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Music

#BerlinPhil: How the Berlin Philharmonic became a global brand

From vinyls to digital media, the Berlin Philharmonic always manages to get its unique sound to audiences all over the world. Here's how "German Engineering" helped make it one of the world's most famous orchestras.

"Engineered to move the human spirit" used to be one of Mercedes Benz's ad slogans, but it could just as well have been used for the Berlin Philharmonic.

Like the luxury car maker, the world-class orchestra is a household name across the globe - and is inextricably associated with Germany's more positive stereotypical traits. "Precision, technical perfection, absolute faithfulness to the musical score, or faithfulness to the design when we're talking about a machine," Germany-based Russian music critic and journalist Anastassia Boutsko named a few.

When it comes to classical music, Germany admittedly has a bit of a home field advantage, which its most famous orchestra can gain from. With Bach linked to Leipzig, Beethoven to Bonn, and Wagner to Bayreuth - just to name a few - Germany is already close to every classical music fan's heart, from Japan to Argentina.

But the fascination with the Berlin Philharmonic and widespread speculation over Simon Rattle's successor, to be selected on May 11, stems from an obsession with the orchestra itself, not just standard repertoire favorites.

The ensemble's image - largely shaped by conductors Simon Rattle and Herbert von Karajan and pillared equally in the past, present and future - is no accident.

Concert from your couch

"It has got its

Digital Concert Hall

, so in a way it's almost a global orchestra," said James Jolly, editor-in-chief of the prestigious classical record magazine, "Gramophone."

The orchestra that used to perform in a humble Berlin roller skating rink in the 1880s tackled the World Wide Web in 2009 with its Digital Concert Hall. It's a subscription-based platform where viewers can stream live concerts, watch past performances, and view full-length documentary films like Thomas Grube's

"Rhythm Is It!"

and

"Trip to Asia"

for a flat-rate fee.

The Digital Concert Hall is also available as an app, which means classical music fans like Maria Karakusheva from Bulgaria can tune in wherever they are.

The media center is not the only online initiative among elite orchestras. The New York Philharmonic banks on partnerships with established brands like Spotify, iTunes and Roku. But the Berliners' flat-rate model and one-stop-shop approach are unique.

According to Anastassia Boutsko, the Digital Concert Hall is crucial to securing a fan base in Russia - where young, anti-Putin intellectuals listen to classical music as a means of "revolt" against intellectually feeble pop music -, but most people can't afford to go to concerts or live too far away from the nearest concert venue.

When the Berlin Philharmonic last performed in Moscow in 2008, recalled Boutsko, ticket prices averaged $100. Students who couldn't afford entry hid in the hall's restrooms all day long so they sneak into the concert.

While the Digital Concert Hall is designed to be a transcontinental extension of the Berlin "Philharmonie" hall, live concerts are indispensible in creating a bond with international music fans like Greek Gentleman, who wrote that the orchestra's May 1 concert in Athens featuring star violinist Leonidas Kavakos was "excellent."

Records and the Karajan era

The Berlin Philharmonic maintains a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter that is above par with peers like the London Symphony Orchestra or New York Philharmonic, and orchestra members like horn player Sarah Willis, who hosts DW's program "Sarah's Music," also play a strong role in expanding the ensemble's Internet following. But its international stature is built on a historical foundation that has little to do with modern technology: the vinyl.

"The Berlin Philharmonic is known all over Latin America because Deutsche Grammophon made an effort to export their records everywhere," Ramón Gorigoitia, a Cologne-based Chilean composer and author, told DW.

Gorigoitia, who studied piano and composition in Valparaiso, Chile in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recalls buying and listening to the Berlin Philharmonic's recordings. At that time, Austrian maestro Herbert von Karajan was mid-term in his three-decade tenure as principal conductor.

"He basically created the modern Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra," said James Jolly of Karajan, who is largely credited with forming the ensemble's distinct sound renowned for its virtuosity and perfection. "It was probably the strongest brand in the musical world."

Herbert von Karajan at a rehearsal in 1966, Copyright: picture-alliance/IMAGNO/Franz Hubmann

Herbert von Karajan (pictured in 1966) not only shaped the Philharmonic's sound, but was responsible for many recordings that landed in living rooms across the world

Karajan placed emphasis on Classical-Romantic standards with international appeal - like Beethoven, Bruckner, Wagner and Strauss. But in 1969 he chose to conduct the works of Dimitri Shostakovich in Moscow, in the presence of the composer who was known for ups and downs with the Communist regime.

That concert was a landmark for Russian audiences in the midst of the Cold War, said Boutsko. "This gesture of 'You belong to us' was unbelievable. This gesture of internationality and solidarity cannot be underestimated."

More colorful concert programs

While the standard classical repertoire stems from composers from a handful of mainly central European countries, Boutsko and Gorigoitia agree that the Berlin Philharmonic's future chief conductor will have to bank on non-European composers if the orchestra is to secure a broad international listenership in the future.

"If you want to target a Latin American audience then you have to see if you can put something by Heitor Villa-Lobos or Alberto Ginastera or Silvestre Revueltas on the program so that globalization and cultural exchange actually take place at the highest level," said Gorigoitia.

It seems the next principal conductor will have to initiate the five-hour concert program to include something for every member of the global audience, from Beethoven and Wagner to forgotten gems and new compositions from every continent. But those fans listening via the app from their living room in Siberia or the Andes can tune in or out whenever they want. And while the subscription isn't free, it's still cheaper than a German luxury car.

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