Previous update: Bonn
I always feel uneasy in Berlin. Yes, the overall energy is that of renewal and positivity. But there is something stark and cold about it. It’s not only the communist buildings on the east side. The brand new Postdamer Platz, the huge glass dome on the Reichstag (the seat of the government), the huge tv tower with a massive disco ball looming above Alexanderplatz, the Mt Fuji-shaped tent of the Sony center, and even the reconstructed neoclassical museum facades all feel like they were hastily built with the legendary German efficiency to hide the horrible rubble that pervaded a mere 60 years ago.
In the heart of the city is the Brandenburg Gate with its quadriga and imposing Roman victory cross on top. It looks militaristic but on its south side is a statue of mars with his open palm pushing his sword back into its sheath, supposedly representing peace. Just about 100 meters off is the holocaust memorial, one of the most emotionally powerful constructions of its kind that I have seen. It looks like a graveyard but the tombstones are nameless. As you walk in the slabs rise high above, some tilted slightly. The dead moan in silent protest as cheerful tourists stand on the slabs and take selfies with their iPhones. Ignorance will be our undoing. Underneath the memorial is a small exhibit chronicling events and an endless recorded reading out of names of the murdered.
The Jewish history museum is also very well done. It’s like a maze. One path leads to exile in a garden of tilted columns with olive trees on top. Another path leads to a huge empty concrete chamber. Another path, by far the longest, zigzags through time with Judaica and profiles off historical figures and trends. The overall gist of the exhibition leans towards the trend of assimilation since the enlightenment alongside the cruelty with which the Jews were treated throughout.
As a descendant of holocaust survivors, I was raised to hate or at least mistrust Germans. But my love for German music (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, even Strauss and Wagner) and my experiences with wonderful German people leave me very confused. How could this brilliant, polite Biedermeyer culture have allowed this to happen? How could things change so quickly? I also visited the GDR museum to get a glimpse of life in communist East Germany. Pretty awful but not terrible in comparison to the other museums mentioned above. The exhibition inculded the lawnmower-like Trabant cars, government brainwashing, and poor quality products and apartments.
The guides drove us to the Berlin wall to see the gallery that goes far beyond ordinary graffiti with some effective imagery: a thumbs up chained in place (facebook-like?), an Israeli flag superimposed on a german flag, the famous passionate kiss between the communist leaders, Dali-esque hellscapes and much more. We also saw a cool diorama of Berlin that showed how much was built since the fall of the wall. The day ended with a visit to the Reichstag. Visitors can walk a spiral ramp around the transparent done and look down at the legislators below. The weather had been muggy all day and as we reached the top of the dome a thunderstorm broke out over the city and we had a 360 degree view as steaks of purple lightning streaked through the sky. Some were so close that the building shook from the thunder.
Musically we were also very busy. We got to observe the legendary Berlin Philharmonic rehearse on their home turf in t-shirts, shorts, and crocs. It was not without some bad mistakes- a rehearsal after all… good to see that they are not super human. Sir Simon Rattle hardly conducts beats- it’s about inspiration mostly. He mostly let them play but occasionally would stop to yell and sing the way he wants it.
Later that day we put on a Beethoven marathon at the Berlin University of Art. We played Beethoven symphonies numbers 1, 3, 4, 5 plus the Egmont overture for good measure. It was an exercise in endurance. I employed Alexander technique to keep my arms from falling off and felt myself gradually getting back into some of the best shape I have been in since my conservatory days. By the end of the 5th could feel sharp pain at the base of my thumb on fast wide strokes. But I’m ok. Feeling accomplished, we celebrated that night at a biergarten and got back to the hotel at about 2 am.
Next stop: Leipzig