Review of Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts: Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Dario Sarlo

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This year, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts asks its audiences the question: “If you had a time machine…” Over the course of the month-long festival events will cover numerous historical events from the Big Bang onward. On Sunday afternoon (April 7) in Verizon Hall the time machine’s dial pointed to November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall came down.

Under the directorship of the Russian-American conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia put together a program “aiming to memorialize one of the defining events in 20th-century history.” The idea of a thematic concert of this nature proved to be engaging and attracted a large audience eager to be transported by the power of music.

The concert started with a performance of the vocalist Klaus Meine’s Wind of Change, the hit single from 1991 that topped the charts in Germany and reached the top five in the USA and UK. Orchestrated exquisitely by Daniel Capelletti, the familiar yearning melody set the atmosphere for the afternoon. Adding to the feeling that this was no ordinary orchestral concert, two screens positioned above the orchestra carried projected photographs of Berlin and the Wall by James B. Abbott. The dimmed lights in the hall (the musicians used stand lights) helped to focus attention on the two screens and the orchestra.

After the Meine, Solzhenitsyn returned to the stage with a microphone in hand and addressed the audience directly. He explained the ideas and symbolism behind the special program and how it had come about. He shared his own recollections from 1989, when, as a student in London, he heard about the fall of the wall. He spoke touchingly of his friend and colleague, the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who, after hearing of the event, flew to Berlin as soon as he could to perform solo Bach at Checkpoint Charlie.

The second and final piece in the first half was Mikhail Dmitrievich Smirnov’s Epitaph for the Victims of Communism (2000). If the concert’s opening work emphasized hope, this second one focused on the grim realities that prefaced the fall of the wall in Berlin. A descending scale on pizzicato lower strings functioned as the haunting background to the entire piece. At the end of the work there was an audible gulp of emotion from the audience as the exposed pizzicato scale descended one last time into the musical abyss. A beautiful and memorable composition that surely deserves wider dissemination.

After the interval, the choir and orchestra assembled ready for the most famous of all symphonies—Beethoven’s Ninth, a celebration of freedom and brotherhood, and the work that Bernstein performed on Christmas Day 1989 in Berlin. The musicians clearly enjoyed performing the work as much as the audience enjoyed hearing it. The soloists, positioned in the middle of the choir, included the soprano Katie Van Kooten, the mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, the tenor Adam Frandsen, and the bass baritone Luis Ledesma. Even when accompanied with orchestra and choir, the four vocalists could be heard throughout the venue.

The rousing final passages of the symphony, drawing on the assembled forces of soloists, choir, and full orchestra, provided an uplifting and inspiring finale to the wonderful afternoon of music and time travel.

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