From the world’s most renowned orchestras to music festivals and neighborhood ensembles,
Berlin is a perennial concert. Solveig Steinhardt explored Europe’s capital of classical music
with the help of a local expert, music critic Wolf Zube of Café Horenstein.



It isn’t just its three state-funded opera houses, two concert halls, and eight world-class orchestras that make this city so important in the international classical music scene. Music is so ingrained in local culture that it’s common for Berliners of all backgrounds and ages to attend an opera or a concert, to sing in one of the 1500-plus amateur choirs, or to play an instrument. Combine that with the city’s generosity towards artists and it’s easy to understand why musicians from around the globe are flocking to the German capital.
Berlin’s musical richness is a result of the city’s long cultural history, particularly during the Cold War: Throughout the 28 years that the Iron Curtain divided the city, East and West competed for musical supremacy, so that when the Wall came down, Berlin found itself with two sets of premier musical institutions, all of which still stand today. And though its multitude of concert halls, opera houses, and other cultural venues would be enough to satisfy the needs of most any other city, performances sell out more often than not – further proof of the Berlin appetite for music.


Berlin is full of cultural treasures, from nondescript museums housed in private apartments to cabinets of curiosity, to places like secret pondside sculpture gardens or old phone booths transformed into lending libraries. One such musical gem is Horenstein (Fechnerstr. 3, www.horenstein.de), a small shop in the Wilmersdorf district where classical music aficionado and former Die Welt and Berliner Morgenpost music critic Wolf Zube opened his vinyl-record business and café in 2005. Specializing in select and rare classical music recordings, Zube’s shop also serves as a cultural salon and meeting point for musicians. “The sound of vinyl records has accompanied me for 50 years,” he says. “I know a lot about music, and I like to drink good coffee. I decided to create Horenstein because I wanted a place where people could sit with a hot drink while listening to the best interpretations of classical music.” Conductors and orchestra performers are among his regular customers, and he sometimes hosts small concerts and talks. “People mainly come here to look for a particular interpretation or for a rendition by a certain conductor,” he explains.

Zube named his shop after Jascha Horenstein, a Jewish conductor who worked with renowned conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin in the 1920s, before having to flee Nazi Germany in 1933. “Horenstein never achieved international stardom,” Zube says. “I like to call him the biggest unknown name amongst the major conductors. His interpretations are something else: Each instrument was given its own voice and character while still being part of the overall architecture of the composition. Listening to his recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony many years ago influenced my life forever: I named my shop – and my son, Jascha – after him. I never met him in person (he died in 1973), but my relationship with this conductor is very deep and personal.” And Zube is not Horenstein’s only fan. A few years ago, a group of Konzerthaus musicians gathered in the shop to found a new ensemble, which they named after the renowned conductor.


Wolf thinks Berlin’s music scene today can be compared to the musical vibrancy of the early 1920s, when Horenstein was still working here. “So many orchestras, conductors, and composers from around the world were all here together, a bit like today. I don’t know if Berlin can be considered the world capital of classical music, and I am not sure it even matters. But after all, maybe it is, because it has the only classical record café in Europe!”  

September is the best month to enjoy the city’s classical offerings, as it’s when the Philharmonie and the Konzerthaus Berlin come together to open the year’s concert season with Musikfest, three weeks of performances featuring the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Konzerthausorchester, and a multitude of guest ensembles and performers. From 2 to 20 September (see program on p. 57), the festival offers 27 concerts featuring 70 works by 35 composers. This year, Muzikfest pays homage to the two-way celebration of Germany’s relationship with Mexico through pieces such as Tutuguri by Wolfgang Rihm, which features a poem by French dramatist Antonin Artaud on his experience with Mexican Tarahumara people. A work that pushes all formal boundaries with a large orchestra, Tutuguri is a furious and complex work of contemporary music, featuring an ensemble of percussionists, amplified choir voices, and a narrator to tie it all together.
More traditional ears should not fret, however: The festival is packed with “lighter” performances that include works by Bach, Beethoven, Strauss, and Wagner, as well Daniel Barenboim’s interpretation of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a monumental work of 20th-century music that many consider to be the English composer’s masterpiece.

In Berlin, music can happen just about anywhere, even in an U-Bahn station. In 2014, the entire neighborhood of Friedrichshain transformed into a concert hall with the “singing balconies” event, in which ensembles played from their windows and terraces. On a more professional level, directors such as Christoph Hegel occasionally stage productions in unusual places, such as stations or museums.
 “A great space is the Salon Christophori [www.konzertfluegel.com] in Wedding,” says Zube. Hidden in a former industrial estate, the red-brick concert hall was created by a doctor and piano lover who opened it to the public to promote his favorite instrument through recitals and experimental performances. Zube also recommends Radialsystem V (www.radialsystem.de), a water-pumping station from the early 1900s that has been redesigned to host performances, including frequent classical concerts.  
“And of course there’s the Yellow Lounge (www.yellowlounge.com) for the younger audience,” adds Zube. Created by the Deutsche Grammophon music label with the idea that classical music shouldn’t be confined to concert halls, the event marries classical with mainstream and takes place in hip bars and clubs around the city. (See website for event calendar.)