The concert of the
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
of Thursday, November 2, 1995

Mahler's Symphony #3
performed at the Philharmonie
Berlin, Germany

A concert like this deserves a big long title like that. I'd planned my eclipse trip to India to include a stopover in Germany on the way back, just to see a bunch of stuff there that I thought would be neat. But when I found out that the BPO was going to be performing Mahler 3 (which I knew and loved from a performance I'd played of it once with a local University Orchestra [where I played 2nd E-flat Clarinet]), I extended my stay in Germany just to be able to catch the first performance of the weekend. Immediately after the concert, I got in my rental car, and drove all night to Frankfurt to catch a plane home that was leaving at 1:30 the next afternoon. I ended up sleeping through most of the drive, and I think at one point I even took out a couple of pylons on the Autobahn by driving off the side of the road in a construction area, but the concert was amazing.

The concert was at the Orchestra's home hall, the Philharmonie, and the conductor was the incomparable Zubin Mehta. He conducted without a score, which for this piece is a phenomenal feat. I'd bought my $15 ticket earlier that day, and had spent the few hours before the concert walking around in the gloomy, drizzly weather, getting ready to sit through the gargantuan event that is Mahler 3. (This was before I endured the entire Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth five years later!)

My seat was in the balcony, way off on the right side of the audience. I could barely see the tuba player, and was completely blocked from most of the Bass section, but the rest of the orchestra was right there to be seen, and the wind section (my favorite) was very prominent. I'd seen this same piece performed by the Chicago symphony a year earlier, and so, I thought I was prepared for how masterful a performance it was to be.

I was wrong. The Chicago performance had been wonderful, but from the very first blast of the horn section, I knew I was in for something I'd never experienced before at ANY concert I'd ever attended. Every note, every phrase, every nuance of the music was presented masterfully, with complete control, virtuosity and consummate musicianship that I didn't think existed in any one person, let alone 100+ people playing all at once. Whenever a phrase crescendoed, the entire orchestra moved up in their seats as one, right in rhythm with the completely unwritten parts of what makes the music music. All the solos were perfect, impossible to imagine how they could have been played better, and it was obvious to me that this was indeed the most perfect orchestra that could possibly be constructed of humans.

I was, of course, sitting around lots of people who spoke only German, and I'd been in Germany for almost a week, speaking no English. If you've ever been in that situation in any country, you know how "different" English starts to sound after a while. It was in that context that I listened to the entire peice, unable to really articulate what I was thinking about the performance going on, because neither English nor German have the words to describe it. The first movement is colossal, lasting almost 45 minutes, and usually between movements, people will catch their breath and relax. (Watching a concert like this is truly an aerobic activity, requiring conscious physical rest between movements.) It was amazing, then, in this context, that after the first movement had just concluded, and I was settling down in my seat in disbelief of the perfection I'd just been subjected to, that I heard behind me, barely audible, but whispered in perfect American English and with capital letters fully in place, "This is the Best God-Damned Orchestra I've Ever Heard...." I turned around and voiced my affirmation of that simple but telling comment, to the guy from Virginia who'd said it. I don't know whether the people around us were amused, annoyed, or impressed that two people from America could possibly appreciate their Orchestra, but I tell you, if any of them for one second take for granted the fact that that Orchestra plays in their back yard, and they can go watch a concert any time they want, then they are guilty of a terrible and unspeakable crime against their own humanity.

What's funny is that that concert, for the distinguished Gods of that ensemble, was just another day at the office, another performance at the unimaginably high level they all constantly play at, and that fact alone causes me even to this day to know that I was changed forever by that one concert, having heard once and for all what music is really supposed to sound like.

In 1999, The BPO came to Chicago to play...guess what? Mahler's 3rd! I was there, in a $100 dress circle seat, and the performance, while not as good as the one I'd heard that night in Berlin, was head and shoulders above anything else I'd ever heard in my life. Das Beste Orchester Aller Welt.... With no question.

© 2002 Dan McGlaun