The Berliner Philharmoniker has dedicated the better part of February to celebrating the “Golden Twenties” of Weimar-era Germany, but you might not have gotten that by looking at their latest program. Part of that is due to substitution – when Thomas Søndergård replaced Sir Donald Runnicles as conductor, the planned performances of Berg and Schreker gave way to works by Prokofiev and Sibelius. Though both artists have ties to Germany, and to this particular orchestra, neither would be top-of-mind when organizing a festival dedicated to the freewheeling, boisterous Berlin of the interwar period.

Thomas Søndergård and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Frederike van der Straeten

The program’s one constant made the most thematic sense. The orchestral suite from Weill’s Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, arranged by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg in the late sixties, captures the wild-eyed sense of cultural experimentation happening at the time, in music as well as everyday life. The Philharmoniker feels this piece in its bones, ably blending the more traditional underlying musical rhythms with inflections of jazz and ragtime, in addition to the playful inclusion of banjo that suggests Weill’s fascination with American culture. Søndergård’s pacing preserved the narrative logic of the suite’s source, with individual instrument’s becoming characters and isolated phrases moving the story toward its tragic conclusion. The rise and fall of Mahagonny is also the rise and fall of liberated Berlin, which amps up the poignancy of its inclusion.

Opera was also represented by The Love for Three Oranges: Suite, arranged by the composer and premiered by the Philharmoniker. Prokofiev’s reduction reproduces the madcap humor of the opera, with vibrant, zany music that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The six sections distill a two-hour story down to fifteen minutes, blending the most famous selections from the score (the Marche and the Scherzo) with more scenic writing. The interpretation here was missing a sense of fun. Every section was executed well under Søndergård’s baton, yet there wasn’t much sense of the music building in narrative or tension. Each movement seemed increasingly siloed, a feeling driven home by the long pauses that followed every segment.

Thomas Søndergård
© Frederike van der Straeten

Søndergård brought a sense of Nordic cool to Sibelius’ Symphony no. 6 in D minor, respecting the composer’s lightly textured style and deliberate, transparent orchestrations. But unlike other composers who make a specialty of this music – fellow Scandinavians Esa-Pekka Salonen and Santtu-Matias Rouvali come to mind – the interpretation didn’t offer much in the way of new thought. Nor did this symphony, among Sibelius’ most placid (“cold spring water” in his own words), tie much into the energetic nature of the Golden Twenties. For that, you had to wait for intermission, when the Philharmoniker streamed Berlin im Licht – Stories from the Golden Twenties, a short film that put the viewer squarely in the Weimar world.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live video stream