What it’s like to play in the Elbphilharmonie

A report from our weekly diarist, Anthea Kreston, on the world’s newest concert hall:

 

As we approached the series of peninsulas in the heart of the industrial area of Hamburg, a rippling wave began to emerge above the city skyscrapers. As if in motion, the structure caught the light of the sky, of the water surrounding it on three sides, and the multi-colored lights of the city. This was the famed new hall – the Elbphilharmonie, covered in 500 individually designed pieces of glass, each curved and shaped, build upon a massive trapezoidal historic 7 story brick warehouse. 

Inside houses three concert halls, the largest of which is arguably the most advanced acoustic structure in the world. In addition – offices, restaurants and stores, a public floor which breaches the old and new structures, and the highest habitable residencies in Hamburg, yours for the lowest astronomical price available. This is a building which has already begun to shape the city, if not the country, in the way the Sydney Opera House has done for that city. 

When I first got the call from my quartet manager, the inimitable Sonia Simmenauer, asking me to put together a string trio for a performance at the opening festival for the Elbphilharmonie, Jason and I immediately thought of our old friend, Volker Jacobsen, the original violist of the Artemis Quartet – someone we had known from our student days together working with the Juilliard Quartet. The piece – notoriously difficult Schoenberg String Trio (written in 1946 while in a fitful and uncertain recovery period following a nearly fatal heat attack), would require hard practice and detailed score study to overcome the natural tendency to overthink in such pieces – to be unable to find flow and group swing.  We were all up for it, and had two “warm-up” concerts in Berlin to get ready. 

As our taxi crossed the bridge, traffic came to a standstill – people were bulging over the sidewalks and a line of cabs was dropping and picking up visitors. The dark red brick underbuilding itself is huge – and perfectly fills the unusual shape of the peninsula – only space for a slim walkway separates building from water. People crowded against the ticket lines – a rush of many languages – the hoity toity and hoi polloi next to one another. The entrance looks like a movie theater in some ways – not grand – and all visitors enter the structure through one portal – the longest escalator I have ever been on – it undulates and only towards the end can you glimpse the destination – an entire floor, open to the public, which is between old and new. As you enter this floor, you feel as if you are outside, not on the 8th floor of a building, with another 18 floors above. There was a strong breeze, and it was cold. The walls themselves are all tall, curved glass – open to outside, with moveable panels. The floor is a pedestrian brick. 

As you walk around the perimeter, you feel as if you are on the bow of a huge steamer – the building sailing down the river.  Surrounding this testament to culture is a living, breathing industrial area -cranes, warehouses, ships, and looking down I watch a huge container ship glide by, looking from above like a ship made of legos. 

From here you can access the concert halls, restaurants, hotel and living quarters. Our dressing room was magnificent. A piano, a floor which curved up towards the ceiling, full bathroom, couches and even our own balcony, with an open curved window. The hall (we played in the chamber music hall) was a jewel box shaped hall with wooden walls hand-carved with miniature waves. 

The concert was sold out, but I think also a concert featuring a demonstration on how to make toast out of bread, then the directors cut of “Babette’s Feast” on an iPhone screen would have played to a full hall.  Concerts are overflowing, there is a buzz. The evening before YoYo Ma played in the big hall, and there was enthusiastic applause between his movements of Bach – a sure sign that there are people venturing out to hear music who are not all of the staid, well-trained sort. I always love applause between movements – it means we are forging new audiences. 

So – flow was achieved, and we now have an offer to record the Schoenberg on a label, and a manager. I think this side project of the Humboldt Streichtrio will be a perfect addition to my regular job in the quartet. And, I feel like I was there at the beginning of an amazing addition to the cultural landscape of Germany. 

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  • It’s a purely visual account about architecture, and the author played in the chamber music hall, not the main hall. Not a single word about acoustics. Not a single word about “what it’s like to play here” as the headline suggests.

    • Hello Peter –
      Thanks for the comment. I am happy to fill in the missing pieces. To me, the chamber hall felt very much like Zankel at Carnegie (their medium-sized Jewel box theater). This means that from stage it feels very present, very clear, but with a medium-sized sound bubble. Honest sounds but generous enough so that the performer is not preoccupied. While playing, I was quite aware of the audience – this is also similar to Zankel. I could hear coughing or rustling more than other halls, but for me this adds to the sense of closeness between performer and audience. The audience themselves were close – I could see clearly the faces for at least the first 10 rows, which I also like. It is reassuring and helps communication. I didn’t hear a concert in either hall so I can’t attest to the sound out there. Does this help clarify?
      Thanks for reading,
      Anthea

      • Thanks, that’s always interesting to hear. (pun intended 🙂 )
        Looking forward to hearing that and the big hall myself.

  • Reports in the international media, as well as my own experiences there, suggest that the acoustics are problematic. It is one thing to have a crystalline space in which everything, including the rustle of paper and the hum of the air-conditioning can be clearly heard; it is quite another to have a stage that is big enough to accommodate large forces and project a well-blended sound at most, if not all the members of the audience. Unlike the Berlin Philharmonie, for instance, the platform is centrally located. This means that words projected in one direction leave the other half of the audience none the wiser. In a recent performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis one critic commenting on the uniformly loud choral impact referred to a blurred line between sound and tinnitus. That is not exactly a recommendation for a new hall. When I reviewed a recent concert given by the Chicago Symphony I was alarmed to hear the brass drowning out all the string lines. Again, that is not the kind of sound that will endear itself to the performance of large-scale Romantic works. However, it is certainly possible that smaller, chamber-like forces, as well as individual instrumentalists, will fare much better. Because of its construction the hall is also likely to favour spatial effects favoured by many contemporary composers. If the master-acoustician Toyota is unable to tweak some of the noticeable problems that have already emerged, this concert auditorium will struggle to keep a high international profile.

  • “the largest of which is arguably the most advanced acoustic structure in the world.”

    What does that actually mean in practice?

    Does the Concertgebouw have a “primitive acoustic structure”?

    • Hello Maria,
      I am not quite sure what it means either – I am reporting on what the media says, and what the hall looks like and feels like. I also love the old beautiful halls- in fact, I was back in Hamburg just 2 days ago with quartet, playing in a different, older hall, and the audience was also full and happy. I am sure, as every new hall does, that there will be years of reworking the acoustics.
      Thanks,
      Anthea

  • I had just read a long article about this new concert venue. So happy you and Jason could perform there. We also experienced the “applauding between movements” at the new Radio France auditorium and I had the same thought – it means new people are coming to these concerts.

    • Yes, the ‘new people’ are often clappers, yelpers before the music has died away, crisp eaters, chatterers, programme shufflers ….delighted that they are coming and I am going in the opposite direction, aged 75.

    • It’s so “limousine Left” isn’t it!! The faint odor of class discrimination – the, er, deplorables against the ‘desirables’.

        • Only pertaining to Trump supporters it seems; the impeccable credentials of the bien pensant puts them above such class division. NOT. Years of identity politics does that to you, I guess.

          Imagine discriminating between the ordinary people and the upper classes; what would the Left think of that? Particularly in a place of culture. Sniff sniff.

          • The discrimination between the upper and the lower classes happens naturally. The upper are thus busy to fight against it and play their favorite game “engaging lower right against lower left” so on the top of the pyramid all is quite and golden and no wall street crook or war monger-profiteer is hanging on a lamppost as he should. Too bad the lower classes (calling themselves middle class hahahaha) are not paying attention beyond the bones thrown at them.

          • In current, common US usage, “hoity toity’ is, if anything, more pejorative than “hoi polloi.” So if anyone’s getting the worst of Anthea’s clever turn of phrase, it’s those you chose to describe as “desirables.”

      • Sally does the shopping expeditions in the village with the limo, but I always prefer the brougham – when in need of music paper, pencils, or a new baret; it’s comfortable, distinguished, and impresses the locals.

  • Great to hear about a new concert venue from the performer’s perspective. I do like the smaller venues myself, where I feel more intimately connected with the musicians. Im glad you responded to Peter’s comment about how you found the acoustics as that was the obviious piece of missing info for me too!

  • On my suggestion, my PA went to the opening concert (big hall) and sat behind the orchestra. According to her report, she liked everything (although she did not hear singers and strings, but she never minds those things anyway), but she narrowly escaped drowning in the Hamburg harbor when, on her way to the ladies’ room, she happened to open a wrong door and unexpectedly fell from the façade down into the dark water, fortunately close to a passing harbor taxt who picked her up. The rest of the evening was spoiled. It seems that a more clear type of indication, also in English, would prevent such disruptive irregularities, which seriously harm musical experience.

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