Space, time and the Elbphilharmonie

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

Music is the most ephemeral of the arts: hardly has a note sounded out, and it’s gone. But sounds from the opening of the Elbphilharmonie are still going through the head of DW music editor Rick Fulker.My seat was in one of the balconies the equivalent of several storeys above the stage. The vertical quality of the hall is breathtaking. The rows of seats ascend in wine terrace form so sharply that my knee was higher than the head of the man seated in the row in front of me. From my vantage point, the stage was far below, but despite the distance from the source of the music, I had the sensation of sitting amidst it. That sound is so mercilessly clear that one is tempted to analyze it, so I turned my attention readily from one orchestral voice or instrumental group to the next. When played solo, single instruments are one hundred percent vivid.

But how about a really quiet sound?

“Time becomes space here” runs a line from the opera “Parsifal,” penned by Richard Wagner decades before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. That was also the motto of the opening concert of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie on January 11. Music by “classical” composers Wagner, Beethoven and Mendelssohn – but also from the early music master Praetorius and the modern composers Olivier Messiaen, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Wolfgang Rihm – spanned five centuries of Occidental art music, and the interior space played along. Soloists and small ensembles sometimes performed from the upper balconies, but whether five or fifty meters away, they sounded equally vivid as the orchestra down there onstage.

The Overture to Wagner’s “Parsifal” is really no new territory to me, but this time I heard it differently, with other structures and motivic progressions coming to the fore. That was of course due to the rendition by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, but another factor was certainly the very immediate sound quality in the Grand Hall of the Elbphilharmonie. But “Parsifal” also requires sublime moments of almost inaudible quietude, and that quality was missing in the piece – and in most of the concert. One can’t blame the hall for that alone; the conductor has to really steer it. That’s the only slight criticism I have, tempered by understanding of the fact that this was maestro Thomas Hengelbrock’s first evening there too, and he has to gain experience in the Elbphilharmonie.

The lady sang along

The volume can really be cranked up in the Elbphilharmonie, yet it never sounds distorted, and the echo effects that strike terror into the heart of many an acoustical engineer are simply not there. The architects, acoustic experts and building engineers all did their homework. The orchestral tuttis can sweep one away. The woman seated next to me talked animatedly with her companion during the performance and even sang along in the final “Ode to Joy” chorus from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It didn’t really bother me though, because everything else that reached my ear was so thoroughly satisfying.

While early and new works alternated seamlessly, the external facade was used as a projection space for a light show in rhythm to the music. The marathon lasted nearly three hours, preceded by a one-hour opening ceremony with speeches and musical interludes.

For 0.5 percent, the wish came true

The Elbphilharmonie has been both “dream and nightmare, a world-class star and a joke, an embarrassment and a miracle,” said Joachim Gauck in his opening speech. Germany’s President was referring to the bitter auguments and budgetary excesses that made the Elbphilharmonie the paradigmatic building scandal. Now, however, citizens of Hamburg are no longer grumbling about the expenses, but instead are talking about the benefit the complex will have for their city – and the nation. The structure, said Gauck, provoked “strong, sometimes ambivalent feelings even before the first note had been played,” but is now “a jewel for Germany, the nation of culture.” Gauck dubbed it an “amphitheater of tonal art” and “a building to match our open society.”

220,000 individuals from every part of the world participated in the random drawing for a ticket to the opening concert. The roughly 1,000 lucky ones took their seats next to invited guests including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Parliamentary President Norbert Lammert as well as Andreas Vosskuhle, President of the Federal Constitutional Court and Olaf Scholz, Mayor of Hamburg. At the end, they joined the rest in giving the musicians standing ovations.

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