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Scene in Berlin

Breandáin O'Shea
August 10, 2012

Hours of practice for just one performance - being a classical musician is not exactly economical. But in Berlin, young musicians are working hard to uphold different values, says DW's Breandáin O'Shea.


There are few places I'd rather be than in Berlin during the summer months. Many of the locals spend the long evenings either dangling their feet in the Spree River or drinking a drop of the local lager in the countless beer gardens scattered around the wonderful Tiergarten park.

Let's face it - we're all keen to take it a bit easy during the warmer months. Even the country's politicians have closed up shop and deferred sorting out the excruciating euro crisis until after their summer vacation. At least I hope they're planning on returning to do just that... 

Students notorious for embarking on summer escapades rather than knuckling down and studying during the summer. But 1,200 or so of those supposedly lethargic scholars are currently visiting the German capital and could well be proving that theory wrong.

Forget iPhones, iPads, Facebook, YouTube and every other gizmo that seems to keep most young people engrossed these days. Unplugged and inspired might best describe how this group of students are spending their time. They're playing music that, in some cases, is hundreds of years old, on instruments that are anything but digital.

The best human invention

"I think I'm a computer freak and I used a computer before I played the violin. But there's no substitute for the real thing: live music," violinist John Garner told me. Garner, 22, is the principal violinist of the Moritzburg Festival Orchestra, one of 13 youth orchestras currently visiting Berlin as part of the Young Euro Classic Festival.

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Image: DW

"I simply love music. I spend most of my time either listening to it or playing it," said Garner. "There's nothing quite as amazing - I think it's the best thing human beings have come up with."

Close to 30 concerts are being held as part of this festival in Berlin's 19th-century Konzerthaus. And the person at the helm is not a star musician but economist and psychologist Gabrielle Minz. A chance encounter with young musicians some 15 years ago inspired her to establish the Young Euro Classics.

"I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and energy of the young musicians," she told me. "In the classical music area, these people are disciplined. They know their colleagues and they have a lot of fun. And they don't find combining study and music difficult."

I couldn't resist asking her if perhaps, as an economist, she also thought listening to these young musicians made more sense than worrying about the current euro crisis. "I think a festival like this highlights what is really important for people," she replied. "It makes everybody happy - those who listen and the young musicians who perform."

Minz is not alone in her approach. Welsh conductor Grant Llewellyn pointed out to me just how long and arduous a journey these young people have taken to reach the standard they have today.

"I think musicians of this caliber and at this stage in their lives - coming out of college - tend to rise to the occasion," he commented.

The artistic stretch

Llewellyn had put together a rather challenging program for the ensemble that included works by Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns, Beethoven's Second Symphony and a contemporary work by Sofia Gubaidulina.

"I knew that this orchestra would be a group of crack young players and so I wanted to find repertoire that would test them," Llewellyn told me. "It would show their virtuosity and their skills. Also - and certainly that is where Beethoven comes in - it would stretch their artistic development as well."

Trumpet player in front of a jury
Top young musicians have been through plenty of auditionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Stretching artistic development seems to be what all these young musicians are striving for - even though the investment is immense.

"It's not something you can ever describe in words - why you feel that way when you play something or when you hear a piece of music," said Garner. "I think there are very few people who can say they aren't moved by music and don't enjoy it. I count myself very lucky to be involved in this industry."          

John's words remain with me as I wander away from Berlin's city center and take in the sun on the banks of the Spree. I can't help wondering if perhaps we underestimate our younger generation?

Hours and hours of practice and rehearsal, pursuing perfection for a one-off concert makes absolutely no economic sense. Could it be that these young musicians are reminding us of something we might have forgotten - or is that just wishful thinking on my behalf? 

When I return to the hall to hear the fruits of the youth orchestra's labor, it's the excellent ensemble playing that impresses me most. The group listens to each other, converses, and works together to fulfill their greatest wish - to interpret and communicate this music as well as they possibly can. An admirable ambition that displays qualities the world could well use a little more of.

For me, the listener, what better way to spend a Berlin summer evening than listening to great music played by inspired young musicians?

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