The opening of a new concert hall in a major city is always a special event and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg certainly deserved all the attention it got during its inaugural concerts this past January. Its architecture rightly attracted a lot of discussion. The design is breathtakingly original and, as often happens with daring concepts there were huge cost overruns, all manner of conflicts, protests and years of delays. The original price tag was US$197 million but the final bill will be well north of US$800 million. The building was expected to open in 2010 but it took seven more years to get the job finished. The excellent documentary accompanying the video of the opening concert provides many of the details of the planning and building of the Elbphilharmonie and it doesn’t by any means downplay the problems involved.
As one can see from the photograph on the front of the box containing the Blu-ray Disc, the Elbphilharmonie is an extraordinary piece of architecture. Who would have thought of building a concert hall on top of a red brick warehouse in Hamburg’s busy port area? Credit for that goes to the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. The structure certainly dominates its surroundings in the same way that the Sydney Opera House completely transformed the harbor area in Sydney.
The Grand Hall where the concerts are given is in the middle of the new glass section on top of the warehouse and to get to it patrons use what has been called the longest curved escalator in the world. The hall itself is similar to the Philharmonie in Berlin. This type of concert hall is classified as being in the “vineyard style,” that is, with the audience sitting in a series of pods distributed asymmetrically around the hall. The acoustician for this project was Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the best in the business, and the man who masterminded the acoustics for Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It is impossible to properly evaluate the acoustics of a hall from a recording; professional sound engineers can make even the worst hall sound wonderful. So far there seems to be no consensus about the acoustical qualities of the Elbphilharmonie. As always it takes time to “tune” a new hall and for performers to make their own adjustments.
The music director of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, the hall’s resident orchestra, is Thomas Hengelbrock and it was Hengelbrock who put together the unusually thoughtful and appropriate program for this concert. The concert opens with a piece for solo oboe by Benjamin Britten—the oboe being the instrument that traditionally tunes the orchestra. Oboist Kalev Kuljus played from the rear of one of the pods and so for most of the audience he was heard but not seen; a clever way to get audience members to focus on what they are hearing rather than on what they are seeing and, as such, an ideal introduction to a new hall. Then on to Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant, an orchestral piece from the 1980s that abounds in novel instrumental effects. Next, the solo voice of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with harp accompaniment, again from one of the pods, in music from the sixteenth century. And on it goes alternating groups large and small and music from different periods. Several of the pieces have a Hamburg connection: a motet by Praetorius (1586-1651) composed for a wedding in Hamburg, Furioso, an orchestral piece by Rolf Liebermann, a man who headed the Hamburg State Opera and the music section of NDR (North German Radio), and the world premiere of a bleak and mournful new work by Wolfgang Rihm in memory of the Hamburg writer Hans Henny Jahnn. Finally, to end the concert on a celebratory note there was a performance of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Hengelbrock conducted with impressive authority although the Prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal was a little dry and lacking in grandeur, and the Beethoven was likewise reserved when it should have been inspiring. Special performance kudos to countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in music by Caccini, pianist Ya-ou Xie in the Liebermann and Messiaen pieces, tenor Pavol Breslik in the Rihm and bass Sir Bryn Terfel in the Beethoven.
An added feature of this gala concert was a spectacular series of projections on the outside of the building. Many of the configurations had been designed to shift as the music changed during the concert. It was impressive to those watching as Blu-ray viewers but I can’t say that the projections did much to enhance one’s appreciation of the music. But then the point of it all was really to add to the celebratory character of the evening, and as such the light show was a worthy asset.
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