Commemorate Good Times, C’mon

Commenter “fn” left some stimulating thoughts on the 12 Cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic review, which I commend to your attention. Always a pleasure to be disagreed with in such an intelligent and agreeable manner. I wanted to follow up specifically on one comment:

And, by the way, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a big deal. Especially, when you’re German.

Looking back at the “Politics as Usual” section of that review, I can see what prompted that comment. I know it was a big deal, and I regret that I did not make that clear. The concert came the day after the 20th anniversary of the first big crack in the Iron Curtain, an event that unified a great city that happened to be the home of the 12 cellos, who in turn had chosen the day after said anniversary to perform a concert in (the metropolitan area of) the capital of a country that played an integral role in keeping freedom a going concern in said city. I’m not German, but I do have that heritage (cf: Lindemann), and I visited Berlin a couple times as a teenager and wandered around the ruins of the Wall and contemplated what it all meant in an emotionally charged teenage way. As fn noted, for those who are German, it’s even more of a big deal. So obviously the mere fact of the concert had emotional power for many attendees, in addition to whatever went on musically, given the circumstances.

What remains an open question for me is whether having 20 minutes of speechifying before the 12 cellists even played a note is the best possible way to commemorate the anniversary of this highly momentous event. (Much less 20 minutes of these particular speeches, but we’re going to assume for the rest of this blog entry that the quality of speechifying is exogenous to the concert.) For me, it would have been much more powerful if one of the cellists had spoken a few words before one of the pieces, on behalf of the group, about what it meant to them to be from where they’re from and to play in the DMV on that day. The 12 Cellos could then have dedicated the next piece to trying to refract or reflect on the emotions of the evening. What a heightened sensation that would have produced in, say, “Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regnen” (It Shall Rain Red Roses for Me), which according to the program notes is Berliner Hildegard Knef’s “secret hymn to her city.”

Still, the German Embassy helped to host the evening, so it was inevitable that there would be exogenous speech-making. From my perspective, the problem with doing it before the concert begins is that it both further separates the audience from the musical experience and seems fundamentally unconnected to it. The speech (well, a shorter speech) could easily have come right after the solemn Bach Contrapunctus with which the cellos began the evening—glowingly transparent minor-key playing with that Picardy third of hope at the end. Then the speech is part of the fabric of the concert.

We all love music so much that we are going to continue to use it commemorate mighty events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. So let’s think about how best to do that, so that both the music and the commemoration are as powerful as they should be. Readers—any thoughts?

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