Fine Buildings, High Culture, No Excuses, No Regrets

Martin Kettle, who proudly calls himself a Germanophile, expresses his admiration in the Guardian for the new Elbphilharmonie (Philharmonia on the Elbe River) concert hall in Hamburg:

[I]n Hamburg on Wednesday evening a substantial part of official Germany – and surely everyone in the city itself – turned out in force for the opening of the dazzling Elbphilharmonie concert hall stretching high into the heavens in the former port district. Germany’s president Joachim Gauck made a witty speech, chancellor Angela Merkel, Hamburg-born before her family emigrated to communist East Germany, sat in the front row of the stalls. The mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz (a social democrat opposed to Merkel), glowed with civic pride....

For sure, Germany is far too deferential for the British taste. It is too respectful, polite, orderly, above all too serious. At times, including in the course of my visit for the Elbphilharmonie opening, even I, a Germanophile, wanted to have a bit more naughtiness and surprise in the proceedings. And no British arts organisation would put seven white men on stage to conduct a press conference about a huge project – the way the Elbphilharmonie did this week – with not a woman nor a black face in sight. On social media, there is this week, certainly, a strong undercurrent of hostility to the Hamburg opening, and the amount of public money it has taken is eyewatering. But the fact remains that Germany’s readiness to spend on a project such as the Elbphilharmonie, though often controversial on matters like cost and the environment, is ultimately a unifying force.

The civic pride and pleasure now that the concert hall is finally up and running was palpable. The tickets are all sold out for the next six months. The aim is that every child in Hamburg will get to a concert within the first year of the opening. The hall has already had half a million visitors before the first notes (by Benjamin Britten, as it happens) were heard in the opening concert, broadcast live on German television.

...But the truth is we don’t care, not enough. Maybe Germany cares too much. But I’d rather care too much than too little. And it really is a stunner of a building in a city that it’s a joy to get to know.

Amen, brother. This is what makes living in Germany a delight: livable cities with bold, interesting architecture and thriving cultural scenes. German politicians all more or less agree that high culture is an end in itself. It is not open to debate whether the state should fund it. They know that many people find it elitist and a waste of tax money, but it has to continue.*

High culture cannot survive without subsidies either from the state or from private donors. And its existence benefits everyone, whether they understand that or not. So Hamburg spends millions to build a glorious new concert hall. And at the other end of the scale, municipal arts councils dole out grants and commissions here and there to small bookstores, avant-garde theater groups, nature education programs for children, jazz clubs, charity projects, and artists of all kinds. Of course there's some corruption and waste here, what government program doesn't have that? But overall, most of the money goes where it's supposed to, and keeps interesting things happening.

It all adds up, and has a subtle, but profound overall effect. This is why I love living in Germany.

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An American in Berghain

Schlecky Silberstein stumbled upon this instant Internet classic -- an American from San Antonio decides on the spur of the moment to visit legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain and, as his Yelp review indicates, is scarred for life. I'm putting it after the fold because, well, this is Berghain we're talking about. You've been warned.

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When Dutch Ditchdiggers Die

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Via Rolf Degers.

As a teacher on the Sopranos said about the mobster's feckless, dull-witted son AJ: "Well, like my dad used to say, 'The world needs ditch diggers too.'"

And when Dutch ditchdiggers dolefully depart, the number-one song they choose to accompany their incineration is this:

Of course, they choose the anglicized version of it: 'Time to Say Goodbye', sung as a duet with Sarah Brightman. But that's another ball of wax entirely. English translation of the lyrics here.

This song is also used several times during The Sopranos, both diegetically and non-diegetically, as a sort of psychological cue that one of the grubby, classless Italian mobsters is having a Moment of Profound Emotion. David Chase, one of the world's great misanthropes, used the melling swellody, er I mean swelling melody to spit contempt at the characters he so memorably etched: "Look at these cheap, empty people. This is their idea of a 'bee-yoo-tee-ful' song. Yet they can't even speak the language it's written in anymore, because they're deracinated, lazy, and corrupt. It's just an empty token of their once-proud heritage."

But Chase is wrong! Well, not about the mobsters, but about the song. If you ask me, 'Con te Partiro' is fucking awesome. It's a creamy, silken masterpiece of heart-on-your-sleeve, pop-those-cuffs, if-this-don't-turn-you-on-you-ain't-got-no-switches pop melody-making. I mean come on, once you hear that melody, you'll never forget it. And the sudden key shifts keep the drama intense until the last bar fades.

No wonder this music accompanies the synchronized fountains outside Steve Wynn's Bellagio casino resort in Las Vegas ("The Fountains of Bellagio"!). Once, while watching those fountains in Vegas with a group of friends, 'Con te Partiro' came on. Most of us sneered the sneer of the international urban haute bourgeoisie at this ejaculation of cheese. Yet one of our company, a fluent speaker and lover of Italian culture, visibly choked up. "You assholes don't know quality when you hear it. This is a beautiful old Italian ballad, just amped up with a big orchestra."

I told him that as far as I knew, it had been written in the 1990s for Andrea Bocelli. He said, "Maybe, maybe not," (this was before smartphones), "but even if it was, it's in the grand tradition of Italian song-making. The yearning, the passion, the genuineness of the Neapolitan ballad, it's all there. Laugh all you want, but this is great music. What would you rather have people listening to? Vanilla Ice?"

Needless to say, I've come around to his way of thinking. But judge for yourself: 


Germany's Most Popular Operas

Via slipped disc:

From 2014/15 Deutsche Bühnenverein statistics, just released:

1 La Traviata (Verdi)                31 productions, 286 performances

2 Die Zauberflöte (Mozart)     30 productions, 285 performances

3 Carmen (Bizet)                       26 productions, 247 performances

4 Hansel und Gretel (Humperdinck)                   207 performances

Magic Flute and H&G are targeted at children and Christmas audiences. So, no surprises here.

Among more recent works, Peter Grimes (Britten) had 35 performances and The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky) 30.