Thursday, January 26, 2012

Berlin, Teil 5: Auf der Bühne der Philharmonie!!!

Just this view from the stage was a special privilege.
Back in 2007 when I was studying in Berlin I attended a concert at the Philharmonie. It was the Berliner Philharmoniker and Seiji Ozawa playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1. As I didn't want to pay full price I went there early to line up for a standing-only ticket. Next to me in the standing area was a very nice Austrian girl. Practicing my German. we chatted for a little, and I told her I was a amateur cellist. Before saying goodbye for the evening, she said to me that maybe someday I'll be on that stage instead of watching from the audience. I remember my response was something like, "probably not."

5 January 2012 was our big day.

After a somewhat disappointing set of concerts at the Wald-Oberschule I made sure I got a good night of sleep. In addition to our concert we would also have a morning rehearsal, both at the Philharmonie.

The view from my seat on the Philharmonie stage.
I have to admit I have never been a fan of the how the Philharmonie looks, both on the inside and outside, but it is a special place regardless. There was a palpable sense of awe and excitement among the orchestra as we went into the hall via the artist's entrance. In these rooms and corridors backstage Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio name it, just about anyone who is anybody in classical music has been here. Before settling in for rehearsal many orchestra members eagerly took pictures of themselves and their colleagues on stage.

During our morning rehearsal we ran through our whole program and for some pieces, desperately tried to ask as many questions as possible about places which were still unclear and uncertain. We didn't go through the Barefoot Songs in their entirety to save the singer's voice. We did run through the symphony, and we nearly train-wrecked around rehearsal 10, which was not a good feeling going into the performance.

That afternoon I took it easy as I became progressively more nervous. In the evening, through a strong wind I got to the Philharmonie with plenty of time to spare. In the backstage area there was a sandwich buffet and most of the musicians were chatting with each other and scarfing down just enough food that they would need for the concert. As the concert approached I was so nervous that I began to question my decision for why I volunteered to be the section leader on the Barefoot Songs, when my stand partner was probably a better choice.

From what I remember in American orchestras it is a little more common to see some members of the orchestra warming up on stage before the performance. In Europe this practice is rare. I was hoping to warm up on stage a bit before the concert, to get used to sitting on stage again, this time with people sitting in the audience. The stage was empty, and we were to stay backstage until given the call to go on.

Partly because of nerves and partly because of just being ignorant, I waiting in backstage right before the concert. In the minutes before taking stage, this area was populated with violinists. I continued to sit in this part of backstage, seated and trying to keep my fingers warm. About 5 minutes before taking the stage, a rather worried member of the cello section came by and, after seeing me, breathed a sigh of relief. All the other cellists were waiting in backstage left, wondering where I was.

Right around the stage door there is a digital clock, a TV screen showing what is taking place on stage, and a speaker. A voice came over the speaker instructing us to take the stage. This is what the cellists in the Berlin Philharmonic hear every week. Walking out on stage I noticed that the hall was nearly completely full. I was expecting this, as in the days leading up to the concert word was getting around through the orchestra that the hall was just about sold out.

Before beginning the Barefoot Songs the Swedish ambassador in Berlin gave a greeting speech to the audience. Although interesting and a sales-pitch for Pettersson, I was really nervous and just sitting on stage without playing was not helping.

The Barefoot Songs went well enough, and I was able to play my short solo fairly satisfactorily without passing out. I don't think I can say much more about the performance of this piece because I was just too nervous to pay attention to much else.

With the first piece aside I felt relieved that I was no longer in a leadership position for the rest of the concert. The rest of the orchestra took their places for the symphony, practically doubling the number of people on stage. Considering the near train-wreck we had in the morning playing the same piece, I was a little wary, a feeling probably shared by everyone else.

Then something amazing happened.

We started playing. The beautiful, painful, endless melody began to float through the amazing acoustic which is the Philharmonie. I felt this energy, this concentration, this focus which I had never felt before, in this orchestra or anywhere else. We moved through transitions and arrival points, and played through them better than we ever had. As the music progressed, we were really making music--not just playing notes, but really bringing this music to life.

I told some members of the cello section that I was addicted to Ritter Sport.
From my point of view, as we nailed section after section which had plagued us in rehearsals, my focus and concentration just increased, and an incredible high just came over me. I was feeling a sense of joy greater than any I had ever experienced playing cello in an orchestra.

As the movement drew to a close, with fluttering trumpets and bone-chilling xylophone, we maintained our focus as the music began to die away. After a respectful silence, applause filled the hall. I looked at my colleagues and friends around me, an ear-to-ear grin pasted on my face, and we looked at each other knowing that that was the best we had ever played that piece. The high that I felt lasted well into the evening.

I am sure that if/when I hear the recording of our performance, I'll find a few things which we missed--some ensemble issues here, maybe some interesting intonation there. However, it doesn't matter. I really had the time of my life.

Thanks guys!

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