Mongolian overtone singing and litanies by Tibetan monks have been filling the Berlin Philharmonic's Kammermusiksaal - with the ultimate aim of creating an intercultural chamber orchestra.
There is little doubt that one of Germany's most significant cultural ambassadors is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which is living up to its reputation with a unique concert series. The renowned group can count on drawing an international audience in other parts of the world as well as in its home city and Germany's capital.
The orchestra's musicians are increasingly opening themselves up to sounds beyond the classical music repertoire of Western culture. Their series called "Unterwegs" ("Underway") - moderated by German writer, television personality and self-declared globetrotter Roger Willemsen - has been bringing together ensembles from Mali, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Tibet and Afghanistan this season.
Roger Willemsen hosts the series
The "Unterwegs" World Music program has proved immensely popular in Berlin, with the Kammermusiksaal regularly filled for concerts. "People don't attend just to get their fill of 'ear candy,'" said Willemsen. "They're up for a challenge and want to go on an ethnological excursion. Evidently, the feeling of being a nomad is appealing to many."
Nomads, monks, Afghans
Music by nomads in West Africa's Sahara and Asia's sweeping steppe regions, for instance, was presented during the first concert of the series, with Willemsen - who is no stranger to remote areas - prompting the Malian Tuareg band Tamikrest to improvise along with Mongolian overtone singers Huun Huur Tu. The audience cheered enthusiastically in praise of such an unusual musical experiment.
Spiritual music from monasteries in Armenia, Bulgaria and Tibet was the focus of the second concert, with chanting by monks of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery mixing together with traditional Armenian sharakan singing and chants by Bulgarian Orthodox monks.
A further evening took concert-goers on a musical journey through Afghanistan. While the war has taken its toll on the country's once rich music tradition - including the destruction of reams of sheet music and the musicians' quarter in Kabul, as well as stagnation of instrument-building - the music still lives on among the people.
Tablas are played across Afghanistan and India
During this concert, Berlin Philharmonic strings meshed with sounds from the Afghan rubab, tabla and percussion to create a complex, impressive and above all novel arrangement.
"I think it's great when traditional Philharmonic concert-goers get a taste of something different," said violist Martin Stegner, who has played his share of non-classical music. Having formerly toured with Sinti and Roma musicians, he now plays Latin American music with his "Bolero Berlin" ensemble, in addition to being a member of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Stegner said he's looking forward to the fourth and last "Underway" concert of the season - on May 15. Berlin Philharmonic members are to play with Berlin-based musicians hailing from Iran, China, India and North Africa, with the aim of introducing their musical traditions to one another and creating an intercultural Berlin chamber orchestra. "That's the most exciting thing I can imagine," Stegner said. "Something major can happen when several cultures work together. Of course, there's a risk in that too; people have to be very open."
Tango, fado, alla Turca
Former administrative director Pamela Rosenberg laid the foundation for the intercultural work of the Berlin Philharmonic nearly six years ago when she initiated the "Alla Turca" series, in which musical styles from East and West come together in dialogue.
Martin Hoffmann likes the unusual
The concept was expanded to include music from other regions of the world - integrating, for instance, the Argentinean tango and the Portuguese fado into the repertoire.
Educational programs supplement the series, involving workshops open to young and old participants eager to experience intercultural music in a hands-on way.
With the "Unterwegs" series, Rosenberg's successor, Martin Hoffmann, aims to open up the Philharmonic to even more musical genres.
"We've been offering a spectrum of concerts for quite a while now," he explained. "These experiments are intended to offer audiences sounds unfamiliar to them. We're certain there are regions still to be tapped musically."
Author: Corinna Kolbe / als
Editor: Greg Wiser