Every great city gets its moment of cultural glory: Athens under Pericles, Florence in the fifteenth century, Liverpool when the Beatles were teens. Berlin, however, claims two resplendent eras. The first was the fourteen-year stretch of fitful tolerance, licentiousness, and chaos known as the Weimar Republic. The second began on the night in 1989 when the Wall came down, and it shows no sign of ending. That, at least, was the credo at the heart of “Berlin in Lights,” a seventeen-day festival that must have gladdened the hearts of German tourism bureaucrats but that originated at Carnegie Hall. Clive Gillinson, the Hall’s London-bred artistic director, turned a residency by the Berlin Philharmonic into an exhilaratingly persuasive way of reminding New Yorkers that the world has artistic centers beyond Manhattan. The festivities began by evoking Act One of Berlin’s halcyon days, represented by Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester. Raabe, a willowy dandy who could make a burlap bag look bespoke, glided onstage in a perfect tux, hair lacquered, chin severe. Just as early-music specialists obsessively re-create the staccatos and mordents of the eighteenth century, so Raabe and his band gave twenties dance music the full authentic-performance-practice treatment. Horns wheeled and skittered in awesome sync, like a flock of swallows. The singer embellished his reedy voice and crackling diction with precise, sparing movements and deadpan wit. Before delivering “Mein Kleiner Grüner Kaktus,” a ditty about a woman who greets a guest by knocking a cactus off her balcony and onto his upturned face, Raabe murmured, “This song remains very popular in Germany, because we still find the situation … funny.” That tune, like much of his repertoire, comes from the fantastically popular prewar close-harmony group the Comedian Harmonists, who sang it with tenderness as well as precision; the chilly brilliance of Raabe’s shtick is a latter-day addition.
If Raabe reincarnated the tea-dance bandleaders of the Kurfürstendamm, the raspy-voiced conductor and “chansonnier” HK Gruber evoked the city’s blue-collar entertainments. There was plenty of overlap—Kurt Weill’s songs beguiled Berliners across class lines. But as Gruber barked Brecht’s hectoring lines and rasped out march tunes by the Communist composer Hanns Eisler, you could practically smell the wheat beer and pork fat. Eisler provided the soundtrack for the same rage that George Grosz expressed in paintings of bloated bankers and leering politicians. And yet Berlin looks placidly industrious in Berlin: Symphony of a City, Walther Ruttmann’s silent documentary from 1927 that was screened at Zankel Hall along with a performance of its score. Trains chuff into town, workers in thick wool jackets stride toward factory gates, finely tailored gentlemen conduct important but uncertain business, and everybody wears a hat. It’s shocking to realize that just six years after those sunny scenes were filmed, this genial, bustling modern city would sink into the swamp of Nazism.
As I dowsed vainly for an undercurrent of ferocity in Ruttmann’s movie, or tried to map the culture of contemporary Berlin by connecting concerts, lectures, and exhibits, I kept butting up against the impossibility of assembling a scattering of insights and impressions into a cogent panorama. Throughout the festival we got glimpses, vignettes, and collections of performers who came not just as themselves but as symbols. The youthful and tolerant Berlin of 2007—encapsulated in the ethnically mixed neighborhood of Kreuzberg—arrived in the form of the electronics-aided club band Nomad Soundsystem. That Benetton-ready quintet, which includes a Tunisian singer, a Japanese laptop jockey, and a German bassist–turntable-scratcher, brought its techno beat and Arabic tunes to a receptive Zankel Hall, and even managed to get audience members to dance in the aisles and, in the case of one hair-swinging, belly-jiggling enthusiast, onstage. How odd to think that a couple of generations from now, when other Max Raabe–style reenactors attempt to convey the freewheeling Berlin of the early 21st century, this is what they will faithfully reproduce.
The most convincing envoy of Berlin cool, though, was the Berlin Philharmonic, which in five years under Sir Simon Rattle has refashioned itself from a merely august institution into a prodigiously unsnobbish cultural force. During its eight days in New York, the Philharmonic paired three recent works with megaliths by Gustav Mahler. I heard the U.S. premiere of Tevot, a twenty-minute piece by the British composer Thomas Adès that felt at once compact and gargantuan, gorgeous and insane. It opens with violins caressing glassy harmonics, creating an effect of crystals bobbing in midair. Bangs, big and small, gather into a hurtling ball of sound that spins off piccolo riffs, trumpet tones, bass-drum collisions, and sparkles of glockenspiel before slamming into something huge and unyielding. The score eventually reaches a plateau of bliss, an endless exhalation of melody, which the Berlin strings played with Mahlerian intensity. Adès is one of the few contemporary composers who cannot be diminished by post-intermission Mahler. Not even Das Lied von der Erde, poignantly sung by Ben Heppner and Thomas Quasthoff, could undercut the schizoid power of Tevot. After the Carnegie performance, Rattle and his Berliners trooped up to the fabulously ornate United Palace Theatre in Washington Heights to play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as nearly 100 children danced to choreography by Royston Maldoom. A whiff of noblesse oblige clung to the event, particularly when the orchestra was anointed UNICEF goodwill ambassador in a ceremony so extended that it threatened to extinguish all goodwill on the spot. But once that lonely bassoon solo started, and the prone bodies began to twitch, it became clear that local kids and Berlin pros were both trying to find whatever embers still have the capacity to spark and scald in a century-old incendiary work.
Among the Philharmonic’s recent tasks has been to face its history forthrightly. Das Reichsorchester (The Reich’s Orchestra), a new documentary released in Germany, scrutinizes the way the organization allowed itself to be used by Hitler as a totem of prestige. Carnegie Hall, on the other hand, averted its eyes from the years between 1933 and 1989, which meant relinquishing some potentially fascinating follow-up. Ruttmann helped Leni Riefenstahl make the Nazi-glorifying masterpiece Triumph of the Will; Brecht returned from California to Berlin after the war; and Eisler enjoyed a long career in Communist East Germany. On all these second acts, Carnegie Hall passed in polite silence. Perhaps it will one day mount the sequel: “Berlin in Darkness.”