Berlin, June 2014 / by Scott Ordway

Club Gretchen, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Club Gretchen, Kreuzberg, Berlin

I am in Berlin this week for a performance of Detroit, presented in a new staged version by the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler and directed by Alexander Scholz. The performance, which took place last night at Club Gretchen in Kreuzberg, embodied many of the trends which I believe make our time the most exciting period for classical music since the turn of the last century.

The venue, which one enters through an active junkyard / auto body repair shop, is a former carriage house; in it's present incarnation, it is a nightclub with a surprisingly warm, resonant sonic environment for acoustic music. On the surface, we're as far as possible from the ossified ambiance of a city-center flagship concert hall.

I would guess that the median age of the capacity crowd was 30, perhaps younger. The crowd was stylish, but nobody was dressed for a slightly formal business lunch, the way American opera patrons often are. The bar (of course there was a bar) was open as people arrived, and many took a drink with them to their seat. When the show began, though, the bar closed (attn: Brooklyn alt-classical scene).

This last bit is a critical detail. For all of the unimpeachable informality of the venue itself, the purpose of the physical space was—as it would be in any Wagnerian concert hall—to facilitate deep and focused listening to the music itself. The concept of undivided attention for a limited span of time is, in my opinion, a definitional aspect of the experience of Western classical music and its postmodern progeny. Because (most) composers are counting on it when they conceive of the work, it can't be relinquished at the moment of performance, whether the show takes place at the Philharmonie or in the junkyard.

The performance itself was spectacular, a surreal blend of my piece and Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat, with a fixed cast of characters seamlessly moving between both works. The director's vision for the evening effectively created an autonomous third work that explored the sense of loss and nostalgia that pervades Detroit and Stravinsky's classic tale of a soldier whose life is shattered after he carelessly makes a deal with the devil.

Danielle Zuber and Alexandra Schulz, the former having just sung Agathe in Der Freischütz at the Gewandshaus Leipzig and the latter fresh from a series of engagements with the Berlin Staatsoper, gave a brilliant reading of Detroit, accompanied sensitively by the Berlin pianist Ralph Zedler. And the chamber orchestra for the Stravinsky, led by Yu-An Chang, was comprised of students from the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler, but sounded better than many professional groups I've heard play the work. It was a rhythmically precise, joyous performance.

Stealing the show, however, was Pia Seiferth, the young German actress who played Joseph, the soldier in Stravinsky's eponymous work. The role requires almost 90 minutes of impassioned monologue, portraying a constantly shifting array of characters in English, French, and German. Seiferth tore up and down the aisles, leaping from post to post and responding beautifully to the musical environment against which the text is declaimed. The work is tricky and the narrative diffuse, but it never lost momentum or it's clarity of focus. Seiferth was applauded thunderously at the work's conclusion, and it was richly deserved.