Bernstein Brings ‘Ode to Freedom’ to Berlin : Music: The conductor celebrates recent historic changes in the East Bloc by leading musicians from the East, West in Beethoven’s Ninth, with revised text.


Leonard Bernstein took liberties with those giants of German culture, Beethoven and Schiller--and Berliners loved him for it. Conducting in a hastily arranged concert Saturday evening in West Berlin that celebrated political changes sweeping the East Bloc, Bernstein revised the text of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Under his baton, the familiar “Ode to Joy” became “Ode to Freedom.” In a statement read in German by singer Jan-Hendrik Rootering at the start of the concert, Bernstein extolled what he called a “historical moment sent from above.”

“I’m sure that Beethoven would have given his blessing,” the 71-year-old conductor said of the alterations in the text. Blessings came in abundance, at any rate, from the audience and orchestra members.

“Given the current situation here, nothing could be more appropriate than changing the text,” said one resident of East Germany, who was present at an open dress rehearsal held in the stately East Berlin Schauspielhaus Saturday afternoon. “It’s a gesture that fits in perfectly with the current times.”


The sellout concert Saturday evening was held in West Berlin’s futuristic Philharmonic concert hall. The orchestra, composed of musicians from both East and West Germany, included members representing the four allied powers: the New York Philharmonic, Kirov Orchestra, London Symphony and Orchestre de Paris.

Although “Freude” (joy) was replaced by “Freiheit” (freedom) for the concert, there was no lack of jubilation throughout Berlin this Christmas weekend, including that felt by Bernstein himself.

“This is the happiest Christmas of my life,” he said to German television on Saturday afternoon, upon arriving for the rehearsal at the Schauspielhaus.

Bernstein fairly jumped with joy while conducting the symphony’s most emphatic moments, and some in the audience barely suppressed a smile of delight at his vigor.

Introductory remarks were made by Rita Suessmuth, president of the West German Parliament, the Bundestag, who praised the changes in the East Bloc as “something we can barely fathom.”

“The Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria have all taken steps to more freedom, democracy and human rights, she said. “We’re celebrating in Berlin, and we’re celebrating with good cause, but this issue is bigger than the German question. It’s about freedom, peace and justice in the entire world.”


A repeat performance of the concert, interspersed with film footage of recent events in the East, will be broadcast today from East Germany. KCET Channel 28 will broadcast “Bernstein in East Berlin” at 8 p.m., KOCE Channel 50 at noon and KVCR Channel 24 at noon and again at 8:30 p.m.

There were other reasons for joy throughout Berlin: Bernstein’s Christmas present to the city coincided with the lifting of visa and mandatory money exchange requirements for visitors from the West to East Germany.

Revelers at the newly opened border crossing near the Brandenburg Gate celebrated the relaxation of restrictions through the wee hours Sunday morning, when an orgy of chiseling and hammering into the now-pockmarked wall by souvenir seekers continues.

Saturday evening’s concert was a gift not only for the city’s elite in the concert hall, but also for those in the streets of Berlin. The entire concert was transmitted over two 5-by-10-meter screens, transforming the Kurfurstendamm, West Berlin’s posh shopping avenue, into an outdoor music festival. Despite drizzling rain and temperatures just above freezing, a festive atmosphere reigned at the foot of the famous memorial church where the concert was held.

“This concert signaled a big change in Berlin,” said Thomas Scheunemann, one of the 20,000 who filled the streets to listen to the concert. “It shows that the city is no longer a peripheral area, but once again in the heart of Germany. This music in fact,” he added, “could become the new anthem of a reunited Germany.”

Even vendors at the nearby Christmas bazaar seemed satisfied with the event.

“The music doesn’t help business much--just the opposite, in fact,” said Paolo Giannonni, who was selling glass figurines at a stand near the concert site. “Nobody’s buying anything since they’re all listening to the concert, but it doesn’t matter much,” he said, “we get an hour of good music.”


Toward the concert’s end, the music was punctuated by the church bells ringing at midnight. The first “bravos” of the evening had already been heard when the maestro first took the stage, and the audience of 2,500 people rose to its feet in unison at the conclusion of the 1 1/2-hourlong concert with a roar of approval.

As Bernstein acknowledged his accolades, from overhead a screen projected his giant image as he blew a kiss to the crowd in the Kurfurstendamm.