Monday, December 29, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner

More than any other city in Europe Berlin has been a center for sciences and culture, along with Nazism and the Cold War. At one point it was the home to Albert Einstein and Shinichi Suzuki who happened to form a friendship. It also has the famed Berliner Philharmoniker, perhaps the best orchestra in the world today. The Great Depression affected Germany particularly severely and the orchestra was about to go bankrupt. Wilhelm Furtwängler, following in the footsteps of Hans von Bülow and Arthur Nikisch as the conductor for the orchestra, approached the just-elected Nazi regime and Joseph Göbbels in particular. A deal of Faust and Mephisto was signed and the orchestra became a propaganda tool for the Third Reich. Jewish musicians had to leave, including Szymon Goldberg, the Konzertmeister. Although the old name was kept, the organization was also known as Das Reichsorchester, or was even called Das SS Orchester by some, named after Schutzstaffel, the most terrifying force of the Nazi power structure.

Musicians with only one Jewish parent were allowed to stay, at least for the time being, and Göbbels did not insist on anyone becoming a party member, although about 20 of them did so, some showing up in rehearsals in Nazi uniforms. In contrast, the party membership in the Vienna Philharmonic was much higher, almost a half. We musn't forget that Hitler was Austrian and the country of his birth was proud of him, whereas there were people in Germany, even within the party, who thought of the Führer as an outsider. The orchestra kept on performing throughout the war, even after the bombings had destroyed their concert hall in 1944. Facing the loss of the war and seeing an inevitable change coming, the orchestra finally performed forbidden music by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn in a concert in April 1945, just a month before the regime collapsed and the country surrendered.

Nobody at this point talked about the Reichsorchester anymore and the Soviet Red Army which "liberated" and raped Berlin, couldn't have cared less about the SS Orchestra either. They must have given the rights to the name to the Western Allies and it ended up as wartime loot. The Americans in particular were eager to snatch up whatever they could. That is why in this country we commonly call acetylsalicylic acid, or ASA, aspirin although in Europe Aspirin is a trademark of Bayer and only their product can carry that title.

Furtwängler somehow was forgiven for his actions by the Allies and he continued conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker until his death in 1954. Nazism must have still been alive in some circles as Herbert von Karajan was named as his successor. Karajan had been a favorite of Göbbels and had twice applied for membership in the National Socialist Party. During the war he had conducted the orchestra of the state opera. Karajan managed to raise the artistic level of the Philharmonic to new heights, but people did not easily forget his past which tarnished the orchestra's reputation somewhat, especially outside of Germany. He was also strictly against having female musicians in the group, although he was willing to help the likes of Anne-Sofie Mutter reach stardom. She had to act like a good old-fashioned German would, by never showing any emotion physically, not even the tiniest of smile. There are videos of her playing with von Karajan and the lack of expression on her face is almost eerie, as if one is watching a mannequin.

Well, even von Karajan didn't live forever and with his era coming to an end, the "glass jar" was broken, starting with Claudio Abbado in 1989. The greatest changes have taken place under the orchestra's present conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. There are numerous women among the musicians, and although most of the players have been trained in Germany (and thus play incredibly similarly and well together), they come from several countries, even Israel. The number of Asians is small and, unless I'm wrong, they are all Japanese, including one of their three 1. Konzertmeisters. There are no Russians (one was born there but trained elsewhere) although some have come from former Iron Curtain countries. The two principal trumpets are from Hungary and one of the first principal bassists is from my native Finland, as is another one whose title reads just principal. I don't think either of them plays on a plywood bass! Every prominent position is shared which leads to much less burn-out than in a usual orchestra situation and gives the excellent musicians opportunities to play chamber music and teach.

Inspired by the success of the Metropolitan Opera's broadcasts to movie theaters worldwide, the Berlin Philharmonic recently decided to start broadcasting their concerts live via the Internet, for a fee of course. First such concert will take place in about a week. I decided to give my wife and myself a delayed holiday present and for about $130 get to listen and watch in High Definition the rest of the season, plus all the archived concerts from this fall. So far, we only had time for the First Symphony of Brahms and No. 92, the "Oxford", by Haydn. The latter was played with a small chamber orchestra, usually a disaster when such attempts are made with players from large symphony orchestras. Not this one: the first and second violins played immaculately together in spite of being seated on opposite sides of the stage. Of course one must remember that the Berlin Philharmonic Hall has its stage close to the middle of the audience, and the lack of corners amplifying percussion and the brass instruments, such as the horns, take away the dangerous echo-chamber effect. These musicians play as if they are enjoying chamber music. Sir Rattle didn't have to micro-manage his players, in fact much of the time he was just smiling and making motions that didn't resemble a metronome's beat but rather were intended as an inspiration to the musicians. The Brahms was just as exquisite: it is hard to imagine any other orchestra feeling and performing the piece just right. For that the cello and viola sections traded places. The double basses were behind the second violins, the principals in the middle of the section. The cameras are all remote controlled and completely unobtrusive, even difficult to see.

Just listening to and watching the principal flautist of the evening Emmanuel Pahud would have been worth the entire year's subscription fee. What an incredible musician he is! In the Haydn the fastest runs were like child's play. Most of the time Mr. Pahud played with little or no vibrato, with the cleanest sound and intonation, just the way I picture a great flute player doing. Yet in the Brahms in an exposed melody the sweetest vibrato appeared, almost bringing tears to my eyes, and I thought I didn't even like orchestra music! It was interesting to see rotary-valve trumpets being used. Mr. Yasunaga's violin solo was pristine and the audience gave him a well-deserved applause. What a pleasure to look at violinists who all use the same part of the bow and who don't make any unnecessary motions, their leader least of them all. None of the ladies acted like exhibitionists or "eye candy". With many audience members seeing his face, Mr. Rattle couldn't give dirty looks but neither was there any need for them. At the conclusion of the Brahms, the orchestra just stood up, without feeling the need to face the audience with a forced grin. These were all music loving people, not local Madoff-type donors expecting to be bowed down to. What a different experience this was! I can hardly wait to see the orchestra again on my 24-inch hi-def monitor and good sound system. We have the best seats in the house, even when concerts are sold out as they often are, and get to listen to great soloists who don't want to bother with our Homeland Security's ridiculous visa rules and thus often remain unknown to us.

Like our President John F. Kennedy did 45 years ago, I want to stand up and proclaim: "Ich bin ein Berliner".

Das Reichsorchester at Hitler's birthday 1942
Sir Simon Rattle in Berlin ©
Stuart Ramson/AP