The Berliner Philharmonie. We had arrived early, a good half-hour before the doors opened. It was opening night of the Beethoven Cycle and we had tickets - a once-in-a-lifetime event almost ten years in the making. We were going to make the most of it.
The genesis for this happened during our first trip to Berlin, in 2006. On almost a whim, we had taken a tour of the Philharmoniker and were so impressed by it - the architecture, the sound, the history - that we made it a goal to actually see the Berliner Philharmonie in concert here upon our next trip.
Fast forward nine years (has it really been nine years? Where does the time go?) and Marissa and I are planning a trip back to Berlin to show Jacquie and Rob one of our favorite cities in the world. It had been nine years, but we remembered our goal. In fact, it had only grown in importance, I think, as we had seen Sir Simon Rattle on Charlie Rose several times in the intervening years, and had listened intently as he had so animatedly discussed music and, specifically, the orchestra he was now conducting, the Berlin Philharmonic.
As we researched this trip, we learned that we would be arriving in Berlin just a couple of days before the opening of the Beethoven Cycle - the month long period wherein the Philharmonic plays all of Beethoven's symphonies - with Sir Simon Rattle conducting for the last time. This was a must-make-it-happen moment.
So, on a Friday night roughly 30 days before the opening, Marissa and I manned a laptop and a tablet, watching the clock on the Berliner Philharmoniker website click down to zero, signalling that the box office was open. The ensuing 60 minutes were some of the most intense in recent memory. After multiple drops, delays, and split-second decisions, we secured four seats together, up above the orchestra, facing the conductor.
And that's where we were now, perched above the empty seats, ready for the musicians and their leader to file in. Once the house had filled and the lights had dimmed, they did just that.
And there he was, Sir Simon, with that head of white crazy conductor hair and black jacket with Nehru collar, a big smile crossing his face. I'd never had this vantage point at a concert before, and felt briefly like an extension of the orchestra, watching his movements as if I were holding an instrument and waiting for his signal to begin playing.
The applause quieted, he picked up the baton and the room was transformed. As Symphony No. 1 kicked off, the most perfect sound filled the space, every instrument forming a tight harmony that created what almost felt like a physical presence.
I listened and I watched. I was struck by the unexpected (by me, anyway) movement of the orchestra. The musicians were swaying and rocking, individually but also as a whole while they played. Viewed a certain way, it looked organic, alive, like a large clump of seaweed weaving rhythmically as the tide pulsed it forward and back. It was beautiful, and combined with the music created a sensation that gave me goosebumps.
Marissa and I looked at each other, both a bit misty-eyed. I can't speak for her, but I know I was thinking something along the lines of,
"Wow, I am actually at the Berliner Philharmonie, listening to the Berlin Philharmonic play Beethoven, led by a famous conductor I have heard, several times, describe how beautiful this can be. Wow. He was underselling it. Wow."
Symphony No. 1 was over in about 25 minutes. It felt like two minutes, and the intermission felt even shorter. We rushed out into the foyer for a pretzel and a beer (secret tip - the butter pretzels at the Berlin Philharmonic are really, really good. The butter is injected directly into the bread.) and were driven back in a flash by blinking lights and chimes.
It was time for Symphony No. 3 "Eroica".
Before I describe that, one thing I - well, the four of us, actually - noticed was the behavior of the crowd during the periods between movements. They really took advantage of the time to clear their throats. Sure, that is partially what that time is for, but this instance was a little different. It started normally enough - the first break during Symphony No. 1 produced a few "harrumphs" and "ahems", but grew with each new pause and by the final break during Symphony No. 3, the Philharmonie was suddenly transformed into a tuberculosis ward, with seemingly everyone coughing, hacking, gurgling and God knows what else. I felt left out by not needing to do so much as swallow.
Now, if my experience of Symphony No.1 had felt fluid and aquatic, emotions oscillating around me like the swaying of the orchestra, Symphony No. 3 felt more like an attack on solid land. The orchestra, and the crowd, led by Sir Simon, pushed ahead with force, sometimes slowly sometimes not, but steadily and powerfully, reaching a climactic ending that felt like a racing charge over enemy ground.
It was exhilarating. Rather than sway around me, emotions surged up through me, leaving me electrified as the orchestra ended its final note and Sir Simon nodded his head for a job well done.
The applause lasted several minutes - impressive considering how weak everyone's lungs should have been given all that coughing - and then the orchestra filed away and the crowd made for the exits. We gathered ourselves and headed for the metro station.
It was over almost as soon as it began. Nearly a decade in the making and done in a flash, but leaving a memory to last the rest of my life.