Berlin Diary

I was in Berlin for nearly three weeks, so you’re not going to hear about everything I saw or heard. You won’t, for instance, hear about the Telemann Death of Jesus performed with a twenty-first-century Requiem, nor the piano recital accompanied by videos of the pianist’s artworks, nor the two Stabat Maters on one Kammermusiksaal program, nor the excellent modern program (including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time) presented by Spectrum, nor any of the great art collections and gallery shows I visited. And you won’t hear about my side-trip to Amsterdam to go to Mark Padmore’s version of the St. Matthew Passion at the Concertgebouw, because that will come up in a future issue of Threepenny. But believe me, there is plenty left over. If you get bored, you can just start skipping.

Monday, March 23: Angelin Preljocaj’s The Nights at the Deutsche Oper. Dance is usually not good in Berlin, but I never give up on it, because over the years I have seen a few highlights (my first sighting of Polina Semyonova, dancing with the Staatsoper Ballet; some good Sasha Waltz productions; and perhaps one or two other things). This Preljocaj ballet, though, might be the worst piece of dance I have ever seen in my life. It was filled with bare-breasted young woman (they looked about sixteen or seventeen at the curtain call) doing supposedly sexy things with a bunch of equally fit male dancers. The gestures were repetitive beyond belief, and apparently Preljocaj can’t think of anything for people to do at night but have sex:  there were no dreams or nightmares, no sleeping, no anxiety-filled insomnia, no early-dawn birdcalls—nothing but recycled Berlin-nightclub-style (but this is to insult Berlin nightclubs) sexual shenanigans. I would have left at the interval, except there was none; the concert was just over an hour, and it felt like three hours. I wanted to boo and hiss at the end, but since I was a foreigner, I just protested by keeping my hands firmly clasped in my lap while the rest of the audience applauded wildly.

Wednesday, March 25: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. This visiting orchestra was performing under the supervision of the Korean conductor Myung-Wun Chung, and since it was not the fabled Berlin Philharmonic itself, we were able to buy tickets at the last minute; my friends and I even got to sit in the seats I had always looked at longingly, the ones located directly behind the stage. This turned out to be the perfect vantage point from which to listen to, and especially watch, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The soloist in the Tchaikovsky, Maxim Vengerov, was fine (you have to be very good just to play this piece at all), but the real person to watch in this show was the conductor, Chung. He is an elegant man with an impassive face, and he barely moves a muscle as he conducts: it is like watching someone do minimalist tai chi, with the tiniest of gestures producing big results. Under his command, the French orchestra was especially good on the Berlioz, and hearing it from behind—overlooking the brass and the drums directly, with the strings in the far distance—gave the piece a novel power I had never experienced before.

Friday, March 27: Daniel Barenboim conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. This too was at the Philharmonie, and it was again guest performers, though this time of such an audience-attracting nature that we had to buy tickets well in advance. Frankly, I enjoyed the French/Korean performance more. Barenboim and his players were good on the Pierre Boulez pieces that started the program; they were especially good when they played one of the Boulez pieces twice, in two different arrangements. And they did a lovely piece of spontaneous Bach at the beginning, in honor of the 149 passengers who had just died in the Germanwings crash; that was perhaps the most moving element of the concert. But the main feature, Schubert’s Ninth, was a bit of a slog, especially compared to the thrilling way Simon Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic perform it. Barenboim’s and Vienna’s rendering of the symphony was too stately and heavy, not sprightly enough, so that its rom-pom-pom repetitiveness won out this time over its more usual virtues.

Saturday, April 4: Richard III at the Schaubühne Theater. A friend had an extra ticket to this and assured me there would be English subtitles, so I gladly accepted—and when my Berlin hosts learned I was getting to go, they practically gnashed their teeth in envy, because the play had been sold out for weeks. The draw here was Lars Eidinger, the actor playing Richard in this Thomas-Ostermeier-directed production. Eidinger is a phenomenon we don’t have here, a popular yet highly regarded stage star—as opposed to movie or television star—and when I saw him in action, I could understand why. His Richard was hardly Shakespeare’s (though most of the lines came directly from Schlegel’s translation); it was instead Richard as rock star, grabbing a dangling microphone to deliver his soliloquies, limping and loping about the stage like a hyena on the loose, baring his all (to the point of being stark naked at times, except for the strapped-on hump), and throwing a series of ad-lib challenges and insulting jokes at the audience. It was the kind of thing that in other hands might have annoyed me, but once I let go of the idea that it was supposed to be Shakespeare, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Eidinger is indeed a wonder, a charming, intensely physical actor who not only revels in his connection with his audience, but feels completely comfortable in his own skin—a rarity in this land where body-hatred is the dominant mode, in dance and even in opera.

Sunday, April 5: Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper. As exemplified, for instance, in this Wagner production. I had never seen the opera live before, and this production came highly recommended, so I moved heaven and earth to get one of the rare tickets and was very glad I had.  But first, the dance. Even though it was directed by Sasha Waltz—perhaps even because it was directed by Sasha Waltz—the dancing was almost as atrocious as the Preljocaj crap I had seen at the Deutsche Oper, and in similar ways. Again we had the bare-breasted women and the mind-numbingly repetitive gestures. The opening Venusberg number, performed in a gigantic tilted funnel that caused everyone to scramble around like Bambi on the ice, was particularly awful, but there was not one moment in which the dance enriched the performance: in fact, I started using the woman’s head in front of me as a partial blockade whenever the dancers appeared onstage. Luckily this senselessness did not destroy the opera, even at the narrative level, because the plot (which is never the high point in Wagner) made almost no sense anyway. Everything depended on the musicians’ and the singers’ ability to put across the emotional intensity of the piece, and this they more than succeeded in doing. Barenboim, here conducting his usual Staatsoper orchestra, did a superb job musically, and the soloists were beyond excellent—particularly Christian Gerhaher, whose performance as Wolfram von Eschenbach had a tenderness and delicate pathos I will never forget. No one ever wished this four-hour opera longer (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost), but if I could have heard Gerhaher sing his final beautiful aria at double or triple its length, I would have been happy.

Thursday, April 9: Mahagonny at the Staatsoper. This one, on the other hand, caused me to walk out, it was so deadly dull. Brecht/Weill collaborations need to be done with a somewhat louche, trashy, let’s-put-on-a-show manner if they are to succeed as intended. The opera was given high production values of the most obnoxious sort, and it featured singers who had good voices but couldn’t act. The funny parts weren’t funny and the sad parts weren’t sad.  Everyone was just going through the paces, being perfectly professional—which is exactly the wrong tone for this searingly self-undermining piece.

Saturday, April 11: Damnation of Faust at the Berlin Philharmonic. I had purposely prolonged my stay to this final weekend in order to see Simon Rattle conduct this concert-style piece (is it an opera? an oratorio? a thing-unto-itself?), and the experience was even better than I had hoped. I have seen several live Damnations before, including a very good one conducted by Gergiev in St. Petersburg and a very bad one staged by Robert LePage at the Met, but this was of a different order: I was on the edge of my seat at every moment, and the music seemed absolutely new in so many ways. Joyce Di Donato, in the Marguerite role, was her usual superb self (though there were loud coughers, damn them, in the audience, who sometimes got in her way), and the other soloists were terrific as well. The chorus, too, was hair-raisingly great. But it was the feeling of the performance as a whole that really got to me. I would not have said before that I loved Berlioz, but that evening I certainly did, and so did everyone else.

Sunday, April 12: Christian Tetzlaff with the Bundesjugend-Orchestre. This too was at the Philharmonie, and this was the other event that kept me in Berlin until the final weekend. To hear Tetzlaff, my favorite violinist, perform Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in the Philharmonic Hall would have been gift enough; to hear him against the background of the Youth Orchestra to which he belonged as concertmaster thirty years ago was moving beyond belief. Under the baton of Karl-Heinz Steffens, the young people did their revered soloist proud. And when Tetzlaff had left the stage, and the kids played Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, with all its drumrolls and cymbal-clashes and singlings-out of the various instrumental sections, the concert became moving in an entirely different way. It bore intense witness to the fact that classical music is still alive and well among the younger generation, at least in Germany. At the end of the performance, as these talented teenagers took their bows looking outward from the stage of the grand Philharmonic, they couldn’t help but break into excited grins; and when the conductor finally left the stage for the last time and the applause began to die down, the young musicians threw their arms around each other in delighted relief. I have to say, it moved me to tears.

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2 Responses to Berlin Diary

  1. Jonas says:

    Hey Wendy, any chance of a new post about “the great art collections and gallery shows” you visited? Please!

    • Wendy Lesser says:

      No time for a full posting, Jonas, but in brief: the regular museums I went to were the Gemäldegalerie—always my first stop, with its wonderful art collection—and the Alte and Neue Museums on Museum Island, because they have both been recently redone in an elegant and light-infusing way. Among the gallery shows, the best was a Vivian Maier photography show at Willy Brandt Haus, which (as the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party) is itself worth a visit as a piece of “transparent” architecture.

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