The Concert Hall Upholding Pierre Boulez’s Legacy

The late conductor and composer’s friend Frank Gehry was entrusted with the design.

On a quiet stretch of Französische Straße in central Berlin, so-named in a time when French Protestant refugees comprised a full fifth of the city’s population, a Frenchman of note has taken up a sort of conspicuous residence—this time, in the form of a concert hall bearing his name.

Its story began a few years ago, when Frank Gehry took a trip to the German resort town of Baden-Baden to meet with his longtime friend Pierre Boulez, the famed conductor and composer. There, he presented a model of the building that would, in many ways, symbolize his legacy, but whose completion he would not live to see (he died in early 2016). “After we gave it to him, he sat in front of the model and just stared into it for hours,” Gehry said in a recent video interview, produced for the hall. On March 4, the Pierre Boulez Saal held its inaugural concert in honor of the late classical music icon, opening with his 1987 composition “Initiale.”

Though modest in size at 682 seats, the Pierre Boulez Saal is among the most ambitious spaces of its kind in both concept and mission. A collaboration between Gehry Partners and renowned Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, the hall places the performers in the center of a two-tiered, wraparound seating scheme that can be modified as per the specific needs of a given performance. This flexibility of form is meant to accommodate a range of genres, from chamber music to jazz-fusion to midsize orchestras.

That push for diversity isn’t just a gesture; two of the principle institutions behind the new concert hall are the Said-Barenboim Akademie, a school for young musicians from across the Middle East, and its spiritual progenitor, the West-East Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999 by academic Edward Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim to unite young Arab and Israeli musicians. Such humanistic underpinnings are what inspired both Gehry and Toyota to donate the time and effort they put into the endeavor over the five years it took to complete. For Gehry, Said and Barenboim’s project of reconciliation through music became a symbol of “something I believe in very deeply, and that is that people of different languages, different cultures, different politics, can ultimately speak to each other through the arts.” With the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, it seems they now have an excellent venue to start that conversation.

(Photos: Volker Kreidler)

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