The Pierre Boulez Saal: Tracing a History

I walked into the Pierre Boulez Saal on a chilly Saturday night, I found my music class among the crowd and exclaimed to them, “Everything around here looks so new!” I’d just walked over from the U2 stop at Hausvogteiplatz and was surprised by the tall, modern buildings, smooth concrete, and shops that seemed to belong more in Manhattan than the Berlin that I’ve grown so accustomed to. The hall itself also seemed like an anomaly—an old, elegant building among all of the newness of the neighborhood. Standing inside of the impressive building, the students that had arrived started to chat, and my professor Benjamin Hochman turned to me and asked if I’d ever been to the Staatsoper, which was just around the corner. I said that I had, remembering the gray October night when I’d trudged through sleet to see a production of Madame Butterfly by Puccini. The show had been lovely, but predictable. The set seemed standard, and it was missing the vibrancy of other productions of the opera that I’d seen. As we walked into the Pierre Boulez concert hall and found our seats, Benjamin mentioned that the building was once the storage facility for the Staatsoper, and had been transformed into both a performance space and conservatory (where he himself has performed as a classical pianist). I was surprised by this and tried to form an idea of how the space could’ve transformed into what it is today.

That evening, the Berlin City of Music class had come together to watch a performance by the contemporary composer, conductor, and performer Konstantia Gourzi. The course has a very dynamic structure—in the first half of the session, a student presents to the rest of the class a musical act (introducing a music group or specific piece of music) that was either founded in or has strong cultural and historical ties to Berlin. After this introduction, we then discuss background information for an upcoming performance which we attend the following week. The latter half of the class involves a visit from one of Benjamin’s colleagues, including dancers, composers, and performers. The week that we visited the Pierre Boulez Saal,, after a presentation about electronic music legend George Lewis, Benjamin played us recordings of Gourzi’s past performances and taught us about her interest in subverting the traditions of classical music and focusing on emotional reactions to the sounds created in her unconventional scores. Gourzi’s work is very meditative both in subject matter and content, and experiments with movement and extended technique (or using instruments in nontraditional ways to produce different kinds of sounds). The performance that evening was to revolve around the theme of nature. A description of the concert on the Boulez Saal’s website details that the goal of the concert was to “express [her] appreciation of and sensitivity to nature through music, to create a space to reflect on its beauty, and to radiate the shining hope that binds us all together in this resounding, wonderful universe.”

Entering the hall, I was surprised by how intimate the space felt. The audience seating was set up in a multi-level oval around a small open space in the center where part of the performance was to be held. There was no platform for the performers to stand on, no clear separation—so, if I’d forgotten my manners, I could’ve sat on the pianist’s bench. Looking around the space, I noticed a second piano on the outer circumference of the audience seating and wondered if someone had forgotten to wheel it away before the performance began. Recognizing the intentionality of each spatial decision of this odd concert configuration, I was made to confront my own preconceptions about classical music performance. The unique feeling of the hall complemented Gourzi’s performance well. The proximity to both the performer and audience members made me feel as though I was a part of an artistic community rather than a distant observer of a sterile performance. Some of the performers sat among the audience, the two pianos found themselves in conversation, and the concert ended with the violist walking around the hall playing the same melancholic note over and over again, lulling me into a state of simultaneous curiosity and calmness.  

Having played classical violin for many years, I was very intrigued by the intimacy of the concert and the unconventional nature of Gourzi’s approach to sound and use of the space. Throughout my life I’ve seen dozens of classical music performances, yet none resembled this one. Growing up in New York, I had access to huge musical institutions such as the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and even free student shows at the Juilliard school. Yet, aside from a few truly spectacular performances, everything seems to blend together in uniformity in my memory. Something in my concept of classical performance changed when watching Gourzi smile and encourage her performers while creating sounds I didn’t even know could exist. While Gourzi’s work demands fluidity and playfulness in its performance, I began to think about how the small size and acoustic warmth of the Boulez Saal enhanced this quality in her pieces. Even more curious to me was how a space which seemed to reject certain fundamental practices of performing classical music, such as having designated spaces for the audience and the performer and focusing on grandeur rather than community, had emerged from such a seemingly traditional institution as the Staatsoper.

New York Philharmonic via AP

 With questions arising in our class about how classical music is deviating from its roots, we were fortunate to be visited the following week by the sculptor Alexander Polzin, whose conversation allowed us to  explore these ideas further. Polzin is a friend of Benjamin’s based in Niederschönhausen who grew up in the GDR. The class was immediately charmed by Polzin’s humor and poetic language when talking about his path as an artist. Among the many topics we explored together, I was most interested in our discussion of history and how the past can be revealed through the observation of physical spaces. Beginning by talking about the history of the library of Pankow from its establishment in the 1800s as a Jewish orphanage, we gravitated towards the topic of the Boulez Saal—I couldn’t believe my luck! Polzin talked about how he’d seen the hall in many stages—as a storage facility, as a storage facility that was to be used as an opera hall, and finally, as the Boulez Saal. In fact, it was Polzin who had designed the set of an opera that was held in the space when the Saal was still owned by the Staatsoper. He described the process of deciding where to put a stage, an audience, an orchestra—essential design elements that I would typically take for granted. I thought this must’ve been quite an imaginative task, one that would act as a prelude for all that was to come for the space. It was indeed the first time that the storage facility, which Polzin described as a “huge shelf,” was reused, reconfigured, and thought of as a possible place for performance.

Following the first performance use of the space when an opera was staged in the then storage facility, the building was acquired by the Barenboim-Said Akademie in 2016. Both founders are quite interesting characters—Daniel Barenboim is an acclaimed Argentinian, Israeli, Palestinian, and Spanish pianist and conductor, and Edward Said is a Palestinian academic and public intellectual who founded the field of postcolonial studies. The Akademie, founded in 2012, reflects both of their life experiences, as it is an experimental and highly regarded classical music conservatory in Berlin which aims to combine and explore connections between Western and Eastern music—the majority of students coming from countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The academy also has a humanities program which is the “centerpiece of the curriculum,” focusing on the study of Philosophy, History, Literature, and Global Studies. I remember a former BCB literature professor of mine, Jeffrey Champlin, mentioning that he had taught some of the courses at The Akademie in past years. A concert hall to truly complement the Akademie was the original idea for building the Saal. It needed to be dynamic, interesting, and beautiful. Architect Frank Gehry, a friend of Edward Said, agreed to design the hall free of charge. Additionally, the acclaimed acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota volunteered his expertise as well. The goal when building the hall was to “ensure that every audience member is no more than a few meters from the stage” to create an intimate atmosphere and optimal sound experience. The space was designed to be malleable to allow for different audience-stage configurations. This allows for unique and unconventional performances (such as Gourzi’s nature concert!) to be realized. The first concert in the hall took place in March of 2017, with a performance by students in the Boulez ensemble, conducted by director of the Staatsoper Daniel Barenboim. The space now hosts up to 150 performances per season. 

For me, the most awe-inspiring aspect of tracing a history through a physical space is examining the regeneration and reuse of buildings—it is ALWAYS a surprise. Berlin is a wonderful city for this, as so many neighborhoods and buildings hold many multilayered histories. It is truly a place where one can visually witness history, as modern buildings stand next to 1980s apartment complexes, 200 year old villas, and neoclassical architecture trying to make up for all that was lost. This visual presence of history is true of the Saal as well. Though the building looks as though it could have been built in the 19th century, it was actually only built in the 1950s after the original building was bombed in World War II. The space was a depot for opera sets for 60 years, until it was again changed to house the Akademie and Saal. Though the space is an official concert hall, its flexibility within the realm of classical performance reflects something of its larger history, how its purpose has been in flux. The design is imaginative and brilliant, shapeshifting within the 700 tons of steel that it is made of. Leaving the Saal on that Saturday night and glancing around the fancy neighborhood, I wondered how Berlin would continue to change, and what new histories would emerge.

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