European concert halls often include gorgeous, huge lobbies with lots of areas for socializing, noshing, and drinking. European audiences respond by rushing out to the lobby at interval, because half the concert experience is the concert and the other half is to see and be seen in one of the most hip venues in town. American halls—not all of them, of course—tend to underbuild lobbies, making intermissions into interminable waits standing in line hoping to get a Coke before the intermission runs out.
Likewise in the wings. American halls generally offer few and cramped dressing rooms, sometimes tucked into basements one or two floors beneath the stage, and don’t deliver well on artist lounges or food. A vending machine backstage makes a hall pretty cool on the provisions count. But backstage at the Berlin Philharmonie is swank digs.
For one thing, there is space: great wide swaths of it, enough for the Berlin Phil to store their basses and harps and for the visiting Minnesota Orchestra to add their instrument and wardrobe trunks and still have room for tables and chairs. For another thing, there is a backstage restaurant. A little sandwich deli, a grill (much debate among the musicians about how to order a hot dog in German; the answer is “wiener”), soup, salads, wine, beer, pastries, and European candy bars with names like “Melt-O!”
Joshua Bell strolls through just before the concert, texting as he walks. Michael Pelton, executive assistant to Vänskä, gets a rare semi-private moment to grab a quick cheese sandwich. At a nearby table, Julie Haight-Curran,personnel manager, and Beth Kellar-Long, operations manager, join Bob Neu, the vice president and general manager. “As long as we’re all here—” Haight-Curran begins and they hold an impromptu meeting while they eat. There goes Pelton’s private moment. Mele Willis, who manages the orchestra’s outreach and educational partnerships, puts together the e-tour website from her laptop.
The concert begins, and musicians come and go behind the scenes; not every piece needs every player. Even here, hidden beyond the wings, the applause for the John Adams piece sounds loud. But the applause for the next piece, Bell’s Barber concerto, is louder. After his encore of the fancified “Yankee Doodle,” Bell reappears and friends meet him. Very glamorous looking friends. The women are size 0 at least. The backstage grill and bar fills up with tuxedoed persons ordering salads and sandwiches. The Eroica Symphony fills the second half of the concert, with the Sibelius encore, just like last night. More applause echoes through the walls.
Post-concert, the tuxedoed musicians head either for the bus back to the hotel or settle in backstage and order beers.
I take the last bus out. I climb to the top of the double-decker and grab the front seat for maximum motion sickness effect while wheeling around Berlin’s tight corners. Vänskä, his clarinet strapped to his back inside a hard case backpack and his arms full of fresh tulips, an onstage offering from the Philharmonie staff, climbs into the bus upstairs, too.
Vänskä is excited. While he was noodling around Eroica’s second movement on his clarinet some days ago, something revealed itself to him. “I just found some kind of element there, a connection. It opened my mind to ‘Klezmer’!” In the Beethoven, Vänskä started to hear a plaintive swing and a faint echo of “the sadness of the Jewish people.” He is pleased with his new insight. “I think it was fresh.”
I want to know how on earth he can adjust each performance to suit the particular hall when the cities and venues change, night to night, and when rehearsals in them are sometimes impossible. “Oh, I don’t need to do so many things,” he says. “The players know what kind of sound I want from the orchestra. There’s no need to take the car in for a tune up or try to fix it. It’s working fine, then I can just drive.”
Filed for the Pioneer Press from Berlin on Wednesday, February 25, 2009.