The Berlin Philharmonic led by conductor extraordinaire Sir Simon Rattle is one of – if not the best performing orchestra in the world. They finished in top spot this year as nominated by a list of critics at Bachtrack and Simon Rattle only narrowly lost to Chailly in the top spot for conductor. In fact, it is said that you can recognize the Berlin Philharmonic by the way they sound and play. Whoever said that obviously was a professional and not yours truly. Nevertheless, I hope to have written enough to convince you that they are well worth booking tickets to if you are a music lover of any pedigree. Even the Philharmonie concert hall is worth the visit. Designed in a octagonal like shape, it is the first concert hall I have ever been to where the orchestra is actually surrounded by the audience! Yet again, it has been said that design has since been used as a template for other concert halls around the world.

So, we were very fortunate that they were home and not touring but more than that, they were actually performing in two of the four nights we were there. Of course, the tickets were sold out ages ago but our very resourceful concierge managed to secure two exceptional seats for us on the second night. (Don’t even ask how much they cost!) Suffice to say, I was very much looking forward to listening to the Berlin Philharmonic play. Unlike my wife, I had done no reading into the orchestra or even what they were performing that night. In other words, it was my habitual approach to a lot of things when I travel. I just turn up.

Going to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

As a novice, I did notice unusually that there was a huge black box on the stage splitting the violinists into two sections. Then they were also vertical three foot long LED lamps around the hall at various locations. It was not typical of what I have gotten used to from watching the school orchestra. I thought it odd but could not quite work it out. Maybe some stage lights were malfunctioning tonight and they have had to augment these spots with stand-in lighting. Or maybe to my surprise and delight, the music theme will be Star Wars and the lights are light saber props! I then thought nothing more of it until the performance started. The lights dimmed and the orchestra filed in to take their seats accompanied by the audiences applause. A short while later, this is followed by Sir Simon Rattle to even more appreciative applause.

Then from somewhere behind the orchestra, a woman in a black dress appeared and climbed onto the black box and laid down on her side. To my right, a man also dressed in black stepped forward and stood next to one of the LED lamps. Sir Rattle then raised his hands and with his baton in the air, made tiny movements unfathomable to me. He then gently brings them down and heavenly symphonic music flowed from the instruments, dancing to his deftly moving hands.

Interior of the Berlin Philharmonie showing the orchestra surrounded by the audience (see the black box and the light sabers!)

I turned to see what was going on with the two actors in black. The man had a decidedly tortured look on his face. The one time I remembered anyone physically fit with such a look was at the Opera. This was not good. Operas are my Achilles Heel and he reminded me exactly of an opera singer. Before I could ponder this for a moment more, he stretched out his hands towards the woman and started singing, filling the entire hall with his perfect tenor voice. Then the soprano joined in from the black box and together, their vocals climbed to stratospheric heights. All of this to the accompaniment of the Berlin Philharmonic. I knew enough to know it was not Italian but French they were singing in. I looked up helplessly to the subtitles projected overhead. Of course, as we were in Berlin, they were in German. So, knowing my masterful grasp of both languages, I basically understood zero. But I understood enough to know now that this was an opera. And that was not good.

For the first thirty minutes, I tried to follow (as I found out later) Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande. A tragic tale of a love triangle (what else). But it was to no avail. I watched the opera sing of sadness, tragedy and loss. I watched the violins sway to the conductors motions. I hear the music waft melodically through the air. Even, the pure tones of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was not enough. And my eyes felt heavy, weighed down by the long day, by Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie. But worse of all, I was fighting a losing battle against jet lag. And then quite naturally, it all went dark and I was asleep.

Mary Garden as the first Melisande (courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

The first half ran for almost two hours whilst the second was a bit shorter at only an hour and half. With a break in between, it was literally a marathon of sorts. But none of that registered on me. Between differing levels of consciousness, I sensed different actors appear up and down the stage singing their parts before the finale when Melisande dies (a long drawn out death of course) and the night ends to thunderous applause. The whole cast appears not once but three times to the rapturous audience who clapped till till every cast and orchestra player had left the stage!

The NY times wrote the next morning of the performance as “perfectly sublime” calling this semi-opera something of a signature piece for Simon Rattle. It goes to rate his performance and extol his ability to “craft pillows of sound, build tension through colour and balance. To sculpt phrases that are stretched taut and to refine dynamics to the most astonishing, distinct grades“.

The reviewer then writes glowingly of the orchestra highlighting “the naive delight of the harp, the tender empathy of the flute, the savage attack of the cellos to instruments played so low they felt cold to the ear” It was clearly a review most orchestras would die for. Reading it the next morning, for the fleetest of moments, I wished I was there. Then again I was. I was right there, no more than twenty rows from the front. I just wished it hadn’t been Opera.