Foto: Thies Raetzke

«Suddenly there were all these colors!»

Our orchestra played at the Elbphilharmonie for three days. Here we tell what we experienced in the concerts and otherwise.

Ursula Sarnthein, Susanne Kübler, Michaela Braun

Thursday, 10 November, 3 p.m.

The backstage passes for the Elbphilharmonie have been distributed, the relevant salad/pizza/sandwich stalls in Hamburg's harbor district have been spotted and tried out, and the rooms have also been taken. Not all at once though, the hotel distributed the rooms alphabetically, in brackets: A and Z first, the musicians with surnames starting with H or K had to wait a bit.

But now everything is ready for the Hamburg residency of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich: the musicians will play four concerts in three days in the Elbphilharmonie. The anticipation is great, even Music Director Paavo Järvi is "very excited". The architecture, the acoustics – it is a special hall. Today at 6:45 p.m., there will be a short rehearsal, and at 8 p.m. the first concert will begin, with works by Messiaen and Bruckner.

For all those who cannot be there, we will tell you in the coming days in this "Elphi Blog" how things are going in Hamburg, on stage and backstage. The violist Ursula Sarnthein will make the beginning. Until then, here is an Elbphilharmonie podcast with Paavo Järvi. (SK)


Thursday, 10 November, 11:30 p.m.

What is it like for Tonhalle musicians to leave the familiar stage and go on the road? Violist Ursula Sarnthein reports:

Feelings while packing

For me, the tour always begins with packing the containers. There is a feeling of anticipation when I pack my concert dresses into their covers, put the shoes and other necessities into a bag and go with them to the vestibule. There I find the ladies' clothes container with my name on it and put my things in the compartment with the right number and hang up the clothes bag. Now I find the viola container, put the instrument in it and close the padlock. It's a strange feeling that our things now travel by truck lengthwise through Germany ... So far, everything has always arrived in one piece.


I often stand in queues when we are on tour. When dropping off the suitcases, when waiting for the access badges for the Elbphilharmonie, at the elevator to get into the room together with 100 colleagues in the hotel ... Actually, I don't like to stand in line, but on tour there are always these nice coincidental moments when you find yourself among colleagues who usually sit at the other end of the stage and whom you often only pass by in greeting in the daily rehearsal routine in Zurich. You get to know new people, do an "update" with the old acquaintances and crack a bunch of jokes with each other to pass the time.

Sarnthein Saurer Sanderell

Lists belong to the tour organization. Especially the alphabetical one with the last names is very important. It leads to the fact that one always finds oneself with the same colleagues in the same row of seats. I have had my friendly seat neighbors Heinz Saurer and Frank Sanderell for 17 years now, at which time I changed my name from H to S. Even the hotel rooms are often on the same floor. I'm standing in the hotel corridor – a door opens – and out comes someone whose name starts with S, just like mine.

Arrival at the Elbphilharmonie

There's something special about turning the corner at the Elbphilharmonie and walking under the harbor cranes to the artists' entrance. Seagulls are screeching, the wind is blowing around your nose, and up ahead, there's our truck from Zurich. Right next to it is the artist's entrance. The badge beeps, I can enter, the elevator whizzes up to the 12th floor – and as soon as the door opens, I have this overwhelming view of the harbor, softened at the edge by the speckled frame of the special Elbphilharmonie windows.


Once arrived, the search begins. Where are the containers? I see the cello containers here, in front of which their owners are already cavorting – but where are the violas? Oh yes, there in front by the cafeteria! Next step: Where is the dressing room and the clothes container? Slips of paper hung up by friendly orchestra technicians point the way: I find them too in the end, down a flight of stairs and around the corner a few times.

Each instrument group has its own room here - ours is labeled "Viola," and only the viola group has a badge that opens the door to this room with a sensational view. You feel a bit like you're on a cruise ship, the Elbphilharmonie definitely has something of a luxury liner!


I've been here twice before, but I am amazed again today when I step out of the backstage area onto the stage. The sheer height, and the curved galleries with their shell-shaped reliefs never cease to amaze me. In the Tonhalle, a good part of the audience is below the stage; here, we musicians are at the bottom, sending our sounds into the airy heights. I particularly like the sound in the Elbphilharmonie because I can not only hear myself much better here than in Zurich, but also the sound of the colleagues at the desks next to me – that gives a particularly nice feeling of interaction. After the densely packed rehearsal, a slight nervousness sets in - I am excited and wide awake.

And then it becomes magical once again. The orchestra transforms into a single body of sound during Messiaen and Bruckner's 6th, everyone pulls together and it glows under Paavo's direction. A great performance by the colleagues in all instrumental groups!

My personal moment of happiness today: the fourth movement from Messiaen's "L'Ascension", a pure string movement, where you get everything out of your instrument and put it into the overall sound – goosebumps.

I am looking forward to tomorrow!

Foto: Daniel Dittus

Friday, 11 November, 8:30 a.m.

Day two of the Hamburg residency, well before eight o'clock the remarkably dim breakfast room in the hotel is full of musicians. The day is scheduled: rehearsal at 9:45 a.m., student concert at 11 a.m., then rehearsal for the evening. Before the concert, there are a few hours "at leisure": time to explore Hamburg. Or, equally tempting: to get some sleep.

Because yesterday was exciting, stimulating, exhausting. That it "glowed" in the orchestra in the first concert, as violist Ursula Sarnthein wrote: This was also noticeable in the audience. An emotional silence after Messiaen, loud and long cheers after Bruckner – the Hamburg audience in the full Elphi received the Zurich guests with much warmth and enthusiasm.

By now, it is indeed a Hamburg audience; the masses of tourists who wanted to see the Elbphilharmonie after its opening in 2017 now make up only 13 percent. And it's a remarkably mixed crowd, in terms of age as well as fashion: the spectrum ranges from very casual to very chic.

Everyone was united in their enthusiasm. And afterwards, as they left the Elphi on the plaza, they let the Hamburg wind blow through them in unison. (SK)


Friday, 11 November, 3 p.m.

Imagine the audience naked or think of the last walk: someone from the orchestra once said that this is how you can achieve inner peace on the podium. But what is it like with students? How they find inner peace out of school stress was the topic of our school concert in the Elbphilharmonie, where 1200 kids filled the stands.

There was music by Arvo Pärt and Anton Bruckner – and poetry slam texts by 13- to 14-year-old Hamburg students on the subject. School in the head, always and constantly. Learning, running, powering. Everything is too loud. Where is the space for inner peace? That's actually a great thing – but how do the children get out of this cycle that only demands? Building a fantasy world can help, the presenter advised; it can take away the fear of things that can't be classified. And this world remains, no one can take it away from you; you should always remember this when you are under stress.

If only it were that simple! It is a highly complex issue that concerns us all more than ever, not only the students. But one way or another, in the concert they kept clapping their hands with enthusiasm, also a kind of inner peace. It was a bit like when a ball approaches the goal, the cheers erupt, but then there is no goal, but the game continues.

Everyday life will also go on, it will get too noisy in the head again. But maybe the music will become a fantasy world where you can retreat ... (MB)

Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus

Friday, 11 November, 11 p.m.

In most concert halls, the hall is far more magnificent than the backstage area; in the Tonhalle Zürich, too, the backstage area has little of the grandeur of the main hall. In the Elbphilharmonie, things are different. There, on the 12th of 26 floors, there is a backstage zone that could almost be called a lounge: Stylish wood, high windows, view of the harbor, cafeteria with Nordic-style upholstered furniture.

7:45 p.m.: Soon the concert begins, the backstage lounge fills up with musicians and sounds: the wind instruments are not supposed to cool down again after the warm-up.

8 p.m.: Orchestra technician Matthias Lehmann waves the musicians to the door leading into the hall. On the screens behind the stage, you can watch them move from one world to another, from the private backstage, so to speak, to the public concert hall. Even the violinist, who dashes around the corner at the last moment and just manages to join the group without a gap, doesn't seem a bit breathless as she makes her way across the podium. Then Paavo Järvi arrives. Arvo Pärt's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" begins.

8:10 p.m.: The Pärt piece is already over. Applause, Paavo leaves the hall. Then Christian Hartmann, who played the bell, also leaves; for him the concert is over. He receives a special applause – how good the atmosphere is in the hall is also noticeable.

8:11 p.m.: Part two of the concert begins, and it is considerably longer than the first: Bruckner's 8th Symphony lasts about 80 minutes. During this time, little happens backstage. But not nothing at all.

8:20 p.m.: An orchestra technician from the Elbphilharmonie is there, showing the Zurich colleagues lights for music stands, wireless. They discuss the advantages and disadvantages, test how bright they are. Not bad. Not perfect either. But if you ever need new ones, they're certainly worth considering.

8:40 p.m.: In the cafeteria, there is sweet potato soup for the orchestra technicians; they didn't have time to eat before the concert. Three of them have come along, as they always do at guest performances; this time they are Matthias Lehmann, Martin Kozel and Bernhard Kopp. It's a comparatively quiet job here, they say; unlike classical tours, this Hamburg residency eliminates the packing between several stops. And even the lineup on stage remains pretty much the same over the three days, despite different programs.

8:45 p.m.: On the wall of the cafeteria are two screens, one for the large hall, the other for the small hall of the Elbphilharmonie. On the left, you can see and hear Bruckner's 8th Symphony; on the right, the presumably jazzy, swinging concert of an incessantly swaying choir is presented as a toneless pantomime. The combination would have deserved an award in the field of absurd theater.

8:51 p.m.: Matthias Lehmann jumps up, now the famous cymbal strike is just due, it is photographed on the screen and sent to the colleagues in Zurich.

8:58 p.m.: Some female listeners in the first rows of the small hall also jump up, they are now bobbing along. And know nothing of the fact that they are doing it here on the screen to Bruckner's majestic sounds.

9:15 p.m.: In the hall, they have meanwhile reached the last movement; backstage, they are getting ready.

9:27 p.m.: Applause in the hall, the final choreography begins, and it also lasts a long time this evening. The Hamburg orchestra technician says that it is considered a great success in the Elbphilharmonie when a conductor is called out three times. With Paavo, it's four times.

9:30 p.m.: The musicians stream into the lounge, it went well, they say, the intensity of the first evening has also set in on the second. Also thanks to the acoustics: "You can hear yourself and the others so well here!" On the podium, only Paavo's score remains from the performance. Then it, too, is cleared away.

10:30 p.m.: After-party at the Hamburg Feuerschiff, The Management Symphony has invited. Before the summer break, the Hamburg-based orchestra project for business people had been a guest at the Tonhalle in Zurich, and now they are meeting again. And here is the opportunity to tell the most dramatic story of this tour: On the outward journey, a musician had such an unfortunate fall on an escalator that his instrument now has to be repaired. Short excitement - because how do you get a good replacement instrument within only a few hours? The answer was: through contacts at The Management Symphony. They found not just one instrument, but three. The musician could choose. And on the first evening he played as if nothing had happened. (SK)

Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus

Saturday, 12 November, 11 a.m.

Third day of the Hamburg residency, last rehearsal before the last concert. First comes Bruckner's 3rd Symphony, and yes, you can tell how comfortable the orchestra feels in this hall. The second half then belongs to Mozart and Fazıl Say: "Rock'n'Roll," an audience member remarked afterwards, and not without good reason.

Meanwhile, violist Ursula Sarnthein was drawn to the heights:

"In Mozart's piano concerto, a smaller cast plays, which means that some musicians – including me – are free, even during the pre-rehearsal in the morning. From the stage, I've been fascinated the whole time by how far away the top gallery is, and I wonder what it sounds like up there. So I take the opportunity and climb the stairs in the auditorium as far up as I can during the first notes of Mozart's piano concerto. Then through two heavy doors out into the audience foyer, where I am again delighted by the fantastic view of the harbor – today even with a blue sky and the Elbe glistening in the sun. Up another flight of stairs, another heavy door, one last flight of stairs, and then I'm standing directly under the ceiling of the Elbphilharmonie.

It is dizzying how far away the orchestra and Fazıl Say are making music below me. What amazes me is that I still feel close to the stage. The view down to the stage is just as fascinating as the view up from below, and I actually hear everything just as crystal clear as if I were sitting down in the stalls. What a building!"

Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus

Saturday, 12 November, 11 pm

Even a derniere can be a premiere. The third concert of our Hamburg residency was the first at which Peter Tschentscher, the First Mayor of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, sat in the audience. This was also remarkable because in his short speech on the podium he did not spout any politician's phrases, but greeted the guests from Switzerland in an extremely friendly manner and also took the opportunity to praise the good cooperation with the Mayor of Zurich, Corine Mauch.

And this concert offered yet another premiere: after Arvo Pärt's infinitely tender "Fratres," Fazıl Say made his debut as the focus artist of the current season - with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. In March, he will also play it at the Tonhalle Zurich, and if he is only in nearly as good a mood as he was here in Hamburg, one can already look forward to these concerts. To a deeply melancholic, soft, intimate Adagio, for example. To an interplay with the orchestra in which it seemed as if he would prefer to carry his notes personally into the ensemble. And perhaps also to his "Black Earth" as an encore, which divided the Hamburg audience into the enraptured and the irritated – but made it unmistakably clear what an idiosyncratic spirit is sitting behind the keys here.

The grand finale belonged once again to Bruckner, Symphony No. 3, which had been performed four times before the guest performance in Zurich. The fact that the presenter accidentally announced the work as Bruckner's Fifth was not entirely wrong in this sense. (SK)

Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus
Foto: Daniel Dittus
Hans Syz, Paavo Järvi, Lukas S. Risi
Burkhard Glashoff, Ilona Schmiel, Christoph Lieben-Seutter

Sunday, 13 November, 10:30 a.m.

Journey home to Zurich – time for the first reviews of three intensive days:

"The Elbphilharmonie is one of the halls I know best. I am very often here with other orchestras, which was an enormous advantage for our performances. The hall is very different from the Tonhalle Zürich. But we felt very quickly 'at home' and in line with the acoustics." Paavo Järvi, Music Director

"We all had a certain respect for this hall, for these acoustics. And the repertoire was demanding. But then it just went beautifully." David Bruchez-Lalli, solo trombone

"It was very pleasant that it was a residency and not a normal tour. When I think that otherwise we had to travel on again at 6:30 a.m. each morning to the next stop ..." Andreas Sami, cello

"We really had time to arrive in the city and in the hall. After three days, it almost felt a bit like being at home here." Ursula Sarnthein, viola

"The conditions were perfect. Three days in such a place, with the hotel within walking distance: that was downright chilling, despite a demanding program. I have heard that they are thinking about repeating this residency. I'd be all for that!" Paul Handschke, solo violoncello

"Great hotel, very playful." Oliver Corchia, double bass

"The people at the Elbphilharmonie were great, totally nice. We really felt welcome. The fact that the concerts were such a grand success certainly had something to do with it." Susanne Arlt, Tour Planning

"We have probably never played Bruckner's Sixth as well as we did here. It went as if by itself." Herbert Kistler, trumpet

"At our first concert in the Elbphilharmonie in 2018, I found the acoustics almost uncomfortably clean. I have the impression that they changed something there in the meantime: This time the sound had much more warmth." Isaac Duarte, Oboe

"You could hear yourself so well on the podium. It was like having a veil of gray removed, there were suddenly all these colors!" Andrea Wennberg, viola

"The way the young people in the school concert stepped up to the microphone and delivered their very personal and sometimes really good lyrics about stress: it really touched me." Isabel Neligan, 2nd violin

"When Bruckner's Third began in the last concert, I could finally listen in a relaxed way: No one got sick in Hamburg!" Anjali Susanne Fischer, HRM Orchestra

Translated with

published: 10.11.2022