An ephemeral concert hall hopes for a permanent audience
MUNICH – It was an unusual sight last Friday: the inhabitants of this wealthy city lifting the hems of their dresses and adjusting their bow ties as they entered a rough industrial space for one of the first fall cultural events.
They entered the hall of the Isarphilharmonie, a new concert hall far from the former grandeur of the Bavarian State Opera or Herkulessaal, inside the former royal palace. And far from the city center, where most of Munich’s major classical music shows take place.
The new hall is a rarity: an ephemeral, prefabricated venue designed with high-level acoustics and built for 40 million euros (around $ 46 million) in just a year and a half, all as a stopgap for renovation. . A temporary replacement for the unsightly and mundane concert hall at Gasteig, which is closing for a multi-year makeover, the Isarphilharmonie is just one part of this complex – including Munich’s municipal library and educational institutions – to make a provisional move nearly five kilometers along from the Isar river to Halle E, formerly a transformation room for an electric utility, in a quieter and less well-kept part of town, next to a tire store.
For many, the commute isn’t as easy as the Gasteig, which is a short walk from Munich’s Old Town and outside a busy S-Bahn station. On Friday, Isarphilharmonie participants were encouraged to use public transport and then take a short walk to end the trip or by bike. But not their cars, please, because unlike the Gasteig, the new complex (known as Gasteig HP8 for its address on Hans-Preißinger-Straße) does not have a parking lot. For now, some drivers can park at a nearby wholesale flower market and take a shuttle for the rest of the way.
The direction of Gasteig and its house orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, that the Isarphilharmonie needs more than novelty to attract people downstream during the renovation, which was to take several years but could span almost a decade. About 60 to 70 percent of tickets sold for the new space come from orchestra subscribers, said Paul Müller, executive director of the Philharmonie, but that still leaves a significant gap to be filled.
So Müller and his colleagues – including Max Wagner, the director of Gasteig – looked at potential models elsewhere. Like the Philharmonie de Paris, so far from central Paris that it overlooks the highway that forms the city’s border, and which has kept ticket prices low to remove at least one barrier to potential audiences. The Isarphilharmonie, said Müller, will be similar: “It requires a very different structure. You cannot ask for 90 € per ticket.
But perhaps the highest priority in attracting new viewers and appealing to existing ones is providing a venue that doesn’t look like the substitute it is. Switching to nomadic performances during Gasteig’s renovation – as the New York Philharmonic is doing while its Lincoln Center home, David Geffen Hall, is remodeled this season – was not possible here, Wagner said. Thus, the Isarphilharmonie, designed for temporary use but with a potential future after the reopening of the Gasteig, was designed to hold its place among the great concert halls of Germany. (It will also host the other great Munich ensemble, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.)
Designed by von Gerkan, Marg and Partners, and with premium acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota – from the Philharmonie de Paris and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles – the 1,900-seat modular space is a black wooden box striking but understated, with a pale wood stage that catches the eye like a movie screen (or like Richard Wagner’s proto-cinematic stage at the Bayreuth Festival Theater a little north of here).
“We wanted to build something just out of wood,” said Max Wagner. (This proved to be impossible given local fire codes; in the final design, the wood covered a steel frame.) “We were lucky because the wood is now like gold. But we ordered all of this before the pandemic, so we got the delivery and the old price. “
It was crucial for the opening of the Isarphilharmonie on Friday after construction which began in spring 2020; the rest of Gasteig HP8 will follow next March.
The sound of the hall was put to the test that evening with a three-hour concert by the Munich Philharmonic – conducted by the orchestra’s musical director, Valery Gergiev – which, although somewhat dispersed, demonstrated a variety of acoustic possibilities. It was also a milestone for the performance of the pandemic era: the first in Bavaria, due to newly implemented measures, to allow a full audience, without masks.
A first, “Araising Dances” by Thierry Escaich opened the program, answering all questions about Toyota’s acoustics with an immaculate cello pizzicato resonating above the rest of the orchestra and the ethereal high note of a solo violin bleeding strangely in spectral harmonics. Written for the Isarphilharmonie, the work explores the opposites of sound: the full power of the ensemble in a dance of death against a chamber group from the main strings alone. As a second-hand piece, it did the trick, showing off the space and delivering a catchy finale that would have lingered in the air longer had it not been for immediate applause.
Next comes Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with Daniil Trifonov as soloist. Among the Isarphilharmonie’s opening offerings is Trifonov’s first outing playing Beethoven’s five concertos, but in the Fourth he entered with a muddled phrasing that practically contradicted the transparency of the Escaich. (The exceptional acoustics do not get you very far.) There follows an interpretation of overexcited extremities, as if he had not yet settled on a reading of the piece. And he disagreed with the Philharmonic, which could have been lighter but still aimed for restraint and delicacy under Gergiev. Trifonov’s encore, an arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, was a return to form: unmistakably sensitive, close to the sublime.
If the second half of the concert may have got lost, it nonetheless remains a showcase for both the hall and the Philharmonie: Henri Dutilleux’s “Métaboles” reach a breathtaking volume; the opening of “The Sealed Angel” by Rodion Shchedrin was a mouth-watering taste of the choirs to come; and Ravel’s second suite “Daphnis et Chloé” was a deservedly grandiose combination of orchestra and voice. Here flutist Michael Martin Kofler spun sultry melodies that, in a space that didn’t even hide Gergiev’s occasional growls, easily passed through other players. Opening night listeners were always going to applaud warmly, but that didn’t make their enthusiastic response to the Ravel any less deserved.
With the end of the concert came a reminder that the Isarphilharmonie is still new, with issues to be resolved – like finding a way for 1,900 people to gracefully exit without a bottleneck. As if to apologize, waiters were waiting throughout Hall E with platters of sparkling wine. The following evening, the space would be used less formally, for one of the Philharmonie’s new efforts at alternative programming: a nighttime performance, featuring FM Einheit and members of the orchestra, from a experimental work by Vangelino Currentzis (the brother of the conductor Teodor Currentzis).
But on Friday, if the transition to a new room was not completely transparent for the participants, it was for another group: the taxi drivers. Having clearly heard the news of the opening, they were lined up outside, ready to take the cold and stuck audience home.