Tuesday, November 23, 2010
THE Berlin Phil
I knew I was under-dressed for the Berlin Philharmonic when even their stagehands were wearing black jackets.
The last time I saw conductor Simon Rattle's back was 20 years ago. He's still bouncing those curls as he conducts, only they're all grey now.
And the last time that I saw the back of that curly head, I didn't have to pay $300 for the privilege. Instead, I was paid 3 pounds for my trouble. I was a student, stewarding at the University of Warwick Arts Centre. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was the orchestra in residence at the Arts Centre then, and Simon Rattle -- he wasn't Sir Simon back then -- was its conductor.
And that's why it's so hard to see him as the man walking in godlike Herbert von Karajan's footsteps at the Berlin Philarmonic. THE Berlin Phil. Not when you remember Simon Rattle tossing his curls at the old dears in the CBSO Chorus, and the way they tittered everytime he so much as spoke a sentence to them. Does "not C sharp but D flat, Muriel dear," qualify as a sentence?
Anyway, back to THE Berlin Phil. It was a faultless performance (Haydn's Symphony No 99; Brahms' Symphony No 2 on the first night. I skipped the second night because it had Mahler and I cannot do Mahler. Besides I couldn't afford to go both nights). I suppose you could say it was faultless because the audience, having forked out so much (my $300 was but a cheap seat in the second balcony. The gallery seats behind the orchestra went for about the same. Front row VIP seats were close to $600.), were determined that it had to be faultless.
But really, they were good. For a behemoth, they had the softest, gentlest pianisimmo, a smooth caress for the quiet bits in the Brahms. Before erupting into an awesome powerful finish.
The Philistine in me confesses that I don't get Alban Berg. I never could get that second Viennese school. Does a wooden mallet brought crashing down really count as a percussion instrument?
I think the nicest bit actually wasn't in the programme. It was during the intermission, before the orchestra came back on for the Brahms symphony. One of the double bassists lingered onstage as the (jacketed) stagehands moved chairs and music stands about. He started playing very quietly to himself Brahms' Lullabye, and then a fellow musician walked over, pulled up a chair, sat down and listened. An extra recital for the $300.
In an interview with the local daily English broadsheet, Simon -- sorry, Sir Simon now -- justified the high ticket prices by saying that a rock group of just a few people could play to a stadium of thousands, so they could price low. While an orchestra of so many people could only play to a few hundred. So that's why it costs more to listen to a bunch of penguin suits. Which was why I almost choked when I was reading the programme notes where Sir Simon was quoted as saying that "music is no mere luxury, but instead a fundamental need". Excuse me kind knight, but $300-$600 for a ticket IS luxury.
Eric Clapton plays here in February. His most expensive ticket is $300, which is THE Berlin Phil's cheap seat. Both ways, I'm paying the same. The way I see it, Haydn pretty much sounds like Haydn, whether it's done by THE Berlin Phil, the CBSO, or even the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (cheap seats $12). But only Clapton can do Layla like Clapton. I think my money's on Slowhand.