While the much talked about, exceedingly over budget Elbphilharmonie slowly took shape in the harbour city of Hamburg over an agonising period of almost a decade, just to the south in Berlin a new concert hall was taking shape. On a much smaller scale and for a comparatively much smaller budget the Pierre Boulez Saal opened in early March and was very much a passion project for everyone involved.
At the heart of the project is the friendship between conductor and founder Daniel Barenboim, the halls’s namesake: conductor Pierre Boulez and renowned American architect Frank Gehry. The concept and design of the hall came together from their strong companionship and shared creative aesthetic. Barenboim’s impulses that the space should be non traditional were received initially with enthusiasm by Gehry but later clouded somewhat by uncertainty on presenting Barenboim with rough sketches of concentric ovals. The inspiration in this story is the artistic encouragement that existed between the two. Barenboim’s enthusiasm for the concept was such that Gehry had to continue with the design and the result is nothing less than magnificent. Gehry’s learning from this experience was that “Artists sometimes recognize other artists in ways that we don’t really understand.”
The Pierre Boulez Saal is entirely new internally, but with the heritage exterior of architect Richard Paulick’s original 1951 design wonderfully preserved. The original building was conceived as a storage facility for sets used by the Berlin Staatsoper right up until 2010. Inside today the new concert hall covers an 850 square metre space that is made up of two elliptical structures, one at the lower level and another that appears as a concentric ring above its lower counterpart, seeming to hover above the audience below, yet with no one seat being more than 14 metres away from the conductor. This circular experience makes for a much more intimate experience, despite the hall seating 682 audience members, who can enjoy the spectacular acoustics designed by Yasuhisa Toyota – the acclaimed acoustician who has worked with Gehry previously on the Walt Disney Concert Hall (and coincidentally was the acoustician for the new Elbphilharmonie).
Daniel Barenboim has conceived a unique project for the original building on Französische Strasse in Berlin’s Royal Quarter, with the Pierre Boulez Saal forming the third part of the triad that also includes the Barenboim-Said Akademie – a musical academy for musicians from the Middle East – and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – a unique ensemble of Middle Eastern musicians. Together these three elements will play an integral role in Barenboim’s vision to make the Pierre Boulez Saal the European home for Arabic, Iranian, Israeli music and more, as well as a very wide programme of other music ranging from jazz to classical, historical to contemporary works.
The unique space gives the opportunity to offer more freedom in programming, in recognition of Boulez’ own values, as discussed by director of the Pierre Boulez Saal, Ole Bækhøj. “He wanted to learn something new. He said that if he did not regularly learn something new, he was unhappy.”
The Pierre Boulez Saal is in the Barenboim Said Akademie building at Französische Straße 33d in Berlin. You can view the current list of events here – look out for performances in June by the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim (its General Music Director), who will perform Schubert’s complete symphonies, commemorating the composer’s 220th birthday. Tickets to events at the Pierre Boulez Saal can also be purchased through the website.