“Music for the thinking ear” is the slogan for Berlin’s new Pierre Boulez Saal, which opened its doors to the public on Saturday, March 4. Why a new hall? The city’s Philharmonie (Zirkus Karajani, or “Karajan’s Circus,” as West Berliners dubbed it) remains a monument to architectural, acoustic, and indeed performative modernism; there are no bad seats, whether visually or acoustically; the surrounding of the orchestra by the audience offers a different experience from more traditional halls; and the sound holds its own with the world’s best, such as Vienna’s Musikverein and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (let alone the miserable examples with which London has been cursed). Still, although Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie has a chamber music hall attached, Berlin has had nothing like this. Frank Gehry’s oval design, with no stage, merely a center, genuinely seems to open up, in the spirit of Boulez’s long-held desire for a flexible salle modulable, the possibility of the “thinking ear”: to engage, to reflect, to make itself part of the performance. The greatest possible distance between the conductor and the most distant member of the audience (682 seats in total) is just 14 meters. There is intimacy—the intimacy, its initiators hope, of collaborative endeavor.

The conceptual collaboration between Gehry, Daniel Barenboim, and the acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, mirrors Boulez and Barenboim’s collaboration of nearly half a century. They performed together for the first time in Berlin, with the Philharmonic, in Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, and Barenboim is still one of the most ardent champions of his friend’s music. In the programming philosophy, we see true Boulezian selections, connections made. Barenboim’s new Boulez Ensemble, at least as modulable as the hall, made up of musicians from his Staatskapelle Berlin and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, both of which Boulez conducted, will present concerts with combinations of contemporary music, classical music, and classically modernist music—just as Boulez would insist that musicians auditioning for his Ensemble Intercontemporain play one classical piece, not just contemporary music. The hall will also, most important of all, offer a home to the young musician-students of the Barenboim-Said Akademie. The first 37 of them enrolled last autumn.

The opening concert itself was performed twice, once on Saturday evening in the presence of a host of dignitaries, including the German President, and the next morning, when I attended. By the standards of the typical—or formulaic—concert, it was long, but I didn’t feel it: it was rich, in very Boulezian terms, in programming possibility. Split into three parts, with two intermissions, the repertoire stretched from Mozart to Jörg Widmann, encouraging the thinking ear, the acts of thinking and listening.

A new hall needs a fanfare. This one had Boulez’s 1987 “Initiale,” for seven brass instruments (two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, and tuba). The musicians encircled us, Gabrieli-like, from the balcony, conducted (although I could not see him from where I was seated) by Barenboim. Both work and performance were full of clarity and warmth. The experience of “Répons” offered musical as well as spatial inspiration, though in miniature, like a distillation of a symphonic poem and its narrative, wordless or otherwise. I thought about how form, understood as something more dynamic than structure, is contained within the word performance.

YouTube video

Pierre Boulez, “sur Incises”; Matthias Pintscher (Conductor), Soloists of Ensemble intercontemporain

Schubert will feature strongly in the Boulez Saal’s programming. A “Winterreise” with Christian Gerhaher and Barenboim at the piano will launch a cycle of the complete Lieder over several years; Barenboim will also play the complete piano sonatas and conduct the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in all the symphonies.

At the opening we heard “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” with Anna Prohaska and Jörg Widmann, which connected neatly both to Widmann’s own clarinet “Fantasie” in the third section of the concert, and to subsequent Widmann contributions to the season. This was true chamber music, perhaps especially between the two soloists; Barenboim was, if not exactly reticent, far from dominant. The song opens: “When I stand on the highest rock, look down into the deep valley, and sing,” that final “und singe,” was quietly ecstatic; the clarinet enthusiastically echoed it, as if across the valley. The clarity of both lines—this was certainly not just a matter of the acoustic—created an Alpine impression: “atmosphere,” as Boulez would have been the first to point out, does not necessarily entail a blur. There was real sadness to be heard in the fourth and fifth stanzas, “In tiefem Gram verhehr ich mich…,” until the “wunderbarer Macht” (“wondrous power”) of song itself won through, without exaggeration yet unmistakeable. Playing to the gallery, figuratively or literally, is not a requirement in a hall for the thinking ear.

Barenboim has been associated with the music of Mozart for as long as he has been a performing musician. His piano concertos (whether with the English Chamber Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic) can hardly be bettered. On Saturday, he rounded off the first part of the concert with Mozart’s E-flat Major Piano Quartet, with Michael Barenboim (violin), Yulia Deyneka (viola), and Kian Soltani (cello). I haven’t been entirely convinced by Barenboim Senior’s new piano yet—though I admire the idea—and I wasn’t won over at this concert. At times his uncontested leading role passed over into heavy-handedness. But Barenboim’s strength was in the way Mozart’s music developed, motivically and harmonically, the one engendering the other. His way of playing activated the extraordinary richness of Mozart’s music as thought in progress.

In Berg’s Chamber Concerto, with Barenboim and the Boulez Ensemble, the climaxes were fearsome, de profundis. Berg’s music was labyrinthine, yet purposeful. Constructivism was shown to be in itself expressive, not somehow, sentimentally, opposed to expression. Boulez would surely have approved. Widmann then gave a spell-binding account of his 1993 “Fantasie” for solo clarinet. Like the brass players for “Initiale,” he played down to us from the balcony. The musical line was as clear and direct as anything we had heard before. The performance seemed almost to exemplify the wishes expressed both by Boulez and by Barenboim that new music (newish, in this case) be performed as if it were classical (and vice versa).

The setup during “sur Incises.” Photo © Peter Adamik
The setup during “sur Incises.” Photo © Peter Adamik

In “sur Incises,” for three sets of percussion instruments, three pianos, and three harps, Boulez’s conception of serialism as ever-expanding, open-ended, was the overriding experience of this performance (also conducted by Barenboim). The spatial element sounded more crucial than ever. We heard solo lines but also different constellations: three groups, considered vertically, each of percussion, harp, and piano, and, considered horizontally, the three percussionists, the three harpists, and the three pianists. A startling aspect of those latter formations, particularly clear in this acoustic, was how passages transferred spatially across, say, the three pianos, while remaining in a sense part of the one giant piano: played, as it were, by Barenboim, the pianist-conductor. I have long thought here of Boulez playing with something like a musical magical square, three rows and columns constantly shifting, and yet always adding up to the required total, even if we do not know what that should be: a magical extension of Webern.

Barenboim signaled at moments of transformation. As he did so, I thought of Boulez’s own conception, implied in his lectures to the Collège de France, of the musical “signal.” Rising clamor, typically Boulezian frenzy, would subside, at least partially, dialectically: confounding, yet making unanswerable sense. Form lives, acquires meaning, in performance, especially one so outstanding in quality as this. But however much we might have wished this universe to continue expanding forever, its material in perpetual proliferation, the conclusion once again proved decisive. The ear had thought; the mind had listened. ¶

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