A Forest Idyll
Berlin’s Waldbühne may be one of the most pleasant spots in town. Located in a forest at the city’s western edge, the sense of vast scale in this 20,000 capacity amphitheatre is matched by an unexpected feeling of intimacy and seclusion. It is such an ideal place to spend a summer evening watching an orchestra that you hardly even notice you’re sitting in a sporting-event sized crowd.
The Waldbühne hosts a number of events during the course of the summer – including a late-August appearance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and, this year, an open-air performance of Die Zauberflöte from the Deutsche Oper – but few are as celebrated as the Berlin Philharmonic’s annual concert, which acts as an unofficial boundary between the regular season and the festivals of summer.
Indeed the concert is as much a social institution as a musical performance. People arrive long before the orchestra to set up their elaborate picnic spreads – complete with table-cloths and candles – or to enjoy some Bier and Wurst beneath an early evening sky. But despite the populist nature of the event, the music rarely panders. This year’s concert featured Gustavo Dudamel leading the orchestra in a programme designed to appeal equally to those who had come for the picnic and those who had come for the Philharmonic.
It may have been the proximity of the World Cup – the concert was conveniently scheduled for the one evening separating the Group Stage from the Round of 16 – that caused the orchestra to start a Mexican wave on stage, which quickly spread through the circular amphitheatre; if nothing else, it contributed to the festive mood. And when everything had settled down, Mr Dudamel appeared from the wings to lead the orchestra through a suitably dramatic performance of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
While the piece itself may be largely undemanding, it was a reliable choice for the occasion. Tchaikovsky’s flair for the dramatic – his way with texture, effect and sudden mood shifts – are familiar enough to offer an immediate thrill, without ever quite going over the top. Mr Dudamel, for his part, managed to keep the tension high while holding the inevitable sentimentality (mostly) in check.
The evening’s second piece – also by Tchaikovsky, also based on Shakespeare – fulfilled the open-air concert requirement of having at least one piece that everyone in the audience will recognise; the love theme from the Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture may be one of the most overused pieces in all of Western music – imagine people kissing on a movie screen and this is probably what you’re hearing – but the orchestra approached it with grace and restraint. It was a crowd-pleasure to be sure, but Mr Dudamel’s spirited reading and the orchestra’s opulent sound infused it with a certain nobility.
If the mood of the evening’s first half had been diverting, it grew more serious – and more satisfying – in the second half, which featured a performance of Brahms’ First symphony that would have been every bit as riveting in the concert hall as it was in the splendour of the Waldbühne. From the opening bars – taken at a pace that seemed more urgent than funereal – it was clear that we were in for something special.
Although the Allegro section of the first movement unfolded at a decidedly pensive tempo, there was an effortless fluidity in the playing, and a consistent emotional charge in the direction; and while one does not go to an open-air concert for the high quality of the acoustics, the sound was surprisingly rich and the tonal balance remarkably detailed. This was especially apparent in the quieter second movement where, despite an ambient landscape of birds, babies, distant jet planes and people opening complex items wrapped in plastic, the strings projected an undeniable warmth.
Mr Dudamel, as is so frequently the case, was able to impress precisely through a lack of musical ostentation. Although his physical gestures were large enough to be seen from the highest seats, his vision of the symphony was refreshingly free of obvious idiosyncrasy and generally faithful to the letter of the score. His superb control was perhaps most notable in the third movement, which moved forward with a natural momentum and lightness of spirit that never failed to delight.
The final movement began with ominous storm clouds and a wonderful pizzicato section that seemed a miracle of deliberate pacing; the turbulence that followed was made tranquil again by some magnificent playing from the brass who cleared the way for the introduction of the movement’s famous melodic theme. Everything about the final movement seemed perfectly judged while maintaining a consistent tension that illuminated every dynamic shift. The conclusion was tremendous and was greeted with immediate cheering and applause.
If Mr Dudamel’s crowd-pleasing instincts has helped to shape the Tchaikovsky pieces in the first half, it was on full display in a rousing encore performance of the final section of Rossini’s William Tell overture, which had the audience on their feet clapping and stomping more or less in time with the music. This, in turn, was followed by the most venerable of Waldbühne traditions, a raucous rendition of Berliner Luft accompanied by the swaying of sparklers and the downing of tiny bottles of schnapps.
Thus the concert – and with it another season of music in Berlin – came to a close. The Berlin Philharmonic will, of course, return at the end of August to set their new season in motion, and Gustavo Dudamel will also make a welcome return to the city in September when he leads the Staatskapelle Berlin in the opening concert of this year’s Musikfest. Until then, we have a few quiet months in which to enjoy the delights of summer.