the afternoon, I felt that my class and I had witnessed something irreplaceably wonderful. It seemed even better than a real performance would have been, because we got both the intensity of the full concert—granted to us at very close range—and the intimacy of being part of its making.