Refugees welcome: top German orchestras hold solidarity concert

Berlin Philharmonic, Konzerthaus and Staatskapelle orchestras play for Syrians and other migrants

Under ordinary circumstances, if you clap between movements during a classical concert, you can expect to receive glares and disapproving whispers.

But when the audience that filled almost every seat of Berlin’s Philharmonie signalled its approval of the Larghetto of Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1 with frenzied applause and wolf whistles, there was no such disapproval. As one veteran German music critic conceded: “We can allow some bending of the usual concertgoing rules. This evening’s different.”About 2,200 refugee newcomers to Germany, accompanied by many of the volunteers who have been helping them, had gathered this week for a joint concert of Berlin’s three leading orchestras and their principal conductors, under the banner “Welcome Among Us”.

It was, said Iván Fischer, the Konzerthaus orchestra’s chief conductor, speaking in Arabic, a chance to celebrate. “We’re experiencing a wonderful transformation – a new, tolerant Europe is developing before our very eyes,” the Hungarian maestro said.

It was the type of optimism Germany has felt increasingly short of in recent months, as attacks on refugee homes have risen and the political mood seems to sour more by the day.

In a joint statement, he, along with Daniel Barenboim of the Staatskapelle and Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic described the evening – the first time the three houses had come together since a concert in the days following the 9/11 attack – as a “show of solidarity with the refugees”.

Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic. Photograph: Thinking Media/Demotix/Corbis

Broadcast live on televison and radio, the occasion was arguably the strongest signal yet from a significant part of the cultural world that it supports Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, which has seen more than 1.1 million arrivals over the past year.

The tone was set last month in a letter to the German chancellor signed by about 80 leading figureheads from the artistic world urging her to “keep going”.

The signatories, including Barenboim and the Nobel laureate Herta Müller, credited Merkel with having “changed our country”, saying that thanks to her “people are no longer scared of Germany”, in reference to the atrocities of the Nazi era.

Their affirmation is in contrast to the growing voices of dissent even from within her own party, some of whom believe she is steering Germany into a catastrophe.

Sitting in the stalls, 55-year-old Noorddeen al-Mansouri read aloud from the programme notes to his wife, Shahnaz, 40, that Merkel had taken on the role of the concert’s patron. He was sorry she could not be there – “After all, without her we wouldn’t be here now,” he said, recalling the couple’s arrival from the Syrian capital Damascus three months ago. But he appreciated that she had sent her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, to represent her government instead, pointing him out in the left of the stalls.

Noorddeen tapped out the rhythm of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 on his programme booklet as Rattle conducted his energetic musicians with the vigour and anguish of a captain trying to secure his ship in a storm. Beethoven had written it to mark the end of the Napoleonic wars, and the capricious rhythms of its final movement capture the unalloyed joy of peace. The poignancy of it was not lost on Noorddeen.

“I listen to this music and I find peace myself, and if I close my eyes I can imagine I am back in Damascus listening to another Beethoven concert during peacetime,” the philosophy teacher said.

Jobseekers at a job fair for refugees in Berlin, 29 February 2016.
Jobseekers at a job fair for refugees in Berlin, 29 February 2016. Photograph: Michael Kappeler/EPA

“It is very optimistic music,” said Shahnaz, a primary school teacher. “We need this optimism after seeing what is happening to our brothers and sisters stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border,” she said, referring to the thousands of migrants being prevented from continuing their journey to western Europe.

Barenboim, already well-known in the Arab world for his West-Eastern Divan orchestra which unites young musicians from across the Middle East, managed to wow the audience even before he picked up his baton to conduct Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20. His greeting of “Ahlan wa-sahlan” (welcome in Arabic) was met with the whoops and cheers usually reserved for a pop star and rarely if ever heard in the Philharmonie.

Talin, 35, a makeup artist from Aleppo, who arrived in Germany three months ago, said she had heard Mozart this evening for the first time, and had been mesmerised by Barenboim’s ability to “both play the piano and conduct at the same time”.

Talin’s son, Kifork, 18, a hairdresser, said: “My mum’s usual preference is for Enrique Iglesias, and mine is for Julio, but we’re in Germany now, so we’re happy to try out the stuff the Germans like.” He had lost his mobile phone containing all his music when it fell in the water as he made the journey by boat from Turkey to Greece, he said. “But as soon as I get a new one, I think I might download some Beethoven. That was my favourite.”

While the concert was the most ambitious event yet to have been organised for refugees by the classical music world, other recent projects have included the Konzerthaus’s staging of an an Arabic version of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals for 1,400 refugee children. The Konzerthaus also lent Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei its facade to exhibit thousands of lifejackets worn by refugees who have landed on the Greek island of Lesbos, in a provocative gesture towards those who say Europe should close its doors.

For its part the Berlin Philharmonic has launched an initiative called Local Heroes, which calls on amateur musicians to bring a refugee along to their orchestra or choir as well as opening its own house to refugees for concerts and rehearsals.

Rattle, who in September 2017 is due to return to his native Britain to lead the London Symphony Orchestra, said before the concert: “This is an exceptional opportunity for Germany and Europe to welcome an exceptional people. By playing for them, we are demonstrating our love and support and are very happy to communicate with these new Europeans.”

The foyer after the performance buzzed with German, Farsi, Arabic, Pashto, Dari and Urdu, as newcomers and volunteers exchanged impressions over bottles of cola, brezel rolls and chicken drumsticks.

“It was amazing; the energy of the string players in the Beethoven struck me most, and filled me with calm,” said Diab, a 30-year-old economics graduate from Damascus who arrived in November.

“But I did find myself thinking, I wish that the German authorities could put as much effort into pushing my asylum application along as they did performing the seventh symphony,” he said, with a smile, explaining he’d been waiting weeks to hear from them and was sorely lacking a perspective on his future.

Outside, waiting for a bus to take him back to his asylum seekers’ home, Kifork, the Damascan hairdresser, pointed out an unfortunate translation error on the programme. While in German and English it read “welcome”, in Arabic it read: “no welcome”. The organisers later apologised, insisting it had been a genuine printing mistake rather than sabotage. But for Kifork it meant only one thing: “It’s clearly time more Germans learned Arabic,” he said.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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