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Concert Halls of the World: Philharmonie Essen

img  Tobias

My visit to the Philharmonie Essen already begins at the trainstation of Münster. Program-posters invite me to the spend a night with Helene Grimaud, Pierre Boulez or Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin - all part of the concert hall's prestigious lineup for September. There's no denying it: Essen has turned into a quiet mecca for classical music fans and it has achieved this status with dignity as well as continuity and without spectacular marketing campaigns or focussing solely on superstars. With its contageous self-confidence, awareness of traditions and absolute will of integrating them into the present, there could hardly be a more suitable location to start this series of „Concert Halls of the World“. Anxiously I await my arrival as the weather outside the train changes from burning heat to grey clouds of rain within minutes.

The City: Culture on every Corner

It's merely a one-hour ride from Münster to Essen, but when I get off the train at three in the afternoon, I am entering an entirely different world. Essen is in the middle of preparing for its status as “European Capitol of Culture 2010” and you can see and feel it on every corner. Like many of its sister cities in the infamous „Ruhrpott“ (a both loving and slightly derogative German term describing most of the big cities of the country's most populous province, North Rhine Westphalia) is suffering from an image connected to the entire region's past in coal mining and heavy industrialisation. Entirely unjustifiedly, as I am about to find out.

The old city center greets visitors with several „culture booths“, which provide interested friends of the arts with ample information on the current cultural activities. From what I can judge from casually checking the posters, there is quite a bit going on in the most diverse genres: Banners by the Philharmonie Essen are hanging overhead, drawing attention to a festival of French music and the Kettwiger Strasse, a long and winding, relaxed shopping street stretches right into the heart of town, connecting the fashion shops of the big outlet chains with some particular local stores.

One of them is Baedeker, a huge book store, which, among others, offers a wide selection of titles on classical music-related issues, including several Glenn Gould-biographies (in Germany, he is back more than ever), an account of Shostakovich' multi-facetted relationship with Stalin, as well an acount on the „Great Cellists“ up and until tokafi favourite Sol Gabetta. Essen, as it turns out, is a city in love with music and full of nice sidestreets well worth checking out. I reach the Viehofer Platz and discover “yeah!” records, a tiny store with a great collection of jazz records. There are original Vinyl presings of Miles Davis' „We want Miles“ (a 2LP set) and a collaboration of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to be had and Keith Jarret's classical cross over „The Celestial Hawk“ from 1980, which sees the jazz pianist team up with an orchestra in his most ambitious bid as a classical/contemporary composer, is waiting for a buyer at the more than reasonable price of a mere 8 Euros. Don't let the Metal-CDs in the shop scare you off – the entire Ruhrpott has a long tradition of hard rock music, but it equally values more subtle sounds. After two hours of wandering through the streets, I treat myself to a coffee in „Leo's Casa“, a warm and chilled cafe next to the theatre on Kennedyplatz.

The History: A dream becomes reality

It is here that I read about the background and philosophy of the Philharmonie Essen and about the building hosting it, the “Saalbau”. The history of the premises begins all the way back in 1864 with a first concerthall, which at the time, however, goes by the name of “Stadtgartensaal”. It is not until 1904, after tearing down the Stadtgartensaal and errecting a fresh complex from scratch, that the term “Saalbau” is used. It is a monumental, magnificent and elegant building, roundly shaped and with lots of small domes. The location is destroyed in 1943, but rebuilt only shortly after. The new design is much more sober and reduced and concentrates on a functional appearance. An impression somewhat contradicted by the quirky green copper roof, which will quickly turn into the emblem of the Philharmonie Essen.

As the 100th anniversary of the Philharmonie Essen draws nearer, the organisors dream up plans of not only rennovating the location, but of turning it into something bigger. Their declared goal: To rework the building into a meeting place of different art forms, of combining it with a congress center and of setting up long-term sponsorship relations which will enable the management to establish continuity in terms of program and quality. The Philharmonie Essen's approach aims at combining renowned names with upcoming talents and at both providing the space for a string of high-caliber individual events as well as building a brand of its own. Effectively, this means that the concert we are about to whitness tonight and which leans towards the experimental and the exploratory, can follow in the wake of sold-out events, to which the entire national media habitually send out their best journalists.

The dream becomes reality as the house establishes contact with several strong business partners. The Philharmonie Essen even has its own trust set up by local Bank Sparkasse: The “Philharmonie-Stiftung”. Thanks to this solid economic foundation, music fans were sure to witness brilliant concerts well beyond the festivities of the glorious reopening in June of 2004.

The Concert Hall: An oversized CD drive & a UFO-shaped chandelier
It is a pleasant walk up to the building, as it is situated at the outer rim of the Stadtgarten, the city park, a green oasis right next to Central Station. And yet, the real treasure of the Philharmonie Essen lies inside: The “White Hall”. Just like the foyers, it impressively combines futuristic elements with a classical flair and splendour. Shaped somewhat like an oversized, multi-tiered CD drive, its three floors lead down to the core of the hall, where musicians and their audience are almost within arm’s length. A UFO-shaped chandelier, seemingly picked right out of “Strange Encounters of the Third Kind”, hovers high up above, while one end of the “White Hall” shines in the silvery light emitted by the mesmerising organ pipes of the “Kuhn Orgel”. The rest of the building comes in a similar amalgam of contemporary and retro elements, lots of glass and metal providing a cool, but lively open ambiance.

The RWE Pavillion, which will host our concert, is one of the smaller stages under the same roof. A rectangular room with an immensely high ceiling, it manages to convey both intimacy and grandeur. Just as with the “White Hall”, the quality of the acoustics were just as important to the planners, as the aesthetics. A fact acknowledged not only by the public – tonight, two producers the “Deutschlandfunk” broadcasting station will be present to record the music for a radio program.

The Concert: A sense of rhythm and fearless use of thematic hooks
I meet Sonja in front of the Philharmonie Essen and we have dinner in the trendy nearby “Vapiano”, a new chain of Italian restaurants with freshly prepared pasta, pizza and salads. Recommended, if you have little time on your hands and still want to enjoy a good meal. After that, it’s off to the concert.

We arrive just in time for presentor Markus Stollenwerk to take the microphone. Stollenwerk is a composer himself, but next to tantalising audiences with his music, he works for a wider appreciation of contemporary composition in general. “Yourope together”, his collaboration with the Philharmonie Essen, is the result of a personal quest. In a string of concerts, he presents the different countries of Europe through young instrumentalists, ensembles and composers: Each performance features debut renditions of especially commissioned scores. Again, in line with the general philosophy of the Philharmonie, it is a long-term project, which will run until 2013. Stollenwerk shortly enthuses about Pierre Boulez’ performance from a couple of days earlier, then passes the mic on to trombonist John Kenny. The concert is about to start.

Commitment is no stranger to Kenny either. He has been playing and presenting new music for the largest part of his life. Tonight, he has brought the current line-up of the Carnyx Youth Brass Ensemble with him as part of the UK’s contribution to this very alternative “Eurovision Festival”, as well as Japanese pianist Shiori Usui. Every single one of them has written a composition for the group – including Usui, who will sit silently at the side of the stage during the brass-only works in the first half of the program, merely taking on conducting duties in the second movement of hornist Helen Beauchamp’s contribution, before actively entering the ring after the intermission. Her own piece, which sees her tingle the piano strings with a pair of spoons and enter an asthmatic dialogue with throat noises and shouts by her colleagues, is steeped in recognisable Avantgarde traditions – a stark contrast with the other commissions.

Brendan Musk’s “1st Draught” cites Ligeti, but breaks the “Atmopsheres” with melodic movement. Peter Longworth proves himself to be a romantic with a nostalgic heart in his hymn to Italy and Helen Beauchamp impresses with her Brass Quintet, which ecclecticaly uses the most diverse musical styles, instead of tempi, to differentiate the three movements from each other. In the final, courtesy of Patrick Kenny, powerful grooves and sudden moments of unison chord dots make for a jazzily breathing energy stream, which centers around the slow, warmly flowing second movement.

A common feature of all pieces is their openness to other genres, their sense of rhythm and their fearless use of thematic hooks and repetition. With this performance in mind, expectations on my side are certainly high as “Yourope Together” takes a short break before embarking on a new season with an evening of Bulgarian music in November.

The Way Home: Homework done
We drive home through the dark with the certainty if returning here soon. The Philharmonie Essen is a place which turns even smaller-scale events into something special again and actively builds its own future. As Essen awaits the arrival of 2010 with great excitment, the Philharmonie knows it has done its homework.

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Ralph Richter

Homepage: Philharmonie Essen
Homepage: Baedeker Bookstores
Homepage: Vapiano Italian Restaurants
Homepage: Yeah! Records Essen


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