Berlin Enchantment

Ontario For Architecture, Berlin for Jazz

Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr, Dresden

WORLDWIDE STAR-CHITECTURE: Earlier this year, when I was passing through town during the Toronto Film Festival, hordes were gathered outside the festival venues, high on the worldly aura of the cinematic and eager to catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and the like. My celebrity sighting mission was much more specific and doable: I had to see, for myself, in real time/real space, the architectural phenomenon of the Ontario Art Museum, renovated by Toronto-raised Frank Gehry in 2008, and turned into a wonderfully wild—though subtle by some of his standards—cockeyed post-post-Modernist rethink, or refresher, of a stately old structure.

Destination architecture allure can be habit-forming, and worth the effort, a lesson I relearned last month when in Berlin for my more-or-less annual trek to the fine off-season jazz festival there. On a day off, there was no resisting the temptation to hop on a train for a couple of hours to visit the newly-completely renovation of the old Dresden Museum of Military History, a hulking, formerly formal 19th century structure into which a massive metal-sheathed wedge has been thrust by big-thinking architect Daniel Libeskind. It appears as if an alien spaceship—call it the spaceship of pacifism—has landed smack dab in the middle of the antique edifice.

It’s a startling and senses-awakening sight to behold, especially seen “offline,” up close and personal and concrete. The drama continues when you head up the elevator and walk out into the “wedge,” a space called the Dresden “Blick” (“view”). The irony is not lost on us that the material and design itself is a paradox, a shear, diaphanous sheath of metal that allows transparency and inspiring views of the outside, but also a hard metal cage signifying oppression and aggression on whatever scale you’d like to consider.

Like the Ontario revamp, and even more dramatically, the underlying concept is a disruption and interruption of the old narrative, which complicates the plot and purpose of the old structure while reenergizing our response to it. Of course, in Dresden, the core subject is not art itself but the loaded topic of military history and technology, in a country still grappling with its past infamy as a bellicose ogre. Libeskind is famous for his Jewish Museum in Berlin, also with some jagged edges and disorienting spatial touches in the design, and is slated to work on the architectural monument at Ground Zero. He knows about socio-historical hot spots, and how to engage our sense of wonder and introspection, from haunted backdrop to imposing, reassuring reality.

REAL LIVE MUSIC: In an age when consciousness has gotten increasingly atomized, miniaturized and outsourced to online realities, the at least relatively hard and fast appeal of destination architecture and natural wonders—or even just “mundane” realities in the outside world—have taken on greater importance and impact. A similar desire for authentic experience affects the precious realm of live music, which will literally never be replaced by technological facsimiles and rerouting (which is why the HD simulcasts of opera give me pause, but the jury’s still out on that one).

At the Jazz Festival in Berlin, the programming is a balancing act on its own terms and off the Grid of the Usual. This year, for instance, a prominent theme in the program (the last of five years run by director/trombonist Nils Landgren) put the focus on Polish jazz, a focus which included two prominent source points: renowned and veteran trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, and his late, one-time ally in the salad days of the ‘60s, pianist and later noted film composer Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969), whose scored films such as Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby and crystallized attention on Polish jazz in the ‘60s, before his bizarre, untimely end.

On one rich three-set evening in the festival’s main Haus der Berliner Festspiele, things Polish ruled and wowed, headlined by Stanko’s revival of his old Komeda-centric project “Litania” (which premiered in Berlin fifteen years ago and more-or-less reignited Stanko’s then-dormant international career). Saxist-bandleader Adam Pierończyk’s also covered Komeda with his quintet, as did dazzling pianist Leszek Możdżer, in solo, and sometimes Liszt-ian, mode. Other Polish music of note here included the little big band savvy of pianist-composer Ola Tomaszewska.

Another mighty jazz-meets-film connection came in the form of one of the most memorable sets in this year’s festival, when master jazz accordionist Richard Galliano met the oeuvre of Federico Fellini’s court composer Nino Rota. Galliano’s fascinating Rota project, hopefully coming to a music outlet or download site near us, moved nimbly from such classic Fellini scores such as 8 ½ (e.g. the mortally fantastical circus finale), the pre-psychedelia of Juliet of the Spirits and La Strada (with Dave Douglas tooting Anthony Quinn’s horn, by proxy), and a jazz-redirected wisp of the Godfather theme.

Meanwhile, on the home front—once and globally removed—Santa Barbara’s own jazz hero Charles Lloyd was another of the ECM artists, like Stanko, who appeared here on the heels of an important new project, Athens Concert, featuring seasoned Greek vocalist Maria Farantouri as special guest. This is an intriguing detour for both artists involved, and the first time Lloyd has worked with a “female vocalist,” although the jazz world connotations of that phrase hardly touch the cool majesty of this master singer. Watch for this project, coming to the Lobero Theatre’s “Jazz at the Lobero” series in April.

As it turned out this year in Berlin, one of the strong and presumably unintended themes was the strength of American tenor saxists, on varying degrees of the familiarity scale. Lloyd is well-established by now, but some powerfully impressive playing was heard by other younger saxists the world needs to know more about, and sometimes as Yankees under the employ of Euro jazz bands. Gary Thomas (who we heard playing with Herbie Hancock at the Lobero Theatre several years ago), was commanding in Pierończyk’s band, and the ever-fascinating, lyrical, and Shorter-esque Mark Turner seized attention with each solo in the Galliano/Rota show.

And then there was Chris Cheek, a longtime favorite on the sideman sidelines, and sounding fantastic as the key soloist voice (along with fine guitarist Peter Bernstein) in Steve Swallow’s special quartet show, with his wife Carla Bley joining in on Hammond B-3 organ. Swallow’s way as a composer and musical thinker remains undersung in the ranks of important living jazz figures: his Berlin set was pure, melodic, wily, witty, and artfully impure, one of the finest things heard at the festival.

Berlin is a great city, still in transition from its old enforced east-west schism twenty-plus years later. You can weave your way down a semi-hidden street (a case where your smart phone’s GPS is mighty handy) and grab a meal in the 16th century eatery, Zur Letzten Instanz. The next, day, you head over to the contemporary art haven of the Hamburger Bahnhof, for some exposure to roomfuls of work by German genius Joseph Beuys or a temporary exhibit by crazed Bostonian Paul Leffoley.

In fact, while there, I ventured down and back into the long hallway and catacombs-y expanse of its remote wing for the show “Arkitektonika.” On the subject of architectural “being there,” at the very tail end of the building is Bruce Nauman’s weirdly bedazzling large installation “Room with My Soul Left Out, Room Does Not Care.” This mystical 1984 work is now ensconced in this space, like a shrine of a half-ironic vacuum of a space.

This literally dark, black-walled, cruciform-shaped enclosure is illuminated only by dim yellow lights—and also lightened by Nauman’s absurdist humor. An existential hang zone, it is somehow both comforting and discomforting, and in the center of the layout, a large empty space is visible beneath your feet through a grate. In a way that’s reminiscent of Libeskind’s scheme in Dresden, the suggestion is that it’s both an empty cage and a resonating chamber for the overall structure. Nauman’s strangely mesmerizing hollow corridors, plunked down in a remote corner of this old reformed train station by the one-time east-west firing line, soothe and invite spiritual reflection, of a secular sort. These are a few of my favorite things Berlin-ish, this trip around.


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