Love Letter to the Berlin Philharmonic

The iconic, gold-lamé covered, pentagonal music space celebrates its 50th birthday.
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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic (Wikimedia Commons)

BERLIN – Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, raised his baton one Thursday night this October and set into motion the first chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion.

The chorus, dressed in black, rose from the small wooden boxes on which they had been seated, genuflected in unison, and moved in a crawl toward another plain wooden box—Christ’s coffin—located behind Rattle’s back.

Then, the boys’ chorus emerged from the wings, walking directly in front of the first row of the audience, nearly brushing against their knees, continuing up a staircase. Their train then split— some went left, others right, others climbed into the outer reaches of the hall.

From the vantage point of the second row—which, due to architect Han Scharoun’s landmark design, is actually the first row—one saw Rattle at the stage’s center, the violin section at his left and the cellos and basses at right. An organ was positioned in the middle.

Monika Rittershaus

Anyone seated in the A, B, or C blocks would find himself peering across the orchestra at other audience members, who were seated in the E, F, G, H sections behind the musicians.

The Japanese ambassador’s wife, dressed in a pale pink kimono, sat in the first row of the E Block, which juts out over the orchestra. A German businessman from Hannover, who 15 minutes earlier had purchased the last remaining ticket for the sold-out affair (Seat 9, A Block, Row 2) locked eyes with a petite, red-haired chorus member just 10 feet in front of him and nearly at eye level. He strained to hold back tears. Then the choirboys, now assembled in their myriad places around the concert hall—dappled silently amid the audience and nearly forgotten— sang out in unison:

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig

Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet

The businessman from Hannover deftly removed a tissue from his pocket, trained his eyes downward, and pressed his lids tight. A woman at his right, her eyes twinkling, turned 90 degrees in the businessman’s direction, looked up, and stared into the faces of a detached trio of choirboys standing in the E Bloc behind the Japanese ambassador’s wife. As the boys intoned Bach’s music into the chamber down below, Rattle turned again and craned his neck upwards in a circle encompassing the boy singers distributed throughout the hall—above, behind, left, and right of him.

This staging added a layer of intensity to a piece of music already brimming with emotion, but it also highlighted the Philharmonic’s unusual acoustics.

The customary way to perform this work by Bach is to place everyone on the stage together: the adult chorus on the left hand side, the children at right. But in Peter Sellars’ masterfully conceived 2010 version, which opened this month’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Berlin Philharmonic’s landmark building, the singers actually acted out the work, much as one would an opera.

***

Monika Rittershaus

German architect Hans Scharoun designed his philharmonic to fit into the no-man’s-land that had become post-war Potsdamer Platz. The Philharmonie was to sit at the edge of what would soon become West Berlin, in the Tiergarten park.

His design was revolutionary and controversial when unveiled in 1956. Its most vociferous critics said the swooping, curvaceous building would collapse. Conservative architectural voices found the design jarring and otherworldly. Many pushed for a rebuild along 19th-century lines.

Scharoun would have nothing of the sort. His exterior consisted of three superimposed, concentrically rotated pentagons covered in an iron, gold-lamé facade. Inside, he placed the orchestra in the center of the main interior pentagon, with the audience all around it.

The ambitious building became the crowning achievement of a career that only took off toward its end. 

Berlin Philharmonic

Scharoun stayed in Berlin during the war but was sidelined by the Nazis for his modernist style. He had become noted for buildings like his 1930s Haus Schminke, but its “international style” ran afoul of the prevailing, kitsch Heimatstil, and as a result, he struggled to find work.  

After the war, however, he regained popularity. Scharoun was living in the Eastern Sector of the city, and he was appointed by the Russians to lead their massive urban planning efforts. In 1956, at the age of 63, he submitted his design to replace the bombed-out philharmonic. The competition was secret—no names were on the submissions. Yet Scharoun actually lost the first round of the competition, according to Professor Eva-Maria Barkhofen, who manages Scharoun’s archive.

“They opened the envelope,” Barkhofen told me, “And they saw that Scharoun had only nine votes and the other architect had ten votes. Then it is told, a little bit like a fairytale, that they discussed 12 hours and came to the solution to have Scharoun in the first place.”

Scharoun won the second-round vote after Herbert von Karajan, the famous conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, pressed the judges to choose Scharoun’s design.

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Michael Scaturro is a reporter based in Berlin.

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