Berlin Philharmonic Returns with a Bite

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Thomas Søndergård. Photo Martin Bubandt.

Thomas Søndergård. Photo Martin Bubandt.

Conductor Thomas Søndergård (Photo: Martin Bubant) “Golden Twenties”  Part 1.
February 20, 2021

Berliner Philharmoniker
Thomas Søndergård, conductor

Sergei Prokofiev
The Love for Three Oranges: Suite, op. 33
Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, op. 104
Kurt Weill
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny: Suite (arr. Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg)

During the intermission: Berlin im Licht – Stories from the Golden Twenties
Dagmar Manzel narrator


Much to my delight and amazement, the Berliner Philharmoniker seems to have taken a bold step in performing near full-force in these COVID times.  While not sporting a gigantic Strauss-sized orchestra, far more performers were seated in close proximity today.  It foreshadows a precision exercise to a gradual safe return of concert life at one of the most prestigious venues in Europe.

According to the orchestra’s website, the hall itself is closed to the public until March 31, 2021.  Concerts prior to public opening are broadcast through the Digital Concert Hall HD streaming service. For about € 150 per annum, all season events will be perpetually available to those who subscribe.  Classical music fans are inundated with $15/event streaming events, so Berlin’s offering is a good deal for a full year’s use.  Furthermore, the concerts are seen live on Apple TV, Roku, and other platforms supporting the Digital Concert Hall app.

Today, Thomas Søndergård presented a short “Golden Twenties” themed show.  “Berlin im Licht,” a brief documentary, offered some rare footage of how progressive, radical, and decadent Berlin life had become shortly before the economic disaster of 1929.  The concert program featured instrumental works of the time by Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Weill, a seminal self-conscious procreator of the cabaret-infused culture. Modern and postmodern trends had a curious marriage of sorts.

The appearance of normality on stage was notable in today’s concert.  The 2020 season showcased chamber and ensemble pieces with widely-spaced seating. In contrast, today’s performance of the Sibelius symphony included between fifty and sixty players. The Philharmoniker has implemented a near performer-bubble for this year’s season:  players are tested regularly; mouth and nose coverings are enforced backstage; wind players are spaced out; and, in the wake of rehearsals and performances, a biotech firm has been retained to sanitize the stage.

Alas, no audience.  In the 2020 season sparse partial seating was introduced.  Obviously, with a fuller orchestra unmasked on stage, it would be too risky to gather an audience.  Although this concert was limited to about sixty minutes, it seemed judicious to reduce risk and unflinchingly, grit teeth and embrace the digital stream.  After March 31, when a live audience attends, we’ll see what additional measures may be taken.  Every performing venue and ensemble must experiment and remain vigilant and flexible.

Thomas Søndergård is currently the music director of the Royal Scottish Symphony Orchestra. His contract has just been renewed through 2024. This concert was a bit of a COVID serendipity;  Søndergård was chosen for this concert to replace Sir Donald Runnicles when his travel to Berlin was countermanded.

Maestro Søndergård gave his all, with the Berliners spurning any sign of pandemic gloom.  Of course, the program reflected the bitter irony of the variegated excesses of the 1920s.  Like a dream of a pristine past, Sibelius’s Sixth, the centerpiece, stood in reflective and almost solemn relief. The Prokoviev suite demonstrated the composer’s mischievous crackle and verve inspired by Carlo Gozzi’s play of the same name.

Actress Dagmar Manzel voice-overed some vintage footage in the film essay “Berlin im Licht”  which juxtaposed Berlin’s short-lived Weimar Era bloom of liberalism and sexual liberation against the ominous undercurrent of growing class division, economic collapse, and consequential submission to dictatorship.

One couldn’t have watched this concert without feeling the thrill of an orchestra almost back in force qualitatively and quantitatively; the thrill, though, was tempered by the silence in the great hall and the sobering  century-old images of how ebullience can quickly collapse to death, poverty, and misery.

Later in February, Christian Thielemann will conduct Hindemith, Busoni, and a set of Strauss songs for voice and orchestra, featuring soprano Diana Damrau.

Thomas Søndergård and the RSNO will be launching a similarly-sized digital season this Spring and Summer in which Polish composers will be featured:  Szymanowski’s two violin concerti with violinist Nicola Benedetti, as well as Chopin’s first piano concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor.

About the author

Seth Lachterman

Seth Lachterman lives in Hudson, New York. While dividing his past academic career between music (composition and musicology) and mathematics, he has, over past three decades written original and critical works on the Arts. His essays have appeared in The Thomas Hardy Association Journal, English Literature in Transition, and poetry in Raritan. As a charter member and past president of the Berkshire Bach Society, he provided scholarly program notes for the Society’s concerts for two decades. Simultaneously, he has been a principal at Encore Systems, LLC, a software and technology consulting company. From 2006, is president emeritus of Walking The Dog Theatre of Hudson, New York. Seth writes regularly for Berkshire Review of The Arts. When not listening to music, Seth Lachterman reads philosophy with a current interest in Heidegger.

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