BERLIN – The Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s arrival in Germany’s musical capital on Tuesday was heralded by what might be called a 100-taxicab salute: A lion’s share of the city’s cab drivers jammed Friedrichstrasse – Berlin’s ultra-busy shopping thoroughfare – to protest competition from Uber cabs.
They honked at length, negotiated with police, and generally tied up the city’s nerve center for a half-hour, causing a domino effect that added to the hour-plus delay in the orchestra’s arrival by bus from Bremen, the previous stop on its European tour. Nobody likes surprises on a day when a terrorist strike is in the news.
In this most democratic of tours, both conductor Osmo Vanska and pianist Peter Serkin arrived on the third and final bus without much decompression time before they were due at the Berlin Konzerthaus. Press interviews and rehearsals were delayed. “It happens sometimes,” said Vanska, who believes in expending as little extraneous energy as possible on performance days.
The young players were thrilled to find their hotel keys waiting for them. “Benny! I got a key! Come!” a young musician yelled across the crowd for his roommate. The tour’s first day in Helsinki, on Thursday, had a five-hour wait for hotel rooms after an overnight flight. “We arrived at 10 a.m. Not the normal check-in time,” said trombonist Lyman McBride. “But the hotel was next to a beautiful lake.”
The impact of the Manchester terrorist incident is yet to be seen on Thursday’s scheduled hop to London, which will probably require extra time at security checkpoints. “Even before Manchester, we had our antennas up. It’s something we’re always watching,” said Andy Lane, the director of Curtis on Tour. More tangibly, Curtis staff has access to security alerts from International SOS, a service that sends updates on the latest precautions.
But in the small world of emerging classical musicians, such tragedy seemed distant, as students had noisy reunions in the hotel lobby with old Curtis friends now employed by Berlin’s orchestras, opera companies, and schools. Some students scheduled lessons with members of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Curtis president Roberto Diaz calls Berlin the school’s second home. Some of the musicians requested up to five personal tickets for the night’s concerts. Ticket sales went well – 1,100 were sold in the 1,400-seat hall that once hosted Leonard Bernstein’s famous Beethoven’s Ninth, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. And by concert time, the auditorium looked nearly full.
Whether or not the orchestra players owned Berlin, they came to act as though they did. German pedestrians don’t jaywalk or go against lights. But once the orchestra players started heading across the boulevard en route to the Berlin Konzerthaus, they were turning the street into a pedestrian mall before anybody knew it – and were clearly unfazed by a long bus ride that might have violated union rules with professional orchestras.
Backstage in a dinner served to the musicians in the homey Konzerthaus canteen, many of the players were still buzzing about their Sunday and Monday stay in Bremen. While some of them had been to Helsinki and Berlin before, Bremen seemed new to everybody. Facebook had comments such as “I just had lunch at a 600-year-old restaurant,” the Bremen Ratskeller, which dates to 1405 and resembles a wine cellar.
Percussionist Won Suk Lee, a 2016 Curtis grad, was impressed by eating at an establishment frequented by Johannes Brahms, possibly prior to the 1868 premiere of his famous A German Requiem at Bremen Cathedral. Lee had to admit that the medieval-bistro cuisine was “preserved rather than evolved.”
Come concert time, the performance started where many end, with Ravel’s sumptuous Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2. And as impressive as it was, this audience seemed interested in something deeper – and got it with Peter Serkin’s reading of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. The 69-year-old pianist now plays every phrase as if he could have written the piece himself.
At rehearsal, one difference of opinion had to do with the pause after the reflective second movement, which Serkin feels is like a requiem and warrants reverent silence before the eruptive final movement. Vanska feared the audience might be too noisy and break the mood.
“This is Berlin, not New York,” said Serkin. “Here, it’s like church.”
In a way, both were right. The Serkin pause was indeed quiet. But at the end of the first movement, the audience erupted into between-movement applause – quite unusual here.
It was that good.
David Patrick Stearns is touring this week with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in Europe. On Wednesday, the ensemble performs in Dresden before crossing the channel to London for engagements on Thursday and Friday. He will rendezvous next week with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra on the Mongolian leg of the Philadelphians’ Asian tour. Follow his adventures on Instagram at davidpstearns111.