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Featured soloist Maria João Pires plays Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 20."
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Jerónimos Monastery


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CONDUCTING THE BERLIN
By Justin Davidson

Last May, a French conductor and a German orchestra went to Portugal to perform music from Hungary and Austria for a concert that is being broadcast all over the world. Music has always been an international art, of course, but these days, as Europe's disparate nations gradually fuse into a single economic entity, such celebrations of cosmopolitanism take on an explicit symbolic value. The Berlin Philharmonic's annual Europakonzert is as much a cultural summit as a musical event: a pledge of continental unity.

Whether the European countries are actually dissolving into one another (and if so, whether that is a good thing) is a topic of constant punditry, but the Berlin Philharmonic is certainly an emblem of amalgamation. Only 15 years ago, it was still an outpost of westernism and democracy, surrounded by Communist Eastern Europe; today it is the orchestra of a united Germany and Europe's central city.

The orchestra is used to carrying such political burdens. For much of its 121-year history, it has been more than just a great artistic institution; its stature and clout have also made it a cultural symbol -- sometimes a rather ambiguous one. During the Nazi era, the orchestra was led by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a man of sublime musical instincts and ham-handed political ones. While most of the artistic world either avoided Germany or was crushed by Hitler, Furtwängler insisted that the Berlin Philharmonic be a beacon of German civilization in barbarous times. It was for that reason, he declared, that he continued conducting the orchestra, lending its prestige to the Nazi party and badly tarnishing his own reputation.

For the next generation, the Berlin Philharmonic was the fiefdom of Herbert von Karajan, the chisel-jawed maestro of maestros, who commanded the podium -- and the world's worship -- from Furtwängler's death in 1954 until his own in 1989. Under his tutelage, the orchestra became a global leader and a Cold War icon of all that was resilient, glamorous, prosperous, and sophisticated in the capitalist West.

Once again, a conductor's passing coincided with a new historical chapter. Karajan died on July 16, 1989 -- four months before the Berlin Wall came down. His job went to Claudio Abbado, an Italian of prodigious talent and a steely modernist bent, who saw the orchestra through another transition. Now that it was no longer sundered, Berlin suddenly had more culture than it needed and more orchestras, opera houses, and theaters than it could easily support. Abbado retooled the Philharmonic as a symbol of the new Europe -- modern, youthful, cosmopolitan, and humanitarian. As the old Herr Professors gradually retired, he replaced them with fresh-faced players of both genders, varied backgrounds, and spectacular virtuosity. He also instituted the tradition of the Concert for Europe, leading the first one in the Smetana Saal in the newly non-Communist city of Prague in May 1991.

Abbado has since been replaced by the Briton Simon Rattle, but the Europakonzert has become an annual affair, always held in a historical landmark, and always on May 1, the anniversary of the orchestra's founding in 1882 by a group of refugees from another ragtag ensemble. (The fact that May 1 is also the chief holiday of the Communist calendar is entirely fortuitous.)



Top banner photos: Lisbon's Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Hieronymus Monastery), and Pierre Boulez leading the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Harpist

Harpist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Conductor Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez first conducted the Berlin in 1961.

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The DVD of the concert is available from Amazon.com.
 
 
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