Reality TV…. in a theme by the Berliner Philharmoniker

October 30, 2008 at 3:42 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I caught the broadcast of “A Trip to Asia: On the Road with the Berlin Philharmonic” on BBC Four shown sometime in early September this year. Curious, BBC Four in Singapore? I ain’t gonna tell you how I did it. Anyway, I had expected it to be just a routine concert tour by a major European orchestra to asian cities. Wiener Philharmonic had done it, LSO had done it, Concertgebouw had done it,… and the list runs on. So no big deal isn’t it?

It didnt take long before I’d realised that this is no ordinary concert broadcast. The film basically provides a deconstruction of individual members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, through a series of interviews, peeling away the layers of confidence and exuberance which they portray through their concerts. Slowly, the film reveals some of the inner fears, tension, internal contradictions, and sometimes ghosts of the forgotten past. A horn player relating how she was “Ms Unpopularity” in school, a second violin speaks of “the struggles of not being able to pick up the subtlies of playing in an orchestra which had developed a rich culture”, of being ashamed of his asian heritage and not being about to assimilate into everybody else. The principal oboist shared how he used to stutter as a teenager, and how his instrument became his medium to becoming mainstream. Similar sentiments echoed through several more members from the various sections of the orchestra. Rattle speaks of the Jekyll and Hyde within his musicians. The concertmaster speaks of the sound of orchestra back in Karajan’s days still ringing in his ears and his continual quest in search of that sound again. The level of sheer frankness and directness, at times an overload of information, is just overwhelming and leaves much food for thought.

This concert tour is also the make-or-break period for three young budding musicians including a piccolo player, a percussionist and a violist. undertake their probation period upon passing the grueling auditions, where they were graded by the musicians, or “lifetime honorary members of the Berlin Philharmonic Society” they call it. Much of this has to do with the unique system of democracy which acts as a basic infrastructure for the workings of this orchestra. Members are elected by other members upon which their positions in this, arguably the best orchestra in the world, are confirmed and secured through another series of balloting, at the end of the probation period.

Some interesting anecdotes taken from the interviews:

Thomas Timm (Leader of 2nd violin): When I was young, I was described as what you might call being “odd”.

Noako Shimizu (Principal Viola) : My husband says, “Why do you make such an effort? No one hears you anyway. ” Those words could kill some of the others. They are so proud!!!

Raphael Haeger (Percussionist) :  Its a big change when someone new joins. Its like an adopted child suddenly joins a big family. Everybody has to shift along the table.

Albrecht Mayer (Principal oboe) : People often say that musicians are egocentric. What else should be be?

Wilfried Strehle (Viola): Karajan was right, when he said that the so-called weakest one at the back determines the standard and the quality.

Who got through the probation and who did not? Watch and find out.

Official website:

BBC synopsis:

Boom Town Media :

Berliner Philharmoniker’s website:



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  1. I stumbled across your blog while doing a bit of web research on antelope dendrobiums. I’m a composer (concert music) and orchid grower/judge currently living in Australia.

    Fascinating bit on the Berlin Philharmonic. To my knowledge this special has not yet aired in Australia.

    I’m keen to know what Ades score the one musician was talking about.

  2. This quote by Sir Simon Rattle I like best in the movie: “It’s an unkickable drug habit. And I’m happy to be a junky till the end of my days.

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