A love affair with the Berlin Philharmonic

Sunday, November 27, 2016 - 4:12pm

A couple of weekends ago you might have noticed a host of well-dressed people streaming down the sidewalks in the vicinity of the intersection between North University Avenue and South Thayer Street. Or perhaps, if you drive, you might have found yourself bumper-to-bumper in the sort of traffic jam normally reserved for game day. Either was rather likely, and the occasion was something which hadn’t happened since 2009 — the Berlin Philharmonic was in town.

My guess would be that it took around $81,000 to bring them across the ocean, given the price of airfare and the number of people. Tack on the expense of organizing everything, the negotiation with venues, the booking of hotels, the food, the chartering of busses and it doubtlessly amounts to a small fortune. In the end it must have been profitable, I suppose, but whoever managed it must have been a logistical mastermind with Herculean endurance, and I wouldn’t want their job for the world. Which is to say I’m really glad that someone did it, because the result of all that effort was a fantastic experience for thousands of people.

As a bit of background, the Berlin Philharmonic is widely considered to be one of the top four or five orchestras in the world, competing with the likes of the London and Vienna Symphonies. So to say that I was excited when it was announced they would be coming to Ann Arbor is an understatement. I bought my ticket well in advance, and looked forward to it all semester and all of the summer before that. I even spent a few days in Berlin in August, and while there declined to seek out any performances that might be happening, in anticipation of the Ann Arbor concert.

It certainly wasn’t a disappointment. Berlin’s reputation is well deserved, and the direction of Simon Rattle was stellar. I might even go so far as to say it was the best orchestral performance I had ever witnessed, and I’ve seen a fair few. Throughout the concert, the ensemble of over a hundred musicians played as if one. Every gesture was shaped together, each stream of sound perfectly balanced against the others. And the sounds they made were marvelous. The sweeping motions of the strings felt as if they were lifting you off the floor, and when the brass section played with all their might you felt it reverberating in your bones.

Aside from awe at the orchestra’s technique, the performance also left me with a few thoughts. The program I watched was in two parts: the second half was Brahms Symphony No. 2, a fairly conventional orchestral choice (and a personal milestone — I’ve now seen all the Brahms symphonies live), and the first half was a non-stop performance of music by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, collectively known as the Second Viennese School. This was not a conventional choice. In fact, I’m fairly certain that until Berlin I had never attended an orchestral concert with music by any of those three, let alone all of them on one program. And in a word, I was thrilled — though not everyone agrees with my ecstasy.

I think I might be in the minority in this, but I love atonal music. While most people feel that it’s ugly, weird and just all around unpleasant to hear, I find it to be beautiful, colorful, expressive and liberating. And when you think of atonalism, it’s the three composers of the Second Viennese School who immediately come to mind. Partially because Schoenberg “invented” atonality, he and his pupils Webern and Bern are inextricably bound-up with it, but since that trio there have been countless composers who followed their footsteps, the atonal aesthetic coming to be the primary feature of 20th century Modernist music. Many of them have influenced the way that I work and think as a composer, so to hear the original atonal masters was a valuable experience.

After the concert I overheard many of the conversations going on around me. Many of them went something like this: “I wasn’t really sure about the first half, but the Brahms made it all worth it.” I found a similar sentiment expressed throughout the comment section of the University Musical Society website.  And I understand why people might feel that way. I don’t agree with them, but there was a time when I might have, and it’s not my place to say someone’s musical taste is wrong. Coming to love atonal music was a long process, hours upon hours spent listening as I slowly started to understand the syntax and unlearned many of the assumptions I had about what music was. That’s not necessarily for everyone, but that is what everyone heard at the Berlin concert, which is why I find Maestro Rattle’s choice to include this music endlessly fascinating.

What should be included in an orchestra’s repertoire? Whose opinions should carry the most weight when deciding? On the one hand, part of an orchestra’s role is to “entertain,” so to speak. When someone goes home after an evening at the symphony it’s generally assumed that they should have had a good time. It follows that the tastes of the audience should bear upon the programming decisions. But orchestras also serve as champions of the arts. They should, ideally, expose people to types of music they have never really experienced, and promote works both by living composers and from periods that are less popular. In addition to providing enjoyment, they should challenge their listeners. The latter role might even be more important. The classics and sure-fire hits don’t need championing — they’re already ensconced in our culture.

At the end of everything, an approach like the one Rattle took is probably the best. Mixing the tried-and-true with the unconventional on the same program ensures balance. Ears searching for old favorites and exciting new worlds are both appeased. And by putting the Second Viennese School on a major program, it goes a long way towards normalizing them, and making them seem less new. Not that there’s any rush — the last of the three only died 65 years ago, after all.