04 December 2018

Europe Tour Diary 4: Berlin

In our 2018 European Tour, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will perform 12 concerts in seven countries in some of the most magnificent halls in the world. Emma Dunch, CEO, is on the road with the orchestra and writes to us from our fourth stop, Berlin.

It was back on the train this morning, bound for Berlin. The German railway system is a marvel of engineering and we had a very comfortable trip at top speed. We arrived without incident and had an hour or two to rest before heading to the famous Berliner Philharmonie for rehearsal and the performance.

A group of musicians headed straight for “Germany’s most famous Christmas markets” at Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt, one of the city’s most beautiful squares, featuring the German and French cathedrals, the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom. Among the visitors, Viola Sandro Costantino and Cello Fenella Gill recreated an image they took in 1995 on a previous Sydney Symphony Orchestra tour – 23 years later, they are older and wiser, but still looking good and having great fun!

Fenella Gill and Sandro Costantino in Berlin 1995
Fenella Gill and Sandro Constantino in Berlin during the
Orchestra's 1995 European Tour
Fenella Gill and Sandro Costantino Berlin 2018
Fenella Gill and Sandro Constantino recreate their photo
in Berlin on the 2018 European Tour!

All of us were very excited to perform in the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmoniker. Built between 1960–1963, this extraordinary concert hall was the original prototype for “in-the-round” immersive concert presentations — with as many seats located beside and behind the orchestra as are in the stalls. Those of us not playing took full advantage throughout the rehearsal to wander into every section of the empty hall, sit in various seat locations and listen to the acoustics from different angles.

As we began rehearsing, members of the Berlin Philharmoniker were finishing up work for the day and many hung around backstage and inside the hall to meet us. Several of our Sydney Symphony Orchestra musicians have strong Berlin connections, so it was terrific to see many musical friends turn out, including our Berlin-based Sydney Symphony Orchestra Composer in Residence, Brett Dean, and Canadian-Australian Principal conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Stanley Dodds.

Playing onstage in this hall was a revelation for our musicians. “Wow! I can really hear the double basses!” exclaimed one woodwind colleague. “At home, it’s more like semaphore — just watching their bowing arms from across stage — but today, I can actually hear what they’re playing as well. It’s amazing. The quality of our playing immediately lifts when we can hear our colleagues better.” Many others made similar comments and indeed, the musical ensemble changed dramatically across the course of the rehearsal as people adjusted their playing style to match the hall and each other. 

Brett Dean and Sydney Symphony Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles joined us for the performance, along with several other Australian expatriates based in Berlin. Soloist Martin Grubinger pulled out all stops for his performance of MacMillan’s Percussion Concerto No. 2 and was met with wild applause from a large and mostly younger audience. We turned in additional strong performances of Dvořák’s Carnival Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which engendered an extraordinary display of seamless musical teamwork by Concertmaster Andrew Haveron and Associate Concertmasters Sun Yi and Kirsten Williams.

A couple of minutes into the Beethoven, Andrew snapped a string on his violin, rendering it unplayable while the symphony was already in full flight. As is customary practice, Andrew immediately turned around in his seat and swapped his violin with Sun Yi behind him, so that, as leader of the orchestra, Andrew could continue playing uninterrupted. Sun Yi then swapped the Haveron violin with Kirsten Williams and took hers, so that the first violins would have uninterrupted musical leadership down the outside line closest to the audience. With Haveron playing the Yi violin, and Yi playing the Williams violin, Kirsten then stopped playing, took a spare string packet from Sun Yi’s lapel pocket, quickly changed the string on the Haveron violin, and then played it through to the movement’s completion. In all, these complex manoeuvres took less than 10 minutes and were aurally imperceptible (although fascinating for us to watch). In the first available break between movements, a complex reverse swap took place, with each violinist reclaiming their own instrument to continue the symphony without breaking a sweat. Now that’s what I call teamwork!

Coming offstage, Principal Cello Katie Hewgill declared “This concert was a highlight of my career,” – and she wasn’t alone in feeling that way. In the audience, the extraordinary musical experience was confirmed by the explosive applause and cheering that erupted as soon as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director David Robertson lowered his baton. 

The celebrations continued at a joint Berlin Philharmonic and Sydney Symphony musicians’ dinner after the performance.

Pictured: Berlin skyline. Photographer: Stefan Widua

Europe Tour Diary 4: BerlinEurope Tour Diary 4: BerlinEurope Tour Diary 4: Berlin