There will be music again! – The Berlin Philharmonic opens to the public in a trial project

Berlin reaffirms its leading role in the world of classical music with a trial project to test the reopening of cultural events amid the Covid-19 pandemic

The concert will take place on the 20th of March, under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, the chief conductor. It will be broadcast on Easter Sunday, 4 April, on Arte at 17:00. Illustration made by Clara Tepes.

The strings are tuning up. The wind section are preparing their instruments. A masked and spread-out crowd of 1,000 people listens as Germany’s world renowned Berlin Philharmonic orchestra plays to a live audience for the first time after the lockdown in a trial concert to find out if live cultural events can be held safely in the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the past years, Berlin has risen as the Mecca of classical music. Several important companies from the industry, such as Sony, Harmonia Mundi and Deutsche Grammophon, have their headquarters here. In a sector shaped by the genius of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner, the Berlin Philharmonic stands as a leading cultural institution, with world-renowned musicians.

“I even missed people coughing between movements!”

Sarah Willis

On the 20th of March, the orchestra will perform again in front of a live audience of one thousand people, after five months of digital concerts. The event is part of Perspektive Kultur, a project launched by the Senate Department for Culture and Europe in collaboration with eight cultural organizers, such as the Berliner Ensemble theatre, Berliner Clubcommission and Deutsche Oper Berlin. The philharmonic’s tickets were sold out within four minutes.

“I even missed people coughing between movements,” said Sarah Willis, horn player in the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, in response to emailed questions. The orchestra has continued to play during the lockdown, but without audiences, their music was made available on the Digital Concert Hall. “Without the clapping at the end, the silence in the hall at the end of a symphony seemed even louder than the music itself,” Willis says.

“It is a test of the testing,” says Elisabeth Hilsdorf, the head of the philharmonic’s PR department. The aim of the project is to take note of the logistics and the public’s response to the imposed measures. 

The speed of the ticket sales proves that the audience values culture more than comfort. The public will be tested with the help of the Rostock biotech company Centogene. Everybody will wear masks and provide proof of identity. The tickets are personalised, mentioning the full name and the date of birth of the attendee.

“If there is one orchestra in the world which is able to take any kind of pressure, I think it is ours,” says Elisabeth Hilsdorf, head of the philharmonic’s PR department.

“If there is one orchestra in the world which is able to take any kind of pressure, I think it is ours,” says Elisabeth Hilsdorf when asked how the orchestra is coping with the stress of the event. When the musicians found out about the Senate’s project and that they will play in front of one thousand people again, they all applauded. “I think for them it is not pressure, but joy,” Hilsdorf adds.

“It is a basic need to have personal exchange. Especially with art because it is more abstract, it confronts you with your inner world. Art is a great way to feel connected with yourself and with other people.”

Teresa emillia raff

Not everybody has the luck of governmental sponsorship like the Berlin Philharmonic. The pandemic has cancelled many concerts that provided a source of revenue for musicians. However, Perspektive Kultur is meant to be a statement for a general revival of culture, not only for the elite cultural centres.

Teresa Emilia Raff, a harp player, hopes that this means that her projects will also be performed in front of a live audience, even if this might only happen next autumn. She is nervously waiting to hear again the murmur of applause at the end of her recital. “This connection to the other human beings from the same room is what makes it the most beautiful moment,” Raff says. “The audience is as important as the artist in this moment of the concert.”

Although the general response is sheer enthusiasm, some voices argue that these measures could have been adopted sooner. On Twitter, Oper! magazine, a publication focused on opera productions, writes that although they support the project, the research about the safety of this comeback has been known for a while.

Under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, the chief conductor, the orchestra will play two pieces that are popular with the audience, Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor. It will be broadcast on Easter Sunday, 4 April, on Arte at 17:00 (CET).

With this initiative, Berlin is signalling to the world the return of cultural life. During the pandemic, many countries looked at Germany, copying its COVID-19 measures. In a global cultural landscape where physical events are minimal, this project can help inform a worldwide reopening.

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