Musing at the Berlin Philharmonic

Last night I visited the Berliner Philharmoniker with my friend Brendan.  Anyone living in Berlin should pay the orchestra a visit – tickets are more affordable than you’d think for what was recently voted number 2 in a list of the world’s best orchestras.  The caverous inside of the Philharmonie building alone is worth seeing and the world-class musicians and resident conductor Simon Rattle (he’s the mad-looking one you probably have seen on TV) aren’t bad too.  It doesn’t really matter where you sit so if you’re going, don’t worry that purchasing a cheaper ticket will result in any less of an experience.

Three pieces were performed last night – the first was by Carl Maria von Weber.  Weber was a German composer and Der Freischütz Overture was a loud but melodic piece of classic classical music.  The room (if you can call something of that size a room) where the orchestra performs boasts excellent acoustics – all the instruments are crystal clear so it’s a real pleasure hearing this kind of music in such a setting.  Next up was a modern piece (at least by classical music standards) by Korean composer Unsuk Chin.  ‘Experimental’ is perhaps what you’d call a piece of music like this.  There were lots of stop-start sections, surprise drum smashes and one musician seemed to be there only to occasionally play some empty beer bottles.  I really liked this piece.  After the break, the orchestra performed Johannes Brahms‘ Symphony Number 2 in D Major, which was more melodic than the other pieces and was strikingly impressive in its dynamics and passages.

Engaging as the music was, I allowed my mind to wander during the concert.  Here are some thoughts I had on the night and the performance:

What’s the difference between good and bad classical music?

I find it hard to critique classic music, given my unfamiliarity with the genre.  It’s without a doubt impressive to hear a group of world-class musicians playing such grand music, but from a fan’s perspective – is Von Weber’s work really that amazing?  The pieces I heard at the Philharmonie sounded ‘good’ to me, but I honestly have no idea if what I heard was really good.  Were there sections that dragged on a tad?  Some poorly timed string parts?  Bits of unnecessary tuba?  I can’t be sure of any this.  I’ll have to seek the opinion of a true classic music fan.

Composers are megalomaniacs

I’m convinced Unsuk Chin must be some kind of sadist.  Writing the kind of music she does really smacks of some weird need to control great numbers of people at the same time.  Some of the members of the orchestra performing her piece last night barely touched their instruments, others were required to make odd, offbeat noises.  One percussionist in particular was required to occasionally rattle a bit of sheet metal – is it good to use a man at the peak of his professional career as a musician for such a role?  Does it make him happy?  Another woman’s role involved playing the occasional single notes on TWO different pianos, which she moved between throughout the performance.  These people could be putting their Friday nights to much better use than standing around in suits waiting to make tiny contributions to a piece of music that can best be described as ‘difficult’.  Do they get paid the same amount as the other guys?  What’s the sheet metal bashing guy’s job title?  Has he got a contract for this kind of work?

What are orchestra musicians actually like?

I’d love to know what goes on backstage at the orchestra.  I bet there’s all kinds of politics flying about – rivalries between the violin players and whatnot.  Are the double bass players really difficult to work with?  Does the drummer bully the percussionists?  Do any of them play in rock bands in their spare time?  What’s the Christmas party like?  Are there some hardened boozers in the brass section?  Y’know, the kind that linger around the concert hall long after performances have finished, spilling free red wine all over themselves and generally making a nuisance.  I’d love an insight.

Will we always attend orchestral performances?

There’s no denying the fact that the majority of the audience at the Philharmonie were a good few years into their final-salary pensions.  Once they finally bite the dust after bleeding said pensions dry for YEARS, who will fill their seats?  Will this kind of entertainment always be a draw for those the wrong side of 50?  Will successive generations happily slip into the gradually vacated seats of the old fogies?  Will my generation’s already shot-to-pieces attention span cope with this kind of high art in 40 years time?  I guess there’s no doubt that it’s a good night out for the olds – it’s all over at a reasonable time and gives them a chance to get out the house.  We can’t knock that.

The art of conducting is mysterious but could also be nonsense

I’m always fascinated by conductors and last night’s MC Myung-Whun Chung was as animated and ‘into it’ as they inevitably tend to be.  What’s the deal with these guys?  You’d assume their presence in the orchestra is there to bring out the best in the musicians, as well as providing a visual element for audiences.   But in my experience the conductors seem in a world of their own, neither amping up the orchestra for the loud bits or rocking out in the kind of way you’d expect in classical music.  You’d think they’d be wildly shaking their hands at the violin section in order to bring the crescendo to an intense climax and you’d assume their mad gestures in the direction of the brass section would indicate that said section is about to contribute to the music.  This isn’t the case.  The guy last night was both out of time and in his own little world.  I’m sure there’s rhythm and reason for this.  I wish I knew what it was.

There’s no place for a left-handed musician in an orchestra

A quick scan around the orchestra revealed a total of zero left-handed people.  And it makes sense – you know when the violin players do that cool stabbing-the-air-with-their-bows thing?  That would be totally ruined by a left-handed violinist.  It’s disheartening to see an orchestra without any left-handed people, considering the overwhelming numbers of excellent left-handed musicians.  Rachmaninov was left-handed, as was Mozart.  But I guess prejudice has blinded the assemblers of orchestras, hell bent as they are in stamping out the left-handed race one musician at a time.  I’m left-handed – every day is a struggle for me.  Shame on you Berlin Philharmonic.

At this point I think I should stop.  Thanks for reading!

 

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