Serendipity in Berlin

SOME of the best things that happen happen at the very last minute. Take that concert at West Berlin's Philharmonie, for example. It should have been on my agenda, of course, but due to lack of foresight, it wasn't. So when K"athe - one of the only two people in Berlin I know - phoned me at the hotel on my first morning there (I was still under the duvet sleeping off yesterday's air travel) and said, ``I was wondering, would you like to go to the Philharmonie tonight? Would you like me to try to get you a ticket?'' the idea was like an unearned reward. ``K"athe,'' I said without hesitation, ``yes, I would, very much. How did you know?''

The only problem was that after multiple phone calls and plenty of special pleading, K"athe was informed that all tickets were sold, full stop. Even the Press Officer was unable to help. ``Why didn't he let me know he was coming?'' she said. Quite.

``But, you know,'' K"athe said as she took me that afternoon on a sightseeing whisk around her favorite city (Berliners are like that), ``if you go early and queue, you will most likely get a return. But do go up to the window and explain how you are Press and everything.''

She dropped me back at the hotel and drove off in search of a flower shop to buy a single rose to take to a party she and her husband were attending that evening. I made a rushed meal, grabbed a taxi, and arrived at the Philharmonie to find that, although there was still over half an hour to go, a queue of hopefuls was already in attendance.

Actually it wasn't a very long queue, and it was moving forward. It was all very orderly. In a few minutes several people added themselves behind me and another two or three up front were handed tickets by the young woman behind the glass. They assumed the Smile of the Successful and walked off to join the ranks of Those Who Had Thought Ahead, who were now pouring through the main doors in increasing droves.

The Philharmonie, designed by H. Scharoun and built between 1960 and 1963, struck me as a rather unappealing building externally: It is an irregular, tentlike building in ochre-yellow concrete. But as soon as you are inside, the sense of broad spaces is impressive; even the lobby is wide and generous - as it needs to be to cater to the more than 2,300 people the hall seats.

Ten minutes left, and the queue seemed to have gotten stuck somehow. I had made a decision not to wave my press card about importunately: After all I wasn't intending to review the concert. But I was beginning to regret this. People kept going up to the press window and coming away with tickets. Then a man behind me said, ``I wish I had a press ticket.'' ``Yeah,'' his friend replied. They turned out to be American students studying in Vienna. We chatted. ``I think we'll still get tickets, don't you?'' I said. ``I sure hope so.''

I DIDN'T feel desperate. The idea of the concert was a bonus anyway. If I didn't get in, I didn't get in. It's best to be philosophical about luxuries that may not be granted.

But it suddenly became clear that this was not the attitude of everyone in the queue. A restlessness was making itself felt. People were making forays to the window for intense question-and-answer sessions with the smiling woman behind it. Then a woman with two seats to sell appeared near the back of the queue - and an eager black market developed instantly. The first-come-first-served principle fell by the wayside; it was haggling time. Some of us continued to stick to the sinking ship of the queue - having an obstinate faith, perhaps, in legitimate procedures. But desertion became fashionable. A young man with a black beard, behind the two American students, spotted a gathering around someone with tickets and charged off to make his bid. He was too late, though, and rejoined the queue - ahead of the Americans.

``Wasn't this guy behind us?'' asked one not too quietly.

``Yeah,'' confirmed the other a little more loudly, ``I believe this guy was be-hind us.''

No effect. The bearded one stared ahead of him as if trying to will the box office into capitulation. Eventually the students approached him directly on the subject. He looked incredulous for a second, but then stood behind them again.

``Only about three minutes to go,'' said one of the students. And at that moment the woman behind the glass pulled down the shutters, shaking her head to indicate an end to the matter. Since I had nothing to do now but find transport back to the hotel and spend the rest of the evening morosely watching television, I still stood around thinking I might as well wait until the extinction of all possibility, just in case. I was not alone in this. But the Americans waved goodbye and headed out of the doors.

The lobby had virtually emptied now, and presumably the conductor was just about to raise his baton. A couple of red-faced, breathless ticket-holders rushed in. Then another, even redder. Then nobody.

``Ah, well,'' I thought, ``it seemed a good idea at the time.'' I wandered out the door. There was one of the Americans, still hoping for the appearance of two unwanted seats. ``It's dog-eat-dog out here,'' he laughed, insulting the ca-ine species.

``I think we've had it,'' I smiled (at least I think I smiled). ``I'm going to get a taxi.'' And at that moment, from nowhere at all, a small man with the cheerful face of a retired schoolteacher whooshed past shouting, ``Eine! Eine!''

`HE'S got one,'' screamed the American, ``go to it, man!!'' and he shoved me (though I was already after him) more or less on top of this fairy-godmother-in-disguise. ``How much is it?'' I said. ``I don't know,'' he said, struggling to take his coat off and hunt for the ticket simultaneously. ``Here,'' I said, ``it says 20.00,'' and I whipped two tens out of my Filofax. ``Here.''

``That's too much,'' he said.

``Not at all! It's worth it!'' I said, not knowing what I said, I was so anxious that both of us might now go and spoil our chances by further delay. ``We talk later ...,'' he said, and we sped, like Zephyrus and Boreas, up the stairs.

The concert hadn't started. I had time to appraise the vastness of the place and look hopefully for the American students. There were still quite a number of empty single seats peppered about the auditorium. My benefactor had time to shed his coat and buy a program. He plumped down into the seat next to mine. ``O-oh!'' he said (he had a delightful way of extending his grasp of English). ``You know, try however hard I might, I can leave chez moi as early as possible, aber immer I am toujours arriving at the very last-most minute possible. Always!''

``All I can say is I'm glad you do!'' was all I could say. He pressed 5 marks on me. I resisted.

``But you paid too much,'' he said.

I pointed to the ``20.00'' printed on the ticket, handing him back his money.

``But that means, you know, the time!'' There the to-and-fro had to stop: The first violinist was making his entrance. ``He is new,'' whispered my benefactor, pocketing the coin at last. ``Ya, ya, he is - how you say it - Japonais, oui? yes? - and he is - '' here he bunched his fingers together, put them to his lips, and then threw them out in a floriferous gesture of high praise `` - wundersch"on, yes.''

The odd thing was that until that moment, I had given the scantest possible attention to what was being played that night. My sights had been set no higher than getting into that amazing concert hall (rightly described by its architect as rising in terraces around the orchestra ``like vineyards'') and submerging myself in whatever whoever had to offer.

The conductor appeared - not Herbert von Karajan, but Russian-born Semyon Bychkov. The vast hall fell silent. Then - Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C-minor began to sweep and surge across those vineyards of listening heads, for the next hour and a half.

I'd never heard Mahler's Second before. In fact, my acquaintance with Mahler was minimal. I can think of no better way to be introduced to him and to this gigantic work of his. The enormous orchestra pursued its way through themes both somber and grand, ecstatic and ebullient, toward the astonishment of the fifth and final movement (introduced by song in the fourth). Here seemingly unfathomable distances are transformed into overwhelming proximities. Utter quietness explodes into cataclysmic shocks. The Last Trump sounds and sounds again. Triumphant inevitabilities move us onward, ever onward. Softly, ineffably, the choir enters. The two sopranos rise over it: ``Rise up, yes, you will rise up ...!'' Wind and brass, strings and harps, bells and cymbals, the thunder and growl of the drums and then swell of the organ - a gigantic fabric of hope-filled, vital sound expanding and exulting.

And then suddenly it is finished.

I have never heard an audience gasp as this one did. There was no outburst of applause. A long space. Then tentative, slow clapping. And then it, like the music, steadily increased until it reached the high tide of a standing ovation.

My benefactor was overcome. ``Well, ya, you know, I have heard Mahler many times. In this very place, your own Sir John Barbirolli conducting - magnificent. Von Karajan, now, he has difficulties with Mahler, I think. But now this man tonight, he was, yes, he was master, he controls it, he knows, ya.'' The conductor shakes hands all around. My benefactor applauds even more vigorously. ``You know, I have heard Mahler and Mahler but this was - '' He turned to me. ``Well, I hope you have enjoyed it. This program is yours, I insist.'' And with profuse thanks I left him, still clapping and clapping.

Ten days later, back home, I went to buy a recording of Mahler's Second. It was only then that I discovered two things about it that added something even to that marvelous occasion.

First, I learned that its last movement is known - in spite of the composer's protests - as the ``Resurrection.'' And second, that Mahler's earliest substantial taste of popular success was when he conducted this symphony in its completeness for the first time. That was on Dec. 13, 1895. And it was in Berlin.

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