Reeperbahn Festival & Hamburg Culture

la traviata promotional pic

by Louise Mothersole

Music and culture galore in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district

The Reeperbahn district in Hamburg is famous equally for its sex industry and musical and cultural significance. Since the Beatles launched their career there in the early ’60s, this potent area in Hamburg has continued to be at the foreground of contemporary music.

No greater a display of this embroilment in the modern music scene than the Reeperbahn Festival, which this year took place from the 25th to the 28th of September. With around 250 bands, established and emerging, from all over the world performing at over 60 venues, it was easy to feel as though one was present at the formation of the next few years of the music industry.

Reeperbahn Festival

Of the bigger acts, the only one I managed to catch was a performance on the Thursday night by Kate Nash. Her set was at the Docks, a large venue (1300 capacity) which managed to feel like a smaller, more intimate space. The sound wasn’t what I have heard in adverts or on clothing-shop radios. The breathy, laid-back, chit-chat tone had given way to energetic pop-rock shouting-in-tune – hardly recognisable. I wasn’t a huge fan of the music, but I appreciated the fact that Nash surrounded herself with an all-female band. Her performance was full of vigour and she established a good rapport with the small group of audience at the front who were actually fans (one of whom was overjoyed that she took their heart-shaped balloon). My main problem with the performance was that the lyrics were completely inaudible, lost in the mix of drums, guitars and bass – it was hard to pick out one particular instrument from the overall coagulated sound. I assumed it was the venue’s sound quality at fault; however, when I returned to the Docks to see Laing, I could make out every word (even though it was in German – a language I like to think I can speak, but definitely cannot).

Laing were made up of three sexy singers, a drummer and a dancer with a fantastic afro. Accompanied by electro-pop music with a soul edge, the three singers slid their way through tight harmonies and shimmied their limbs through simple but effective choreography. The singers used nifty microphone stands which had lamps attached to pick out their facial expressions and hand movements. I wasn’t blown away but found the gig enjoyable in a way which made me nostalgic for disco.

múm were a very slick experimental group from Iceland. Unfortunately, the venue worked against them. The Uebel & Gefährlich nightclub was far more suited to a rock gig, so a large portion of the audience quickly became impatient with the group’s ambient music. Even the crowd I was with, who had travelled specifically across town to see múm, agreed that they would appreciate them more if ensconced in comfy beanbags – and dragging on a puff of something…

A note-worthy aspect of the Reeperbahn Festival was the fact that you could stumble into any sort of gig imaginable and, if one performance let you down, there’d be another surprise a few feet away. There was no sense in rigorously planning and scheduling your night. Some of my party tried to, but these carefully laid plans inevitably deteriorated into an enjoyable but completely unexpected night. Other notable acts I caught included Jack Savoretti, an Italian English singer-songwriter and guitarist whose music was a pleasant mix of folk, blues and country styles. He had a smooth, rich, smokey voice which complemented the style and perfectly set off the simple and rustic (and therefore rather timeless) lyrics. Beautifully precise guitar licks at the beginning of the set gave way to higher energy – but less impressive – strumming and (no matter what the girls in front of me felt) there wasn’t enough room to dance. The ground-floor space of the Jazz Café was so long and narrow that I couldn’t actually see Savoretti and it wasn’t until the end of his set, when the audience shifted slightly, that I realised I’d only been standing five feet from him the whole time. I imagine only about a dozen people actually saw his face. Luckily, his music was strong enough to stand alone.

Kirin J Callinan’s performance was bonkers. It felt more like a performance art/comedy piece (a contemporary Andy Kaufman) than a genuine music set. All I can remember is a lot of high energy shouting and the fact that he was wearing a black-and-white zig-zagged onesie and a pear of brown sandals. The performance was very enjoyable and despite his odd get-up, a lot of young women around me were drooling over him; whatever ‘it’ is, he clearly has ‘it’.

The biggest surprise find of the festival for me was at 1am at a venue called Knust, slightly apart from the majority of venues in the area around the Reeperbahn. Californian trained jazz musician, Robert DeLong, looked like a greasy, sweaty teenage boy who had just crawled out of bed where he’d been playing online war games all day, with the curtains drawn and his mum calling up the stairs to bring his dirty plates down. He surrounded himself on the small stage with all sorts of incomprehensible tech equipment, two microphones, a drum kit, a guitar and a wide array of strange percussive instruments and objects. He then proceeded to astound and delight with a mind-blowing concoction of sound layering, mixing, drumming, singing, jumping around and manipulating sound with computer console controllers and joysticks. I kept trying to imagine how DeLong developed and then practised such virtuosity with technology and I continually drew a blank. The resulting sound was a mixture of techno, experimental music, house, electronica, EDM and pop which was as hard to grasp as the method. Not only was the music fantastic, but he threw himself with such awesome energy and brilliant lack of self-awareness into the sounds he was creating that he didn’t need to ‘perform’, he was a marvel to behold. As an added bonus, his girlfriend was moving through the crowd donning people’s sweat-glowing faces with tribal-style florescent face make-up. I highly recommend that everyone catch DeLong whenever they can.

Classical Experience

Alongside the glut of contemporary music, I was lucky enough to get a small taste of some of Hamburg’s classical music scene.

Johannes Erath’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Hamburgische Staatsoper was far from perfect. Apparently it was the cast’s first time performing the opera in Italian, which could account for some of the chorus’ evident vocal trepidation on stage (at times they were overshadowed by light pizzicato from the orchestra pit!). I began to almost dread the return of the chorus to the stage for, as well as sounding unusually quiet to me, their timing and tuning were off. The timing I put down to sloppy direction from the conductor, Alexander Joel. The tuning I can assume is down to the venue and/or set – the chorus clearly could not hear themselves or the orchestra clearly.

The set was the sort of half-hearted minimalism in order to appear ‘contemporary’ that I have seen in conventional theatre for the past 10-15 years. There were few props and the set consisted entirely of a group of dodgems which were raised and lowered (attached to an angled cement ceiling) as necessary. The ‘simple’ image was effective and clear and, when accompanied with very good lighting and, at one point, the flurry of leaves, rather beautiful.

Slightly strangely, the opera was lit more like a dance piece. There was a great deal of dramatic side lighting which created striking sculptures of the cast, but didn’t pick out facial expressions – usually a more prominent lighting technique in operatic performances. However, I very much enjoyed the overall effect. The first moment the chorus was revealed, frozen, dramatically lit on the revolving stage, was lovely. Unfortunately, the revolving stage was then overused throughout the performance. The movement did not make the opera more visually interesting; the effect very quickly became monotonous and, during quiet moments when the music lulled, the quiet clunking of the revolving stage’s mechanisms was distracting.

There was some thoughtful visual mirroring in this production. The strongest example was the repeated act of Alfredo placing Violetta into a dodgem. In act one it was a sexual encounter, the blossoming of romance and lust between the two characters. In act three Alfredo once again placed his lover’s body into a dodgem, this time tenderly as she lay dying. The age-old connection between sex and death was subtly and effectively enforced.

Other artistic conceits were less effective. The ghostly white-painted circus performers were unnecessary and in the final act where Violetta parts from her body (represented by another performer) it was slightly confusing whether the other characters were meant to be able to see her. Visually, they were unaware of her gaze and presence, yet were compelled by Verdi’s original score to sing with her. It was hard to tell the precise moment when Violetta actually died, there were so many seemingly ‘final’ moments.

The real strength of the production were the three leads, Alexandru Agache (Giorgio Germont), Stephen Costello (Alfredo) and Ailyn Pérez (Violetta). Agache’s rich and powerful baritone voice is perfect for the music of Verdi, and he played the role of strict father torn between a sense of duty and affection for Violetta very convincingly. The tenor, Costello, was able to maintain a strong voice whilst enforcing a youthfulness of tone, perfect for the young lover. His voice had a pleasing timbre so that one could understand how Violetta could be seduced by his song. Both Costello’s and Agache’s duets with Pérez were a joy to listen to (even with the moments where tuning was lost, most likely due to the aforementioned audibility issue).

The stand-out performance was by Ailyn Pérez. Whatever niggling problems needed to be ironed out of the production, it was worth seeing for Pérez’s performance alone. La Traviata is based upon the narrative of Dumas’ La dame aux Camélias. The famous Marguerite Gautier protagonist is based upon the real-life courtesan Marie Duplessis who died from tuberculosis at the age of 23. In the past, productions of La Traviata have often forgetten the youth of the character, and opted for casting singers well into their 50s for the role. Pérez inhabited the poise and confidence of a much older singer within her youthful quality of voice. The attention to detail and scope of her crystalline vocal acrobatics was astounding. The mechanics of her mastery was not evident, she felt her way through the musical phrases, making them sound easy and natural. This sense of feeling carried through into her portrayal of the role; her emotions were believable, raw and pure without being over-dramatised. When Pérez was singing, all other distractions melted away. Her sensitive portrayal of Violetta was beautiful to behold.

On my last morning in Hamburg I saw five members of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra perform the first set of the Hamburg Philharmonic’s season, in the small hall of the Laeiszhalle. The small hall was modern, wood panelled and comfortable. The acoustics were clear yet warm, very pleasant on the ear. The ensemble consisted of Hibiki Oshima (1st violin), Mette Tjaerby Korneliusen (2nd violin), Thomas Ruhl (viola), Birgitta Maass (cello) and Eberhard Hasenfratz (piano).

The programme consisted of music by Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss and (of course) Hamburg’s very own Johannes Brahms. The performance was overall flawless, a technical proficiency which felt to me a little sterile. I didn’t mind the clean performance during Britten, it came across as an aural freshness which I needed at 11am after a big night out soaking up the filthy fun of the Reeperbahn Festival. However, it took the players quite a while after the Britten to warm into the Strauss. I am not a huge fan of Strauss anyway, so the emotionally detached performance left me cold. There were finally moments of meatiness during the Brahms, swelling to a climactic finish.

I also got a glimpse of what the future has in store for music in Hamburg. Since the second one was destroyed in the second world war, the Laeiszhalle has been the only concert hall. The general consensus seemed to be that another was unnecessary. Until now! Back in 2007 work began on a new concert hall atop a 1960s warehouse on the Elbe river. €785 million later and the still-incomplete building already dominates the skyline. The Elbphilharmonie will be not only a concert hall but a public courtyard, apartments and hotels – with the grand hall floating like an egg within the centre.

Both the façade and interior have been designed to look like waves and bubbles, quite literally reflecting the Elbe with its 1,100 windows (some convex, some concave – the overall effect a never-before-seen feat).

Speaking of something you don’t see every day – A group of us were taken on a guided tour of the building site and, on weekends, the public can likewise be shown around. I am pretty sure health and safety laws would prevent such things happening in the UK… As we wandered all over the site we had to avoid giant nails, sharp surfaces, sparks flying from electric saws chewing into metal, and had to duck out of the way of large, heavy objects being hoisted around by builders. I preferred it this way! Germany clearly hasn’t adopted the USA’s ‘I’m gonna sue you!’ culture as the UK has.

The grand hall is also intended to be a mastery of acoustics. The surfaces will be covered in a dimpled material that has been nicknamed ‘white skin’ and a 17 ton reflector is already suspended from the ceiling. Apparently, the reflector will reflect sound, light, liquid and will act as the final conduit for the pipe organ. To be honest, this multi-purpose masterpiece sounds too good to be true, but it would be amazing if it lived up to its hype. The hall will seat 2,150 in a vineyard shape around the stage, with balconies reaching up to the top of the structure. The designs look like a 1960s film version of a future dystopia to me – I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished!

One can only hope that the Elbphilharmonie will live up to its promise to be an ‘open house’ for the people, bringing classical music to the masses and not just the privileged few. I look forward to following its progress in the coming years.

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