"The (Berlin Philharmonic's) standard of playing at all times, whether it'll be in a Primary school classroom or in the Philharmonie, is absolutely fantastic. And when you go off into a classroom and play something from Stravinsky, then those standards disappear in terms of absolute performance." - Richard McNicol, former director of Zukunft@BPhil
In 2003, I had the good fortune to visit with Richard McNicol and Denise Mellion on the balcony of the Philharmonie in Berlin, where we discussed the bold new education program Simon Rattle had hired them to start, Zukunft@BPhil. ("Zukunft" means "future" in German.) They told me that part of Rattle's charge was to take music into underprivileged parts of the city, where residents seldom had the chance to hear music of any kind, much less by one of the world's great orchestras.
Six years into the highly successful program, the BPO has brought Zukunft@BPhil to NYC, under the auspices of Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute and the Berlin In Lights festival. All this week, members of the orchestra have been playing free concerts in small venues around the city, such as the Chinatown Salvation Army, the Harlem Children's Zone, and the Miccio Youth Center PAL in Brooklyn. Tonight, they came to the University Settlement: a 120-year old Lower East Side institution that provides education and outreach programs to low-income members of the community.
This year, University Settlement has introduced The Performance Project: a performance series in intimate Speyer Hall that includes music, dance, theater, and performance art. But, as series curator Alison Fleminger said in her opening remarks, tonight's appearance by the BPO was truly something special. There were only 75 open seats, many taken by families with young children, and the musicians - who all wore black pants and Polos with the Berliner Philharmoniker logo in gold - were almost in our lap.
They performed Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat: an hour-long work with narration that tells a fairly dark fable about a soldier who sells his violin to the Devil in exchange for a book that allows him to amass material wealth, but at the expense of his personal happiness. Brit Stanley Dodds, one of the BPO's second violins, was a wonderful narrator, delivering the text with wit and charisma, often playing as he spoke. The rest of the players - especially clarinetist Wenzel Fuchs and trumpeter Tamas Valenczei - tossed off Stravinsky's complex harmonies without coming close to breaking a sweat.
But, this wasn't about showcasing the BPO's chops so much as it was about exposing youngsters and other locals to music they probably had not heard before. Seated in the front row were several small children, all of whom seemed as delighted as their parents by what they heard (save for one cranky four year old whose mother had to take him outside when he started a tantrum.)
But the highlight of the evening came after most of the audience and musicians had left. About half-a-dozen kids - none older than four - spontaneously converged on the percussion kit and started banging on the drums with various sticks and mallets. BPO Percussionist Franz Schindlbeck took it all in stride, calmly packing up his high hats and tam-tams while the kids whaled away on the bass drum. Eventually, he approached the kids, took one of the soft mallets, and showed them how to play pianissimo. Schindlbeck didn't speak: he just played softly while holding his finger up to his lips, and the kids soon followed suit. Fortunately, there were German cameras there to document the whole thing; expect to see it in some future documentary.
This weekend, Zukunft@BPhil heads up to Washington Heights for two performances of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at the United Palace Theater on 175th and Broadway, featuring the full BPO and a cast of over 100 NYC public school students, dancing to choreography by Royston Muldoon. This was one of the projects from the very first season of Zukunft, and by all accounts has been the most successful to date. Tickets are $15, with festival seating. If you've got the time, I assure you it'll be well worth the trip uptown.