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Letter from Berlin: In venues both historic and contemporary, Catherine Kustanczy experiences Berlin's annual Musikfest with its mind-boggling variety of concerts spanning Monteverdi to Ligeti.

Berlin is a fantastic city for music lovers, and one of the very best times to visit is during the annual Musikfest, held for three weeks from late August to mid-September. Organized by the Berliner Festspiele in cooperation with the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, the 2017 edition hosted roughly 44,000 visitors who enjoyed over 30 concerts, from early music choral presentations to premieres by contemporary composers. An abundance of music was on offer, from the traditional to the quirky; and a number of renowned organizations took part, including the Staatskapelle Berlin (who opened Musikfest), the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, and Akademie tur Alte Musik Berlin among them.

The Philharmonie Berlin was home to many Musikfest concerts, giving audiences ample opportunities to experience its acoustic wonders. Opened in 1963, the home of the Berlin Philharmonic is situated on the southern edge of the Tiergarten, Berlin's enormous city park, and is within walking distance of historic Potsdamer Platz. With a pentagonal design and asymmetrical features, the hall--designed by architect Hans Sharoun--is comprised of a main, 2,440-seat auditorium and a smaller 1,880-seat chamber hall. The Filarmonica delia Scala, making its first appearance at the Musikfest on Sept. 13, offered a program filled with drama. Under the impassioned leadership of Riccardo Chailly, its first half featured Brahms' celebrated Violin Concerto in D Major, op.77 with Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Its allegro giocoso section was interpreted somewhat seriously, losing some of the movement's intrinsic playfulness. Momentum thankfully returned in the evening's second half with a myriad of Verdi works, including compelling performances of the overture to I vespri sidliani, the Stabat Mater and the Te Deum, with La forza del destino's overture as encore.

The Berlin Philharmonic's performance the following evening in the same venue provided a fascinating stylistic contrast. With understated flair and elegance, the orchestra, under the careful guidance of conductor Marek Janowski, offered a thoughtful program touching on both the Renaissance and Romantic periods. Three orchestral preludes from Pfitzner's 1917 opera Palestrina and Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 ('Romantic') were presented with a beautiful balance between the grandiose and the meditative. The call-and-response structure of many passages within the Bruckner were performed with just the right amount of energy: sophisticated but not solemn; dynamic but not over-aggressive. The work's final movement was imbued with colour thanks to long, luxurious phrasing and a gripping crescendo of intensity that led to a shimmering finish.

Drama and intimacy were the cornerstones of the RIAS Kammerchors program of Monteverdi led by Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Justin Doyle. Since 2017 marked the 450th birthday of Claudio Monteverdi, portions of the Musikfest programming were devoted to his works. RIAS Kammerchors Missa in illo tempore and Vespro della Beata Vergine were performed under the program title, "Oracolo della Musica" ("Oracle of Music"). The Kammerchor (or chamber choir) was formed in 1948 and named after the US-run radio station "Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor" ("American-sector broadcasting"); they participated in the opening concert of the Berliner Philharmonie in 1963 and have premiered works by Aribert Reimann, Paul Hindemith, and Pierre Boulez, among others. One of the locales for their Musikfest concerts was named after Boulez and just opened in 2017; the other location was St. Hedwigs Cathedral, the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the Reformation (both heard on Sept. 16). Built in the 18th century and modelled on the Roman Pantheon, the grand cathedral was, until 1990, part of East Berlin. Its circular design and high, domed ceiling present a unique set of challenges for live music, which Doyle surmounted by paying special attention to volume, texture and diction in the Missa--yielding surprisingly delicate results.

Monteverdi's Vespers were every bit as beautiful, though the Pierre Boulez Saal (located around the corner from St. Hedwigs) presents its own hurdles. Opened in early 2017, the hall is the public face of the Barenboim Said-Akademie and was designed by architect Frank Gehry, with input from acclaimed acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. With a seating capacity of 682, its cozy design belies its perfectionist nature; even the slightest intake of breath can be heard with absolute clarity. Musicians from the early music ensemble Capella de la Torre, choir members, tenors Thomas Hobbs and Andrew Staples, and sopranos Hannah Fields and Dorothee Mields were choreographed to perform in varying positions around the hall (a balcony, a vestibule, at the top of a row of stairs) while the instrumental ensemble maintained a base in its middle. This approach created acoustically interesting moments which satisfied on both musical and spiritual levels.

Korea's Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra made its second appearance in Berlin since 2015 at the grand Konzerthaus Berlin under the baton of Shiyeon Sung, former assistant to James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Konzerthaus, originally known as the Konigliches Schauspielhaus (Royal Theatre), is located in the cobblestoned Gendarmenmarkt area and opened with the premiere of Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischutz in 1821. Heavy bombing during WWII left it severely damaged; the facility reopened in 1984 as the concert hall for the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, and in 1994 was renamed the Konzerthaus Berlin. In contrast to the more modern Philharmonie and the Boulez, the hall is stylistically reminiscent of an older, fussier era. Acoustically, it's every bit as splendid--something the Gyeonggi showed off through its expert performances of the work of Korean composer IsangYun, whose 100th birthday fell on the same day as their concert. Intimacy and claustrophobia co-mingled throughout Yun's Reak and Muak to create sonically electric moments. Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa's intense Klage (premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2013 with Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska) featured bell-voiced soloist Yeree Suh and effectively complemented Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti's Lontano (1967), with Sung balancing percussive elements and swirls of stringy texture.

Yun's work was also part of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester s powerful program at the Philharmonie on Sept. 17. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski led a tightly-coiled performance oi Dimensionen before moving to Schoenberg's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with soloist Christian Tetztlaff. The violinist combined technical virtuosity with true feeling, and injected the work with charismatic drama and eminent theatricality.

Italian composer Luigi Nonos tribute to murdered Czech journalist Julius Fucik, Notes from the Gallows (comprised of diary entries), underlined relationships between the personal and the political. Nono, son-in-law to Schoenberg, dedicated his one act opera Intolleranza 1960 to his father-in-law, from which the Italians Fucik work is derived. Fucik was himself the namesake and nephew of a 19th-century composer known largely for his military marches. The younger Fucik was murdered by the Nazi regime in 1943. Performing spoken passages from the diaries, reciters Max Hopp and Sven Philipp delivered authoritative performances which led directly into Beethoven. Jurowski gave the famous Fifth a heavy reading that dramatically complemented the evening's politically-charged theme.

The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper drew the 2017 edition of the MusikFest to a dramatic close. Donald Runnicles led his orchestra through sweeping accounts of extracts from Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette-Symphonie dramatique suite, as well as a poetic concert performance of the third act of Wagner's Die Walkure. Soloists Allison Oakes (Brunnhilde), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), and Anja Harteros (Sieglinde) gave wonderfully poetic performances, with Runnicles perfectly balancing vocal and instrumental drama, allowing a kind of dreamy reverie that echoed Wagner's themes of the divine and the human. Harteros' pillowy, sensuous soprano; Terfel's oaken baritone and, Oakes' fresh soprano--together with the terrific stage chemistry of Terfel and Oakes--evoked an intriguing textural complexity that pointed up the tenderness of the Wotan/Brunnhilde relationship.

Music history came into special focus with a visit to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the State Opera House of Berlin, originally built in 1742. The theatre reopened in early October with Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust conducted by Artistic Director Daniel Barenboim, featuring soprano Elsa Dreisig, baritone Roman Trekel, and bass Rene Pape. A renovation lasting eight years and costing 400 million euros has allowed the facility to connect its rehearsal spaces and auditorium via a 115-metre (377-foot) underground tunnel. The complex backstage area with its numerous lifts and computer-controlled stage equipment, belie its grand, old-world public areas, with refurbished velvet seats and gilded walls. The ceiling, featuring a spectacular chandelier, was raised five meters (16 feet) as part of the renovation to allow for better acoustics, and seating capacity has been reduced from 1,398 to 1,356 for improved visibility and comfort. Certainly one of the crown jewels of Germany's vibrant opera scene, the house is set to stage a variety of operas in 2018, including Don Giovanni, La Boheme, and Ariadne auf Naxos.

Caption: Conductor Riccardo Chailly and the Filarmonica delia Scala at the Berliner Philharmonie, Sept. 13, 2017

Caption: Korea's Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra at the Konzerthaus Berlin, Sept. 16, 2017

Caption: The 18th-century dome of Berlins St. Hedwigs Cathedral

Caption: Auditorium of the newly-renovated Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin
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Author:Kustanczy, Catherine
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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