HAMBURG, Germany — San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge spans the waters. Sydney’s Opera House opens like a shell at the side of a sea. Now Hamburg’s watery gateway to the world has its own ambitious landmark, the Elbphilharmonie, a dazzling concert hall of glass that strikes its pose with asymmetrical bravura, looking rather like a jaunty crown atop a massive red brick warehouse that once stored cargos of coffee and cocoa beans from incoming fleets.
There are no splendorous castles in this international port city, which was built over the centuries by burghers and merchants who were largely self-governing and free of royal interference. But the new $800 million musical citadel designed by Herzog & de Meuron (best known for the “bird’s nest” arena at the Beijing Olympics) has been as costly to the government as a Medici palace. Little expense was spared for the hall’s opening week, which featured two sold-out concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music director Riccardo Muti.
The CSO was the first foreign orchestra to give the “Elphi,” as locals are calling it, a test run. “Those concerts are the ones I am looking forward to, because they will tell me what I really need to know,” said Yasuhisa Toyota, the Japanese acoustical master (and president of the U.S. branch of Nagata Acoustics) brought on for the project. Before the first concert, he demonstrated a large miniature of the hall’s 2,100-seat interior with seats on all sides. Visiting journalists crawled “into” the model by climbing a ladder and poking up into a replica of the surrounding space, with their heads where the orchestra sits, surrounded by many tiers of seats at various levels. The tiers looked like shallow cups, or vineyard terraces, with short walls designed for ear-level reflections, but open above to the main space and its reverberance.
Toyota did the lead acoustical work for the successful Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, but each new project is different. Everything affects the acoustics, from the over-all architectural design to the amount of cloth in chair cushions and the exact positioning of individual musicians onstage. The tweaking never really ends. On the eve of the first CSO concert, Toyota was speculating that at 100 percent capacity, the hall might actually be too absorbent, and that some additional reflective surfaces might be needed.
Astonishingly, Muti and the musicians would be making their own individual adjustments in real time. The travel schedule for the CSO’s seven-city European tour had dictated that the rehearsals would occur in Paris, the orchestra’s first stop, where the CSO played its inaugural concert in the city’s two-year-old Philharmonie. There would be no way to test the acoustics in Hamburg, except in concert, not even the possibility of consulting with other colleagues.
Elphi’s personality was thus a mystery, to be revealed only on the fly, as its brightness, its balances among players, its tolerance for delicacy and its speed of sonic decay became apparent. In such cases the responsibility is squarely on the conductor’s shoulders, said Muti afterward: “The conductor must have such an experience that he can realize what to do after the first sounds. We started with the Hindemith Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass; I heard the first C sharp by the trombones and trumpets, and then I waited for the third beat, to hear the strings.
“That was enough — immediately you saw me making adjustments. It’s a technique the conductor must have, because even if you have the advantage of a rehearsal, a hall sounds different once it is filled with an audience. In Paris, which was also new to us, my judgment was not very positive [initially] about the acoustics during rehearsal. I felt the hall was too reverberant, almost synthetic, unnatural. But after the performance, I changed my opinion completely.
“In the end, I felt the sound in Hamburg was good. It is difficult to explain why, but there are certain halls where I simply know that what I am doing, no matter how delicate, is being received perfectly from far away. This is also true in Vienna’s Musikverein. But for a hall like Hamburg, I felt I only knew for sure what the people near me were hearing. I had to be honest in my judgment and trust the rest. This is the same in Turino and Roma, in many places.”
Tweaking will doubtless continue as experts assess their impressions from the first concerts. Much of the building is devoted to additional performance and rehearsal space, and the city’s mayor has vowed that every school child will have the benefit of the Elphi experience. Meanwhile, more than 600,000 citizens have experienced the city’s latest joy ride — a trip up the hall’s “world’s longest curved escalator”; it delivers the public to an expansive outdoor viewing deck that rims the entire building and offers breathtaking views of the harbor and cityscape.
Subtle nautical details — including porthole windows, shaded glass and a rooftop contoured like hoisted sails — honor Hamburg’s maritime tradition. But big changes are in the wind for the area directly surrounding the Elphi — miles of warehouses once used for the off-loading of cargo ships that came right up to the docks. The nearby harbor is no longer the city’s hub of shipping activity. Its replacement is viewable in the distance, where a new species of giant cranes flocks around enormous containers coming in from Asia and Russia.
The hope, indeed the expectation, is that the Elphi will help to accelerate the mixed-use development of residential and commercial spaces, already under way, justifying the enormous investment of government money (which covered most of the total bill) that has been poured into the Hamburg construction. A hotel and some condominiums incorporated into the Elphi tower were needed to help to pay for the project’s completion; such public-private partnerships have long been a trend in the United States, where government support at the Hamburg level is simply unheard of.
Although press coverage depicted a mood throughout Hamburg that was overwhelmingly positive, even giddy, at the time of the opening festivities, it is also true that the project suffered severe delays and reverses in a decade-long gestation characterized by political regime change, extreme cost overruns and often vehement taxpayer frustration.
At a related event on the tour, CSOA President Jeff Alexander met with a group of European arts executives to talk about the financial model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is indicative of American orchestras generally. He started by explaining that the CSO makes 43 percent of its annual budget on ticket sales, which is quite high by American standards. “How much of the rest do you think comes from the government?” he asked his colleagues. “Oh, quite a low percentage, perhaps 20 percent,” he was told.
Alexander’s colleagues were stunned to learn that the actual figure is two-tenths of 1 percent. Hamburg’s achievement is uniquely impressive, perhaps inimitable, in the modern era.
Publisher of and editor-writer for the theater and arts website Chicago On the Aisle, Nancy Malitz is a longtime contributor to many publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.