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THE DAY THE PHILHARMONIC BURNED

By Alan Behr

BERLIN, 17 JUNE 2008- It seemed as if half of the nine thousand lawyers attending the international conference in Berlin were staying with me at the Adlon the day the Dalai Lama showed up to give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, just steps away. It got kind of tight in there, and I think he and I shared a bathroom that night, but somehow the hotel made it seem easy, providing service consistently beyond what you would expect from a grand hotel that was half empty.

So it was looking like smooth sailing when, while seated in the crowded lobby the next day, awaiting a colleague from Hamburg to join a colleague from Istanbul and me for tea, the German attorney emailed to say that she would be running late because the Philharmonie was burning. For the next few hours, troubled looks and murmured speculations were shared among Berliners and other Germans. The equivalent, for an American, would be to have learned that Yankee Stadium had gone up in blazes.

Certain nations have an art form at which they excel. Italy, France and the Netherlands have done their share for painting, and the Italians have shown the world how to do sculpture. My generation may be the first in the English-speaking world since the Great Vowel Shift that has not produced a writer able simultaneously to achieve literary renown and popular recognition; but for hundreds of years, English language has permitted those in mastery of its complexities to create prose and poetry of unequaled power and insight. We Germans may not be known for sharing our emotions, but even Germans have them, and in German-speaking Europe, the way that is done is through its own mastery of an art form-music.

It makes no difference that the Berliner Philharmoniker is based in the German capital or that its principal conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, is English. The orchestra is a signature German cultural institution, blessed with a sound at once precise and resonant-a distinctive quality that makes itself known regardless of the hand holding the baton. It is a sound that, with its seemingly contradictory display of strength and sensitivity, would appear almost impossible to master. There are other great orchestras that can pull it off, such as those of Vienna and Leipzig, the former with perhaps a touch more lyricism and the latter with perhaps a touch more solemnity. And there are orchestras that just go their own way, such as the New York Philharmonic, which, in part because of the famously brittle acoustics of its home venue, often plays like a brass band in search of a barroom brawl. But there is no orchestra in the world that quite "sings" like the Berliner Philharmoniker in full voice.

Four nights before a welding accident ignited the fire that broke out on the roof of the Philharmoniker's yellow, tent-shaped concert hall off the Tiergarten, I was in the hall for a performance of the Requiem (Grande Messe des morts op. 5) of Hector Berlioz. The conductor was Donald Runnicles, a Scotsman. The tenor solo was sung by the Canadian Joseph Keiser, and he was joined by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. It didn't matter where the guest performers called home. The moment the Berliner Philharmoniker came out, looking much as they always do-like corporate auditors about to report on a difficult financial year-you knew whose sound would fill the hall.

A concert in that hall is essentially theater-in-the-round. This evening, with the chorus positioned behind the orchestra, and with clusters or horns placed at four satellite stations throughout, the effect was of no real separation between performers and audience. The acoustics are so good, a full-page notice in the program, featuring a graphic of a coughing man within the international red circle and slash, warned patrons to suck cough drops and to muffle themselves with handkerchiefs. As the last notes were played, a man in the audience coughed, and as the program had warned, it sounded as if gunfire had erupted.

Prior to the performance and during intermission, German concert halls and opera houses are something like British pubs: they are local gathering spots, places for family and friends to see each other again and to catch up on personal news. Food and drink are sold, conversation is held in small clusters; no one ever seems in a particular rush, but everyone somehow gets where he needs to be on time. If the audience really likes what it hears-and it definitely did this evening-applause and cheers are enthusiastic and curtain calls are many. Indeed, it could be argued that Germans only cut loose at two public locations: while driving on the autobahn and while applauding at concert halls and opera houses. And so it was on this night-a routine moment of musical splendor, a moment not quite taken for granted but one taken without imagination of what life would be like if the music stopped.

That changed four days later, on Tuesday, May 20, when the fire broke out on the roof of the concert hall, just before 2:00 p.m. A passer-by called emergency services from his mobile phone, saying that smoke was coming from "a yellow building." That was information enough for the fire department to get there within minutes. Reports vary but there about 170 firefighters and more than thirty vehicles we needed to extinguish the blaze, which sent smoke rising over much of the eastern Tiergarten area. Valuable instruments were removed, everyone attending a just-concluded lunchtime concert exited without incident; 750 performers, including a children's chorus of 400, that were shortly to rehearse Berlioz's Te Deum , never got within harm's way. None of the firefighters suffered injury. Damage was largely confined to the roof and would likely be repaired within weeks. The Philharmoniker would perform its next concert on an outdoor stage, with the firefighters and policemen who had helped save the hall invited, along with their families, to attend for free.

In true German form, no one I met in Berlin that week admitted ever being worried, let alone alarmed, but the mood was not one of ease; it was, rather, the mood that comes over the stoic family that finds that the ailing relative's tumor is benign and that surgery will almost certainly be successful. And Berlin has, after all, survived far worse. But in a city where culture means music and music remains is a matter of civic pride, there was no disguising the collective sigh of relief.

Alan Behr is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, where he practices intellectual property law. He contributes regularly to Culturekiosque and last wrote on Modernism: The Lure of Heresy by Peter Gay.

BOOK TIP

Herbert Von Karajan: A Life in Pictures
By Anne-Sophie Mutter (Foreword), Pierre-Henri Verlhac (Editor), Jurgen Otten (Photographer)
Hardcover: 192 pages
Amadeus Press (March 2008)
ISBN-10: 1574671650
ISBN-13: 978-1574671650
$49.95

CD TIP

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis (+ Mozart: Coronation Mass)
Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, Walter Berry
Wiener Singverein
Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Recorded in 1966 for Deutsche Grammophon

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Franz Xaver Ohnesorg Resigns as Director of Berlin Philharmonic

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Elects Sir Simon Rattle To Succeed Claudio Abbado

CD Review: Harnoncourt Gives a New Sound to Brahms

Berlin Philharmonic: Pierre Boulez to the Rescue



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