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Berlin’s Ongoing Musical Renaissance

By A. J. Goldmann

Berlin is a city of contradictions. It is an old European capital with a youthful energy and vibe. Situated at the crossroads between East and West, the reunified city has the culture and sophistication of London or Paris and the run-down and grungy feel of Prague or Budapest. It is a place that is so burdened with history yet so free: a city where the weight of the past is countered by the vibrancy of nonstop artistic excellence and experimentation.

Zitty, a bi-monthly listings magazine, teems with music listings on everything from all-night raves in abandoned seven-story buildings to radical reinterpretations of Wagner operas. In between is exciting music of every stripe.

This is, after all, the city of the Love Parade, the famous annual outdoor dance party begun in 1989 by the West German DJ Dr. Motte as a protest for peace, tolerance, and understanding. Last year’s installment attracted nearly one million visitors and some of the world’s most famous DJs, including Tiesto and Paul van Dyke.

One of the city’s hottest DJs is the Russian-born Wladimir Kaminer, who spins at the Prenzlauer Berg hotspot Kaffee Burger. Nearby is the Kulturbrauerei, a defunct brewery that serves as an omnicultural arts center while music plays and beer flows until the small hours.

KNM Berlin
KNM Berlin

Among the various German musicians who amplify the city’s soundscape after hours, Berlin has also become a haven of sorts to non-German bands in self-imposed exile. American bands like The Liars and The Boggs join the international scene of writers, painters, and photographers who make the city their home. Such bands take advantage of the city’s permissive and experimental climate and low rents and continue the expatriate tradition that in the 1970s included both David Bowie and Lou Reed.

In a city with this much energy, artists take inspiration from unlikely sources. Two music styles that have become fashionable of late are Klezmer and Gypsy music. Internationally renowned groups like Gogol Bordello and the No Smoking Orchestra join homegrown acts to set the city dancing to its brass-heavy and infectious modern twist on old-world melodies. Huljet, a five-person Klezmer ensemble from Nuremberg, explores the Jewish music of Eastern Europe.

Much has changed in the past 80 years, but one can still find vestiges and recreations of the alternately glamorous and decadent world of Weimar Berlin. The sumptuous Radio City–type revues at the Friedrichstadtpalast are the sine qua non of opulent entertainment. Down the street at the reopened Admiralspalast, you can catch Max Raabe and Palast Orchester performing cabaret standards.

Berlin is a model of how a city’s classical and popular music scenes should complement each other. While the density of musical ensembles and institutions is remarkable enough, perhaps even more surprising is how seriously Berliners take their opera and classical music. Berliners of all types and ages arrive at the opera, often on rickety old city bikes. The Philharmonie and the three opera houses offer student and unemployment discounts. New and shocking productions often ignite controversy and make for great spreads in the bestselling Berlin tabloid Bild.

The Berliner Philharmoniker and its current maestro Sir Simon Rattle perform to sold-out houses in Hans Scharoun’s striking, world-famous Philharmonie—a pentagonal tent-like building that is an architectural and acoustic wonder. The stage is at center of the auditorium’s floor, while uneven rows of benches slant upward at jarring angles. It may look like Circle in the Square meets Dr. Seuss, but the music sounds equally potent, immediate, and three-dimensional from any location. Imaging hearing live music in 5.1 Digital Surround Sound.

In addition to the Philharmoniker, the city boasts six additional symphony orchestras, including the Berlin Staatskapelle, led by Maestro Barenboim, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with its new artistic director Ingo Metzmacher, who takes over from Kent Nagano this year.

The generous concert season runs from September to mid-June. During the summer, Berlin plays host to numerous music festivals, including “Young Euro Classic,” which showcases youth orchestras from all over Europe. The popular event is held in August at the neoclassical Konzerthaus, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The hall—which is located on one of Berlin’s most elegant squares, the Gendarmenmarkt—is also home to the Konzerthausorchester Berlin.

In the former East along the elegant boulevard Unter den Linden sits the Berlin Staatsoper, led by musical director Daniel Barenboim. While the Staatsoper is the most refined of Berlin’s opera houses (and most successful, having played to nearly 90 percent capacity last season), you will frequently find edgy and envelope-pushing productions there.

A more laid-back house, the Komische Oper, is just around the corner and performs its repertoire entirely in German. The Deutsche Oper in the West is a gargantuan and glamour-free structure with enormous capacity and a talent for attracting international opera stars.

When Americans think of German opera, many think “shock-value.” But aside from certain Eurotrash tendencies, much that is genuinely revolutionary and inspired is going on in the Berlin opera scene.

The Catalan director Calixto Bieito has brought several of his blood-and-sex-laden productions to the Komischer Oper, including 2004’s sold-out Entführung aus dem Serail, set in a contemporary brothel. The ultra-violent production of Mozart’s comic opera sparked enormous controversy and inflamed the sponsors. But the evening I attended, the mean age of the audience was roughly 35.

What stands behind such controversial staging is the desire to rejuvenate a moribund art form by keeping opera relevant. This same impulse lies behind the eclectic programming, which freely mixes the traditional repertory with new and recent operas. The Staatsoper will open its 2007–08 season with the world premiere of an opera by Hans Werner Henze. 20th- and 21st-century opera will also be well represented at the other houses with works by Busoni and Dessau.

Berlin in Lights gives New Yorkers a taste of Berlin’s eclectic musical landscape. It is a tribute from one great city to another.

Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

A. J. Goldmann writes about culture from New York and Berlin.

© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation