By JOSHUA BARONE
BERLIN — It started with the scribble of an oval. Several years ago the architect Frank Gehry, known to begin his building projects with expressive and curvy sketches, drew the crude shape for Daniel Barenboim, the conductor and pianist who had enlisted him to design a new chamber music hall here.
Mr. Gehry forgot the drawing, he recalled during an interview with Mr. Barenboim at the completed concert hall, named the Pierre Boulez Saal, after the revolutionary composer and conductor who died last year at 90. It opens on Saturday with a sprawling three-hour concert by the Boulez Ensemble that spans musical history from Mozart to Mr. Boulez himself.
The conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, left, with the architect Frank Gehry Credit Thomas Rosenthal
Instead, when Mr. Gehry presented his first model to Mr. Barenboim, the hall had a conventional look: an orchestra on risers facing an auditorium. “He looked at me and said, ‘But Frank, this is so disappointing.’” Mr. Gehry said. “‘What happened to that sketch you gave me?’”
So Mr. Gehry, who designed the Cubist-like Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, returned to the oval shape, which in its finished form also fulfills a wish of Boulez’s to create a “salle modulable,” a modular 360-degree space in which the performers and audience (as many as 682 listeners here) can be reconfigured without compromising acoustics. The oval, it turns out, is also a convenient symbol for the theme of unity that pervades the hall.
In 1999, Mr. Barenboim and the scholar Edward Said (who died in 2003) founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young Arab and Israeli musicians. The fledgling Barenboim-Said Akademie, based in the building, was created in a similar spirit. The hall will also be used for visiting artists and for the Boulez Ensemble, a flexible group that will include West-Eastern Divan musicians and members of the Staatskapelle Berlin, another orchestra led by Mr. Barenboim.
The hall will host concerts with programs like those Boulez championed in his lifetime: Bach, for example, sharing the stage with 20th-century masters like Arnold Schoenberg and works by living composers. (The concert on Saturday includes two pieces by Boulez, as well as chamber works by Schubert, Mozart, Alban Berg and the contemporary composer Jörg Widmann.)
In the interview, Mr. Gehry and Mr. Barenboim discussed how they worked together to bring the “salle modulable” to life, where this hall fits into the music-rich city of Berlin and what they plan to do next. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The new Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. Credit Volker Kreidler
Why the insistence on an oval?
DANIEL BARENBOIM There are people who prefer straight lines, and there are people who prefer round things. I like the idea of the oval because sound is ephemeral, and when you produce sound with a bow or blow an instrument, unless you keep feeding it energy, it dies. That is the basic impression that music leaves on the audience, because you experience some kind of small death every time. If the hall is round, and the reverberation is slightly longer, you have the feeling that you can actually overcome this little death.
FRANK GEHRY And the intimacy.
BARENBOIM There is no stage. Normally you have two communities: the musicians and the public. You spend all your life trying to make the contact. And here suddenly we have a hall where there’s only one community.
As a musician who has performed in concert halls around the world, and as an architect with experience designing them, what problems were you two trying to avoid here?
GEHRY The orchestra has to feel the audience, the audience has to feel the orchestra. When they do that, the orchestra plays better, and the audience hears better.
BARENBOIM What Mr. Gehry has given is us somewhere where we don’t have to think about the hall. You get this with the oval. Then you rehearse the dynamics and balance the group for the music, not for the hall.
How does this fit in with the rest of Berlin’s many concert halls?
BARENBOIM Berlin needs a hall this size. Berlin has the most wonderful hall, the Philharmonie. Architects don’t respect any other architects’ works — and Mr. Gehry, he’s no exception. But they all agree on the Philharmonie.
GEHRY Yeah, I do.
BARENBOIM The Philharmonie is really quite extraordinary because it remains a symbol of modernism after more than 50 years. But there is no hall for more intimate music. I not only hope, I think the public will be able to sense all of these special things we’ve talked about. That there is one community, that something round is also an expression of something that is permanently connected.
GEHRY They’re going to be more intimately connected to the music. I remember concerts in L.A., people walked out on Boulez. I think this could invite you in more intimately than in a bigger hall.
Can we talk a little bit more about how the spirit of Boulez is alive in this hall?
BARENBOIM Pierre Boulez brought music in a new direction. Many composers wrote beautiful music, but there are very few composers who wrote beautiful music and changed the direction of music. Now it’s perfectly normal that you play Beethoven and Boulez and Schoenberg on same program. I don’t want a ghetto for contemporary music, like I don’t want a ghetto for Baroque. I don’t like ghettos. I’m Jewish; it’s not my thing. Therefore I wanted to make an ensemble of members of the West-Eastern Divan and the Staatskapelle.
GEHRY Can I say something about the West-Eastern Divan? They’re Israeli, Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Iranian. I followed them, during the middle of big news in Gaza. These kids were really conflicted, but listening to them play together was just magical. I was crying all day.
BARENBOIM It’s true. And everything else is not true. People talk about the West-Eastern Divan and say it’s an orchestra for peace. It isn’t. As wonderful as it is for them to play together, it does not make peace. Peace needs something else. What it does show is that if you are able to give equality, then they can work together.
Would you two collaborate again on another concert hall?
BARENBOIM I would love to see a hall like this — I don’t mean the same shape, but these qualities — for a full orchestra. That would be my dream.
GEHRY He’s got to hurry. I just turned 88.