Concert hall Kulturpalast Dresden – Was the Elbphilharmonie any better?

Kulturpalast opened in Dresden (Image Alliance / dpa – dpa-Zentralbild / Oliver Killig)

The first bars of Dmitriy Shostakovich’s “ceremonial editorial” provided the effect of reciprocating goosebumps. Many faces who were positively surprised in the audience. Michael Sanderling, conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, spoke then of a “happy moment”:

“The first impression was that the sound was very round, very warm and very earthy but also transparent – and that all the acoustic specifications we gave were fulfilled.”

A typical former building in the German Democratic Republic with poor acoustics

recovery. The opening of the Palace of Culture in Dresden in 1969 was an event of national significance in the German Democratic Republic. For city orchestra musicians, a long period of homelessness is over. Since 1945 they have been able to perform only in various temporary places. But the initial joy of the new home soon gave way to disappointment. In 1984, on the fifteenth anniversary of the Kulturpalast, Dieter Hartwig, then head of drama at the Philharmonie, expressed his disappointment with the poor acoustics of East German radio.

“We had the opportunity to give an opinion, make recommendations and give advice. Although at present, given the current situation, we wish we had done much more.”

The old hall was a classical multi-purpose building, and therefore not very suitable for discerning listening.

“It was designed on a very large scale, like a conference room. It has been removed so far from what one might wish for a concert hall we have taken at once: this would be new.”

Dutch Margaret Lautenbach, who, as the chief acoustic expert, played a major role in the design of the new auditorium’s acoustics. In the front rows of the old hall, the music sounded very loud and barely transparent, while in the back rows it was hard to hear. So the city council and city government decided to construct a partially new building: the exterior of the building and all rooms outside the Concert Hall must be returned to their original condition – as required by the preservation order. Because, as architect Stefan Schutz asserts, the Kulturpalast is a “symbol of oriental modernity” and a “built paradigm shift.”

Disturbances from the Stalinist ‘sugar baker’ style as we know it from Warsaw and Moscow and the shift to modernist construction, to the international style, to industrial construction.

The main foyer towards the market is fully glazed. One enters through the bronze front doors, adorned with carvings of Happy Socialist People, which soar among the doves of peace. What catches the eye on the main floor is a long frieze that perfectly represents a cross-section of the inhabitants of the GDR: a reading worker, alchemist, and violinist, among other things, can be seen. Memories of this “socialist aesthetic” can also be found indoors – in the completely redesigned Concert Hall. The seat upholstery takes on the color of the large rug in the hallway, “Coral”, a dark orange. The room is not round, as in the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, but a little oval. Ranks rise like vineyards, a concept already applied in 1963 by Hans Scharön at the Berlin Philharmonic. However, the stage is not in the middle, but is pushed back. Leipzig Gewandhaus seems to have been the inspiration for this. From September the new organ, currently being built by Hermann Eule of Bautzen in Saxony, will rise above the orchestra.

The new building creates moments of happiness in the orchestra

It is no coincidence that the concepts of many modern concert halls were incorporated into the new building. Architect Stefan Schutz and sound scientist Margaret Lautenbach accompanied the members of the Dresden Orchestra on numerous concert tours to many halls around the world and then asked them about their wishes and impressions. Band leader Michael Sanderling is also more than pleased with the visual result: he confirms that the musicians are now truly the center of attention.

“For an orchestra, which is used to being so far away from the audience and feeling so far from the crowd, this is a moment of happiness that you probably rarely experience in life.”

In terms of sound, the concept of the hall was based on local traditions. As in Prague or Vienna, complete transparency is not the hallmark of Dresden’s orchestral sound. Instead, there is always a transient stage in the strings, which brings a slight “blur” and ensures the orchestral sounds are incorporated, says conductor Michael Sanderling.

“It’s a warm, dark and earthy sound, but it has the ability to blend in. This means that individual sounds merge and everything is not so transparent that you hear nothing but little balls.”

A counter-proposal to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg?

The sound in the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie is considerably more transparent, but also richer in tones. Did you want to create a conscious counter-proposal in Dresden?

“I can’t judge that because I had no pleasure in judging the Elbphilharmonie myself.”

The difference from Hamburg can also be seen in the perception of noise in the room away from the music. For example, if you can hear the rustle of a candy wrapper from ten seats at the Elbphilharmonie, that’s not the case at the Kulturpalast. Acoustics expert Margriet Lautenbach explains what the standard is for her and her staff to achieve this goal of reducing background noise just a bit.

“For us, it’s always important how the applause sounds! If it looks like it’s raining everywhere, the hall is good. It should come from everywhere!”

While the walls of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg or the National Music Forum in Wroclaw, Poland, both of which opened over the past few months, have many hollow indents, this is not the case at Dresden’s Kulturpalast. Margriet Lautenbach assures that the wall covering is made of completely ordinary boards made of red beech.

“Smooth walls that reflect. Without this reflection, you wouldn’t have the early reflection that musicians need to be able to hear each other!”

The last construction work until shortly before the opening ceremony

The new auditorium passed its free script last Friday with a performance of the fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with soloists, the Dresden Philharmonic Choir, the MDR Radio Choir and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Michael Sanderling. While the audience in the stands admired the sound, there were also sounds from the floor that lost a certain brilliance in the heights. Here, however, it can still be reset with the help of a movable set of sails on the roof. For site manager Axel Walther, these are only small challenges in light of the difficulties his team had to overcome until shortly before the house reopened.

“We have a sprinkler system where the water ran out, we had to put the parquet back on, we had buckets of paint flipped over on the carpet, and all of a sudden we had lights that weren’t enough. But you don’t give up I hope until the end and that’s why you’ll be happier when you’re done .”

By the way, financially it remained somewhat within the target range of about 100 million euros. Federal Finance Minister Schäuble, who delivered the somewhat hilarious opening speech, praised it. Schäuble said if the building cost four times as much as planned, the federal president would probably have come, too.

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