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Berlin 24/7

Berlin 24/7: Can music save America's reputation?

With jazz and film music, the Festival USA at Konzerthaus Berlin didn't present anything particularly special. But in politically uncertain times, US music takes on a different meaning for DW columnist Gero Schliess.

The cultural attache didn't veer from her manuscript, reading her speech word for word. At the end, she added - how original - that cultural exchange is important, that culture can build bridges and foster understanding. Wow!

So far, so good, so worn out. I've heard it all ad nauseam, back in the Cold War era when Russian artists performed in Germany with a lot of fanfare.

This cultural attache is not Russian, however - she is American. 

Gero Schließ

DW columnist Gero Schliess

Building bridges with music

Michelle Logsdon, head of the US Embassy's Culture Department, was speaking at the opening of the Festival USA at the Berlin Konzerthaus concert venue, commenting on American music in Germany.

You could feel the US diplomat virtually latching on to cultural exchange, grasping at straws and making the best of the depressing situation her new boss in the White House has gotten her into. 

But why bring up something that is omnipresent here anyway in the form of US music and pop culture? What a strange idea. Does the US depend on building bridges with music all of a sudden? But I do feel for her. Perhaps out of solidarity, since after all I spent a few years living and working in the US.

I don't know what your take is on the situation, but ever since President Donald Trump has begun to bombard us with daily tweets, I take a different, more political, view of everything happening in the US. What I hear sounds different, too. 

Musical 'alternative reality'

The opening concert featured the Konzerthaus orchestra and soprano Kim Criswell, with conductor Wayne Marshall and music by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Gershwin and Bernstein as cultural ambassadors for German-American understanding? That makes me bristle, that would mean constricting these musical geniuses with diplomatic straitjackets.

If they are ambassadors, then they must be ambassadors of the "other" America. Some Americans ironically refer to it as "alternative reality."  In this case, though, it's reassuring. For a moment, I'd almost forgotten the other side of America - wild, carefree, imbued with a pure love of life. Many at the concert seemed to feel as I do, as they steadfastly cheered the orchestra, Marshall and Criswell.

Different, not united

"Welcome to the United Styles of Music" is the catchy festival motto. And yes, America has many styles - it's a melting pot of races, religions and people from the most varied cultures. 

Varied, yes - but currently, it's anything but united. I manage to take a political view of a slogan devised long before the presidential election, and meant to refer to music more than anything else. The 10-day United Styles festival includes jazz, musical and minimal music, along with pieces by Frank Zappa.

Bang in a Can's Aspahlt Orchestra (Konzerthaus Berlin)

The wild performance by the Bang on a Can's Asphalt Orchestra was a delight

'We New Yorkers were opposed'

The Bang on a Can's Asphalt Orchestra street band was a highlight: eight outstanding jazz musicians from New York who brashly re-arrange Zappa, Charles Mingus and Meredith Monk.  They came across as a wild bunch on the small stage of the chamber music hall.

Backstage, I barely recognized them as they cowered on their chairs, exhausted and downcast. The explanation was quick to follow: "We're from New York," sax player Ken Thomson told me, almost apologetically. "We were all opposed."

Few New Yorkers voted for Trump, he said, adding that trips abroad have become agonizing for his band and other musicians. They always feel like they have to explain something, while at the same time it's a change of pace, time away from the new crazy circumstances at home.     

The night before, Kim Criswell radiated the kind of valiant optimism I so love in Americans. No one could rain on her parade as she belted out Gershwin's "The Man I Love" at the end of her set. Everyone in the audience knew the one man she wasn't singing about.

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