The fifth anniversary of the opening of a concert hall seems a curious one to celebrate. Ordinarily, you might wait a decade or two before reaching for the party-poppers, but we live in uncertain times, where we are daily reminded of the fragility of life and the need for music to lift us out of our gloom. So it’s perhaps understandable, so early after its birth, that Hamburg wanted to shout about its gigantic child, the Elbphilharmonie.

Alan Gilbert and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester
© Daniel Dittus

This nine-day celebration could be also seen as a mini relaunch for the building after two years of Covid restrictions. As live performance emerges again, audiences need reminding that it’s possible to hear and see musicians in the flesh. OK, life isn’t normal, but it needn’t be dull. And it also feels to be the moment where the city has accepted that the hall’s massive cost overrun was the price of putting the city firmly on the international musical map. (A €200m original estimate ballooned to €820m). Since its opening by Angela Merkel in 2017, the venue claims to have attracted more than three million audience members – trebling the number of concertgoers in Hamburg. 

But it’s not just a concert hall. A hotel, restaurants and public open spaces are included in the huge building, which towers over Hamburg’s commercial waterfront like a ship in full sail. It’s also an education centre, where children (and their parents) can come and learn about music, and perhaps try one of the 500 instruments made available. There’s even an orchestra drawn from the audience, which performs twice a year. London could have had all of this and more in the doomed Centre for Music. It makes you weep...

However, the jury still seems to be out on the Yasuhisa Toyota’s controversial acoustic design for the Elbphilharmonie. The spectacular main hall, laid out in vineyard style with the stage in the middle, allows most of the 2,100 seats to be in reasonably close proximity to the performers, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good experience. German newspapers reported some audience members shouting they could not hear Jonas Kaufmann when he sang there in 2019. “Ask the architect,” he is said to have replied.

Alan Gilbert
© Daniel Dittus

Certainly, down on the floor of the hall, the sound is immediate, transparent, almost liquid in quality. There is nowhere for a musician to hide, or indeed an audience member. A cough or a conversation can be heard right around the hall. When Alan Gilbert raised his baton to direct the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in the final work in last night’s gala concert, he paused, turned and fixed a steely glare on a couple just in front of me; he could obviously hear every word of their momentary murmured exchange.

The chatting over, we were off into the watery world of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wingwritten not for the Elbphilharmonie but for the first season of another spectacular venue, Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The work’s title refers both to the sail formation of a yacht as it runs before the wind and to Gehry’s distinctive Disney Hall design, so it was also appropriate for Hamburg’s nautical themed hall. From lugubrious beginnings, with double bass and contrabassoon producing primordial grumblings, the music gathered in pace, scope and strength, with soprano twin sisters Anu and Piia Komsi swapping ethereal, wordless vocal lines across the hall, first on stage and then from different points up in the galleries, exploring all the sonic possibilities of Toyota’s design. Waves danced and sparkled across the strings, while a recording of the humming courtship calls produced by California’s Plainfin Midshipman fish whirred excitedly down on the seabed. It was all refreshingly original, suitably celebratory and ever so slightly bonkers. Just what you need for a party.

Kirill Gerstein
© Daniel Dittus

Earlier, we had heard Thomas Ades’s 2018 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, played by its dedicatee, Kirill Gerstein. His playing sounded beautifully focused in the pin-sharp acoustic, allowing us to enjoy fully Ades’ sweepingly romantic score, with its echoes of Liszt and Rachmaninov. The gently wistful central movement was brilliantly handled, its stately, individual orchestral chords piercing the piano writing like shafts of autumn sunlight. In the jazz-inflected final movement, Gerstein scampered away towards a bright, sparkling future, full of good-hearted optimism and general good humour. Again, just right for a party.

Gilbert had opened with two fanfares by John Adams; his Tromba lontana from 1985, which placed two solo trumpeters in opposite galleries, allowing them to play musical tennis across the hall while the orchestra chuntered amiably beneath, followed by the ever-popular Short Ride in a Fast Machine, from 1986. It’s always a showpiece but in this acoustic all the working parts of the engine were ear-splittingly audible, leaving the audience breathless with the energy of it all.

Curious though, that this celebratory concert contained no freshly commissioned work, or indeed any new music by a contemporary German composer. Something for Hamburg to explore, surely. 

Stephen's press trip to Hamburg was funded by Hamburg Marketing GmbH