Music and its spaces

Print edition : June 27, 2014

A view of the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie. Photo: manfred brueckels

Hans Scharoun, the architect of the concert hall of the Philharmonie. He was a visionary of extraordinary imagination and technical capability.

In the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie. The orchestra is placed at the centre of the hall rather than at one end. The seating is an asymmetrical but carefully planned arrangement which provides an unimpeded view from all angles, while the excellence of the sound quality is retained everywhere. Photo: MANFRED BRUECKELS

Thick smoke billows out of the roof of the Philharmomie on May 20, 2008, after a fire broke out while a concert was underway. Photo: STEFANIE DODEL/AFP

ACOUSTICS—the science of sound and how it is received —has always been of particular importance to aficionados and practitioners of Western classical music. Unlike Indian music performers, who think nothing of amplifying their sound even in relatively small concert halls, in performances of Western classical music the use of amplification is not just distrusted but absolutely abhorred, as it is felt to distort the sound and dramatically alter (adversely) the enjoyment of music.

So a great deal of importance has always been placed on designing concert halls and similar venues with a view to the acoustics of such auditoria, to enable all those present to hear the music in all of its quality and complexity in the fullest manner possible. Such a preoccupation is not new: some of the acoustically finest halls, such as the Musikverein in Vienna, the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Boston Symphony Hall, the Carnegie Hall in New York and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, were constructed well over a century ago, while many cathedrals built much earlier also have wonderful acoustic quality. Yet, in recent times the effort put in to ensure fine acoustics in spaces meant for musical performance has resulted in some extraordinary marriages of science, art and creativity: the famous opening flower of the Sydney Opera House; the angled slopes of the Oslo Opera House, the egg-shaped dome of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, to name but a few.

Even in this illustrious company, some halls stand out for their almost impossible combination of technical skill and aesthetic quality. One such hall is clearly the Philharmonie in Berlin, the home of the famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which is at once so unusual and profoundly moving that it can even make just attending a concert here a life-changing experience.

This concert hall was conceived in the 1950s and constructed over 1960-63. It was required because the earlier concert home of the orchestra had been destroyed by British bombs on January 30, 1944. (Ironically, this was also the 11th anniversary of Hitler becoming Chancellor in Germany, and presaged by four years Gandhi’s assassination on the same date.) It was built on the edge of the Tiergarten, the lovely expansive park that runs through the centre of Berlin, but in a part of the city that was otherwise deserted, close to the western side of the Berlin Wall. Despite being partially destroyed in a fire and renovated in 2008, the hall retains its essential qualities.

From the outside it is an unusual, even peculiar, building. Its asymmetric and apparently random shape and its quirky yellow exterior bring to mind a child’s playhouse, or at least a fanciful illustration for a book of children’s stories bordering on the imaginary. There are, in fact, two buildings: the Grosse Saal housing the main concert hall that can seat an audience of 2,440 people, and the smaller chamber music auditorium with 1,180 seats.

Creating a sense of intimacy in such a large hall is a challenge in itself, and ensuring good sound quality so that all the dynamics of phrasing, which are so essential to Western classical music, are audible to every listener is even more difficult. Yet somehow this hall manages to achieve both, allowing every member of the audience to feel almost intimately connected not just with the music but with its performers. This is achieved by placing the orchestra in the centre of the hall, rather than the traditional arrangement of having the performers at one end with a long hall for the audience. The seating is an asymmetrical but carefully planned arrangement of terraced blocks that hang and protrude in what appear to be somewhat random ways. These provide good and unimpeded views from all angles and every seat, while the excellence of the sound quality even in apparently distant seating is almost unbelievable.

The extent to which the architect, Hans Scharoun, was a visionary of extraordinary imagination and technical capacity is perhaps easy to underestimate today, when several architects are producing buildings that are both technologically and visually astounding. Yet Scharoun had none of the advantages that today’s architects enjoy in terms of new and different material of varying lightness and resilience that allow unusual shapes, or in terms of complicated graphics for planning design and other aids provided by current computer technology. This man was working from drawings dashed off with a thick 3D pencil, and somehow had to get across his ideas and vision to an army of engineers and builders who were ill-equipped to understand such a revolutionary conception.

The hall has been described as an enormous nomadic tent, with a sweeping but irregular roof of great height and variegated slopes and suspensions. These seem hard to understand at first, but are based not only on aesthetics but also a careful balancing of stronger and lighter elements of the building so as to ensure both stability and effective acoustics. Certainly, the unexpectedness of the construction contributes to its appeal. Scharoun himself described it as “a valley at the base of which can be found the orchestra, surrounded by ascending vineyards”.

The sense of drama is developed throughout the plan of the building. The canopied entrance leads to a darkened narrow point where tickets are collected, which then pens out to a long and multi-levelled foyer. This has an atmosphere at once festive and anticipatory, with visions of people milling around, moving slowly or swiftly to their seats or taking some refreshment before the programme starts. In effect, a pleasurable sense of collective excitement is created even before the listener enters the hall, simply through this very particular way in which the space has been planned. And once inside, every listener is somehow given the impression that the orchestra is playing for her, so pure and unalloyed is the sound.

If it is a privilege to attend a concert in such a building, which in many ways represents a sort of pinnacle of human achievement in this particular field, then it must be an even greater privilege and must provide a unique sense of satisfaction to perform regularly in it. Much has been written about the excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which has frequently been described as the best orchestra in the world. Of course, there are also critics who argued that it became a well-oiled machine under Herbert von Karajan, when sleek perfection of sound dominated over the emotions and intensity that a composer may have intended. Subsequently, with the Italian Claudio Abbado as principal conductor, the orchestra was known for expressiveness and intensity. Now Simon Rattle, the prodigiously talented import from Britain, leads the orchestra—and in a lush and atmospheric performance of a symphony by the late Romantic composer Anton Bruckner brought out the full potential of the music. Of course, the extraordinary performance was undoubtedly to the credit of the players and conductor—but who can say how much the hall itself serves as a continuous inspiration for them?

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