Review: L.A. versus Berlin: Which is king of the classical world?

Music Critic

On the off chance that you haven’t noticed, Los Angeles is hot. The arts scene, in particular, is on fire. Classical music is a catalyst.

You can hardly open the New York Times or the New Yorker anymore without finding an L.A. angle. Often as not, and rightfully so, that means the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has become not only the envy of the circumscribed symphony world but also an exemplary creative model for arts organizations everywhere.

We’re the new Berlin! Even Berlin is paying attention. All of which means it is time for a reality check.


A week in Berlin this year was hardly enough for me to learn how we stack up against arguably the most progressive and impressive classical music capital, home to the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic, three exceptional opera companies and a scene that is bursting at the seams with new and traditional music.

Still, there can be no doubt that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has just finished a sensational season that no orchestra anywhere can match. Music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel probed the mysteries of life and death in Mahler’s Ninth, gave the premiere of the final version of Andrew Norman’s 40-minute “Play” (confirming the L.A. composer’s place as a leading voice of his thirtysomething generation) and put on exceptional cycles of Schubert symphonies and Bartók piano concertos. He also concluded the first tour of what Dudamel considers his proudest achievement in Los Angeles, the youth orchestra YOLA.

More new music likely came from the L.A. Phil than from all other major American orchestras combined. In the fall, the L.A. Phil hosted a 12-hour new music event in which it invited 15 of the most adventurous new music groups and organizations around town to turn practically every inch of Walt Disney Concert Hall’s indoor and outdoor spaces into venues for new work. Food trucks and hipsters took notice.

In the spring, the Reykjavík Festival filled the hall again with new music and more hipsters. John Adams’ 70th birthday was another theme. The orchestra has become a leading opera company as well, premiering the maddest of all madcap operas, Irish composer Gerald Barry’s “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” plus a new production of Adams’ “Nixon in China” and the first professional production of Lou Harrison’s “Young Caesar,” along with a gripping theatrical examination of Schubert song and Samuel Beckett short drama. The latter two were part of L.A. director Yuval Sharon’s new residency as artist-collaborator.

The orchestra may be searching for a new leader — former President and Chief Executive Deborah Borda left a month ago to see if she can enliven the New York Philharmonic, a little or a lot — but the L.A. Phil may still feel as though it’s taking over the city.

An indirect benefit is that other institutions have taken up the challenge of not letting the L.A. Phil be the only show in town. The Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, each for the first time this season, created festival-worthy productions. The chorus collaborated with director Peter Sellars for a revelatory staging of Orlando di Lasso’s neglected madrigal cycle “Lagrime di San Pietro” (Tears of St. Peter), while LACO — in collaboration with the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA — mounted Anne Bogart’s stirring production of Kurt Weill’s neglected “Lost in the Stars.”


Meanwhile, mixed though results can be, L.A. Opera, Long Beach Opera and Sharon’s own company, the Industry, are actively attempting to keep in operatic touch with the times.

Good as this sounds, there is Berlin.

Although they have little formal connection, the L.A. Phil and the Berlin Philharmonic seem practically sister orchestras. Berlin’s 1963 concert hall, the Philharmonie, with its inventive vineyard-style seating, was the direct inspiration for Disney Hall, and through July 30, the Getty Museum has an illuminating exhibit, “Berlin/Los Angeles: Space for Music,” that directly pairs Hans Scharoun’s and Frank Gehry’s architectural designs for the two halls.

At the moment, though, it seems as if much of the influence on the Berlin Phil is coming from L.A. Berlin’s outgoing music director, Simon Rattle, who served as an L.A. principal guest conductor in the 1980s, has modernized the institution with significant help from Sellars and Adams. The last couple of weeks, moreover, have seen the premiere of Andrew Norman’s children’s opera, “A Trip to the Moon,” a co-commission with the L.A. Phil, and appearances by Dudamel.

But let’s not get complacent. Here we are a tech town, yet it is the Berlin Phil that is the leader in the digital realm. Its “Digital Concert Hall” is far and away the highest quality webcast of any musical institution.

On my last trip, the pursuit was principally opera. I know of no better city for the advancement of the art form.

Berlin’s most important company, the Staatsoper, headed by Daniel Barenboim, may be the one other musical institution anywhere with the meaningful vision and expansive reach of the L.A. Phil. The company puts on a full range of operas and festivals of operas, frequently in productions by Europe’s most startling directors (who rarely, if ever, get to work in the stodgier and more frugal American companies). Barenboim has turned its orchestra into a world-class ensemble, with which he has just made a superb set of Bruckner symphony recordings.


The company is finally completing an extensive renovation of its historic opera house, and Barenboim has turned what had been a rehearsal and storage facility into the headquarters for his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the indispensable training ensemble for young Israeli and Arab musicians. Its new, small, oval-shaped Pierre Boulez hall designed by Gehry and equipped with acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota is a magical concert space that Barenboim has programmed imaginatively with almost daily concerts.

An overfilled musical life could be spent at the Staatsoper alone with its opera productions, ballets, orchestral and chamber concerts, youth programs, symposiums and quirky avant-garde events, like the re-creation of Stockhausen’s experimental opera “Originale,” which I saw fascinatingly mounted in a funky space.

It is encouraging, however, that L.A. Opera has begun a relationship with the provocative Australian director Barrie Kosky, who heads Berlin’s audacious Komische Oper. It presents people’s opera, staged in a fashionably ramshackle old Berlin theater. Ticket prices are low. Dress is encouraged to be casual or flashy. The audience is fabulously diverse, where Berlin’s cosmopolitan and flamboyant mingle with old East German opera lovers.

You can never quite know what you will get, and what I got from three nights at Komische Oper was hit and miss. The hit was Kosky’s revival of a forgotten jazz-age operetta, Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy” (Ball in the Savoy), staged as an ostentatiously gaudy extravaganza that somehow managed to cycle through unexpectedly deep emotions as well as leave a listener with a good year’s supply of ear worms embedded in a wonderful score.

A miss was “My Fair Lady,” in German (!), with Eliza Doolittle reminiscent of a country bumpkin and Henry Higgins a Herr Doctor Professor type. Somewhere in between was a double bill of the Stravinsky ballet “Petrushka” and the Ravel opera “L’enfant et les Sortilèges” by the same animation team responsible for the company’s enchantingly cinematic “Magic Flute” that L.A. Opera twice imported. This too is a delight, although the live-action animation novelty has worn off.

That leaves Deutsche Oper Berlin, which mostly sticks to less adventurous, big name fare. But the company needs to catch up. I caught its premiere of Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s “Edward II,” which seemed an attempt to lure away some of the attention from Komische Oper with a sexually explicit work about a persecuted, presumably gay British king. Komische Oper, however, has little to fear from Christof Loy’s gory production of a cliché-ridden opera with a gloomy modernist score.


L.A. may never come close to catching up with Berlin when it comes to opera, but we can take better advantage of local artists getting the lion’s share of their important work overseas. It has been a very long time since Sellars has had a major opera production in L.A. Sharon will direct Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival in 2018, and don’t be surprised if his name pops up in Berlin soon.

If you want to see baritone Rod Gilfry in something important, try Brett Dean’s new opera, “Hamlet,” at Glyndebourne in England. Not exactly an Angeleno but close, Kent Nagano, L.A. Opera’s first music director, is now enlivening Hamburg State Opera, where he has rethought Berg’s “Lulu,” incorporating Berg’s Violin Concerto into it.

Los Angeles needs a festival or three. To the rescue, the Music Center happens to be working on the prospect of a major international summer festival.

Next, we need a first-rate, moderate-size concert hall that can be as transformative as the new Boulez hall. For that, the Colburn School has one in mind across the street from Disney. But while that hall will face a new multiuse facility that Gehry has designed for the corner of 1st Street and Grand Avenue, Colburn has shown no interest yet in hiring Gehry. Berlin would know better.