While technically built on sand, Berlin is otherwise built on song. From Bowie to Bach, the Berlin Phil to Berghain, the storied streets of this city resonate with music. DW’s Julian Tompkin goes looking for the source.
It's early afternoon and the tourist busses have descended upon Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin's fabled and historic square in the Mitte district that's home to the French and German Cathedrals and the Konzerthaus. Waiters navigate the aimless herd like carefully choreographed dancers, balancing trays laden with drinks and dodging the blinding strobe of flashing camera bulbs.
As restaurant seats begin to fill, buskers jostle for prime position like wolves to the chicken pen. A young violinist wastes no time and launches into the Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," but is soon ambushed by a nearby gypsy jazz duo channelling an anarchic Django Reinhardt with electric amplification in their arsenal.
A costumed band of Bolivian pan-pipers have abandoned their neutrality and are rapidly advancing on the restaurant's southern flank. Under the discordant clamor it sounds like hell is truly closing in on this battle for Berlin.
As the saying goes, it ain't easy to find a gig in Berlin. And when it comes to music, that old adage couldn't ring truer. While attracting many of the world's most talented musicians, there are quite simply not enough stages for them to play on.
Although Berlin is home to arguably the world's most famous orchestra and more than its share of world-class opera houses and ensembles, the sober reality is that very few players will reach such heights.
That is, of course, unless they've graduated from the prestigious Hanns Eisler Academy of Music.
With the brutal aural skirmish of Gendarmenmarkt still in earshot, I retreat into the lobby of the Hanns Eisler Academy. Students lounge about, contemplating cheap dispenser coffee (80 cents a hit) and musical scores. Delving deeper, the walls begin to resound with the distinctive timbre of song. Somewhere a Steinway erupts and then fades into the perfect decrescendo. Nearby a soprano defies nature with the notorious G6 in Mozart's "Popoli di Tessaglia."
"There are many more students than musicians on the stage," Hanns Eisler student Jaemin Shin told me. "Those people who are on the stage are less than one percent of the whole musical students in the world, so it's quite a competitive field."
Now in his second semester of his Master of Music in Piano, Shin sighs and shakes his head in disbelief when recalling the examination process to get into the Academy. "It was very difficult - I had to practice so much. This is one of the best schools in the world; I am very lucky to be here. Now I just need to keep practicing."
Fit as a fiddle
The South Korean is one of around six-to-seven percent of applicants accepted into the conservatory each year. While a place at the Hanns Eisler doesn't explicitly guarantee you a pedestal on the global stage, the odds are certainly in your favor - especially when the school boasts such Honorary Senators as Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim and alumni as Sol Gabetta, Vladimir Jurowski and Isabelle Faust.
"We try to attract the best possible teachers and the best possible students to be educated on the mainstream classical musical instruments in order to eventually become soloist or at least leading members of orchestras," the academy's director, Stefan Willich, said. "So in that respect we have a very clear focus on artistic excellence."
World-renowned pianist by night and Hanns Eisler professor by day, Birgitta Wollenweber admits that, these days, excellence alone isn't enough to guarantee survival - let alone success - in the murky world of professional music.
"It's hard out there," she stated. "One year you are winning international piano competitions and the next year no one knows you or cares, as you are not this new young thing anymore. Plus musicians are often not very well paid. Really you have to burn inside to do it because it's a lot of energy and time and engagement."
To help prepare its students for the real world, the Academy - named after one of its most distinguished professors and regular Bertolt Brecht collaborator, Hanns Eisler - endeavors to give the students as much practical experience as possible; whether it be performing with disadvantaged youth or strutting the main stage in collaborations with the Deutsche Oper.
Hanns Eisler (left) is pictured with playwright Bertolt Brecht in c. 1932
Hailing from Braunschweig in Lower Saxony, Tamara Heimbrock was one of the students recently chosen to direct a new opera in collaboration with the Deutsche Oper, entitled "Neue Szenen" (New Scenes). And, at only 24 years of age, she recently accepted a job as assistant director at the Komische Oper; one on the most exciting and contemporary opera companies in Germany. Not bad for someone who had no significant career ambition of directing opera.
"My choice was actually not a very informed one," Heimbrock admitted. "I had always liked opera and theater and had also participated in quite a few productions in various performing positions. So to me it seemed like the logical extension, to take the step off stage and start making my own theater. Of course, everything turned out to be quite different than expected - but not necessarily in a bad way. It's been a fascinating journey so far and luckily there is no end in sight."
If only the buskers of Gendarmenmarkt could agree.