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Reflection: Symphony again sparkles, wins over critical Berlin audience

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 6, 2012 - BERLIN - Had you gone out for a walk, or summoned the strength to take a jog around central Berlin Wednesday afternoon, you’d have noticed it felt as if some cruel weather god had thrown a switch to close down the phenomenon known as Berliner Luft.

The day was hot and muggy. Weather-wise, being in Berlin was more like being in the Mound City on the Mississippi than in the governmental, financial and cultural colossus on the Spree.

Berliner Luft – the air of Berlin – is said to be transformative. It nurtures an atmosphere of creativity in us, or so it is claimed. It is inspiring. On Wednesday afternoon, however, enervation washed over the visitor, not the oxygen of inspiration, that was certain.

Later, I walked east from the hotel on Stauffenbergstrasse where the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s musicians and administrators were billeted. Friends who were staying in a fancy suite in the Friedrichstrasse had asked me for drinks. I arrived wearing the embarrassment of a sweaty shirt.

My friends and I gobbled up hors d’oeuvres and planned our evening at the Philharmonie, where we would hear the St. Louis orchestra’s concert, one of the scores of performances included in the impressive Musikfest Berlin concert series.

While we talked, a meteorological miracle transpired: Berliner Luft flew in. When I walked out of the hotel atrium, I found that things had mercifully and quite remarkably cooled off.

The condition of the Quite Remarkable, as it happens, continued to be a distinguishing condition of the St. Louis orchestra’s playing.

Having come off aesthetic and personal highs pumped by tumultuous applause that seemed about to blow the roof off the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday night, one might expect physics to mess with emotions and to bring down with a thud what only hours before had been magnificently ascendant.

None of that was the case. As we rolled out by bus to Heathrow, orchestra members I encountered may have been sleepy, but mellow was the mood of the moment. Some were even feisty when, in the inspection queue at the airport, they began talking shop with and making plans to hang out with members of the London Symphony Orchestra. All the musicians were headed for Berlin and the Philharmonie.

St. Louis’s concert on Wednesday was first. At the party in Freidrichstrasse, a Berliner Philharmoniker regular said there is an attitude at the Philharmonie that if you can “make it” with the highly educated and thoroughly informed Berlin audience, you can make it anywhere.

Judging from audience reaction Wednesday evening, the orchestra – after a 14-year absence on the European tour circuit -- has made it, scoring high “A”s with its diverse and eclectic repertory and its skillful, nuanced and thrilling musicianship.

The program began with the exuberant 1944 “Holiday Overture” by American composer Elliott Carter. The Berliners indicated a certain affection for the 20th century work.

Then arose the bright star both of the evening and indeed of this tour -- the brilliant, supple young violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who joined music director David Robertson on the platform to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, as he had done at the Proms in London on Tuesday.

The sort of artistic and personal magnetism he displayed on Tuesday in the classical splendor of the Albert Hall was brought into play in the modernist Berliner Philharmoniker’s hall.

The building was designed by the late German modernist Hans Schauroun, with a masterful architectural translation of cubism distinguishing its concert hall. The sprawling shapes appear to have been borrowed from a picture by Braque and given material substance. The shapes, volumes and forms spread about, creating a hall that is magic for both seeing and hearing.

A friend of mine, a Berliner and regular concertgoer, warned me that sometimes Berliners were sourpusses when seated before a visiting orchestra or artist. But sourpusses, with few exceptions, were absent on Wednesday evening.

Tetzlaff’s performance, and importantly his unequivocal kinship with the orchestra, brought forth bravos and rapturous applause.

Vioinist and music director were called back five times at least. Tetzlaff rewarded those assembled with a solo encore, which for the second night set a bunch of us to playing Name That Tune.

We determined it was by Bach, but otherwise we weren’t certain what it was. Last evening our dilemma was solved by Tetzlaff himself, who’d met friends backstage at the Philharmonie. He said the encore was indeed by Bach, and in particular, it was the Gavotte from Bach’s Partita in E Major.

Tetzlaff and the Carter overture commanded the first half the evening. The second featured Arnold Schoenberg’s five not-so-easy pieces for orchestra, which sounded considerably better in the Philharmonie than it had either in Powell Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. The acoustics provided greater definition – sharper edges -- throughout the piece. It was followed George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” beloved by musicians and patrons alike.

“Candide’s” overture by Leonard Bernstein was the encore again, and its vigor and energy never fail. We emerged again, into a cool and happy night.

Today we landed at Zurich’s glamorous and comfortable airport – a facility quite a contrast to poor old Tegel in Berlin.

The orchestra plays tonight in superstar architect Jean Nouvel’s music hall in the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne. The center is build on the bank of Lake Lucerne, and it is a tour de force of reflection – glass and water in constant dialogue, night and day.

At Tegel this morning, I had a chat with the maestro, David Robertson, who clearly is having a ball on the tour, exulting in the reception his orchestra and he has been given in its first two, very important and quite extraordinary concerts.

We talked about the wonder that is Christian Tetzlaff, and about the invigorating effects of a concert tour, blessed by Berliner Luft or not. He told me about an encounter at dinner in Berlin the night before.

“Just to say thanks for their generosity, I invited Ned Lemkemeier, his wife Sally and Ginny Weldon out for dinner. (Lemkemeier and Dr. Weldon have led the symphony board.) After dinner, a couple came up to us to say hello,” Robertson said.

“I noticed their accents were not altogether German, so I asked them where they were from. Norway was the answer.”

The Norwegian couple had looked through the extensive offerings of the Musik Fest Berlin, and was delighted to find the St. Louis Symphony and two other orchestras they wanted to hear, playing on successive evenings. So they made their reservations and headed for Berlin.

Robertson said their praise for the Symphony was not only fulsome but also informed and that they clearly believed their trip was a grand musical success.

Ned Lemkemeier was suitably presidential.

“Ned said, ‘This is exactly what the folks at home need to hear.’ ”

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.