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Hamburg Diary: The Elbphilharmonie

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A concert by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson at the recently completed Elbphilharmonie gave me an excuse to take the train up to Hamburg, one of my favorite places on the planet. The Hansestadt is like the Goldilocks’ porridge of German cities — not too stuffy (Munich), not too dirty and disjointed (Berlin), but just right. Hamburg is clean, beautiful, and well-organized, but one can nonetheless feel a certain freedom in the air when walking along the riverfront and gazing out into one of the world’s great harbors. It also provides something for every taste, from the salacious options along the Reeperbahn to the more highbrow entertainment offered by the State Opera and the NDR Symphony Orchestra, whose quality equals (and I would argue often exceeds) that of their musical counterparts in better-known destinations like Paris and Rome.

The Elbphilharmonie, now viewed as the unquestioned crown jewel of the city, is perched on the skeleton of one of the many brick warehouses to be found in Hamburg’s harbor district. It is a spectacular glass structure dominated by undulating lines that are meant to evoke the currents of the Elbe, which flows past the hall on two sides. During the day, the building adopts the color of the surrounding sky and water, and at night, it shimmers brilliantly with light from within. The impression is powerful:

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IMG-20170212-WA0003.jpgThe contemporary spirit that went into designing the exterior of the Elbphilharmonie is to be felt inside as well. Concert-goers are transported up to the core of the structure by a slow-moving, gently sloped escalator that travels through a modernistic white tunnel (see right). I felt like I was in some sort of spaceship, and this impression did not die once we reached top and stepped into the main atrium. The walls and ceilings were all white, which lent the place a pure look, and the floor, along with the numerous staircases that connect to the upper levels, were of richly colored wood. One had to search long and hard to find straight lines, as the structures tend to move in unexpected directions, preventing the eye from settling in on any particular spot. Unlike many contemporary buildings, however, the design is neither haphazard nor careless. The views out into the harbor provided by the floor-to-ceiling windows, moreover, were breathtaking. The concert hall itself is also a sight to behold. I’ll let this picture do the talking:

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I was curious to hear how the hall would perform acoustically in light of the unconventional design, especially after being subjected to the horrific (lack of) sound in the unfortunate Gasteig in Munich. As it turned out, my apprehension was unfounded. The Elbphilharmonie is certainly one of the sharpest-sounding spaces I’ve ever been to; a museum employee that I met the following day told me he felt the acoustics were in fact so clear as to be intimidating to anyone attempting to hold back a cough in the back row. The music itself, meanwhile, was ethereal and thought-provoking. Instead of relying on the usual structures of melody and harmony to spark emotion, Jóhannsson composes in waves and pulses of energy that subtly move up and down and back and forth. It was the perfect example of how the content of art should complement the identity of the space in which it is presented. Of course, you can always just close your eyes, relax, and listen.

Addendum: The story of the Elbphilharmonie isn’t all roses and honey. Approved in 2007 at a cost of 77 million euros, the structure was supposed to be completed in 2010. It’s now 2017, and the final price tag has reached €789 million (about $840 million). Did whoever was in charge of planning learn how to do their job from Dartmouth administrators? In contrast to the atrocious building projects plaguing Hanover, though, Hamburg’s ridiculous cost overruns did end up producing something extraordinary.

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