The modernist marvel that Hamburg took to its heart: ‘Elphi’ turns five

·5-min read

As the €866m Elbphilharmonie celebrates its fifth anniversary, what could have been a costly mistake has become a symbol of the German city. London, take note

Five years ago the world felt a very different place. Pandemics belonged to disaster movies; the UK was reeling from the divisive Brexit vote but, with Theresa May newly installed as prime minister, the hope was that she might succeed in a soft Brexit and, in London; Simon Rattle’s imminent arrival as the London Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor was eagerly anticipated and along with it the city’s transformative new Centre for Music.

Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie opened in January 2017 with a glittering gala attended by celebrities and dignitaries. The spectacular concert hall was praised for its bold design, its superb acoustics and its “exceptionally exceptional exceptionalness”. But in London the hope – back then – was that the city’s own new concert hall would one day also be a world-leading arts venue to compete with Hamburg’s.

January 2022 and our world has been reshaped by Covid. Brexit was indeed “got done”; Simon Rattle came, saw, but didn’t conquer, and London’s Centre for Music – the “Tate Modern of classical music” has been quietly axed. Meanwhile, in Hamburg the Elbphilharmonie is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a week-long festival – plans much scaled back due to Covid restrictions, but with visiting orchestras including our own LSO, plus Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, and the actual anniversary date celebrated by a concert of exclusively contemporary music, it is ambitious and confident, and a remarkable achievement given the strictures of the country’s 2G+ rules.

When the building opened it was mired in controversy. More than six years late, it was many hundreds of millions of euros over budget – costs had risen tenfold, taking the final bill to €866m, of which €789m came from the city. None denied its architectural splendours, but had its long and agonising birth ensured that it was toxic, an eye-wateringly expensive white elephant funded by public money, programming classical music concerts for an elite; or would Hamburgians take it to their hearts and learn to love this modernist marvel perched on the banks of the Elbe?

The answer seems to be a resounding vote for the latter. With “Elphi”, as it is affectionately known, the city has a new centre of gravity. More than three million concert-goers to date have visited; concert audiences in the city have tripled and subscription concert-series subscribers have quadrupled. And, 80% of these audiences are from Hamburg itself. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that by spring of this year, 15 million will have visited the Plaza, the viewing platform 37 metres above ground level.

“It has become a symbol of the city,” says Alan Gilbert, the US-born principal conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie, the hall’s resident orchestra. “People may never set foot inside the walls of the concert hall or care about the prestigious visiting orchestras for whom the city is now a must-stop on their itineraries, but they can still feel that it is something about which the city can feel proud.”

As well as most of the world’s top orchestras and soloists, there have been concerts by stars from the wider musical world including Solange, the National, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Caetano Veloso, and – in surely one of the most spectacular concert locations ever – techno marching band Meute performed 110 metres up, on the roof (one of many concerts available to watch on YouTube).

And what then of the future? The gala concert that celebrated the anniversary featured four works by living composers, the prior evening’s concert also was weighted towards contemporary music, with Jörg Widmann sharing the bill with Beethoven. Few concert halls anywhere in the world would have the confidence to programme such an evening, let alone find every seat filled. But there’s plenty of work to be done still. Does a concert of contemporary music in 2022 that features only white male composers and a week in which every concert is conducted by a male conductor really represent a future-looking organisation? Gilbert acknowledges there’s room for improvement. “How to make sure we show enough representation of female composers and composers of colour … and not having enough female conductors is a huge factor in our conversations about programming,” he says. “It’s a new area and we have a long way to go. It’s about balance. We need to keep our advocacy of composers who have been important and add a new dimension to the way we think about things.”

The building’s environmental credentials, too, do not make for comfortable reading in 2022, but, unlike the programming, very little can be done about that. “The hall was planned in 2004-06, at a time when energy use and environmental questions were not so important. It’s not up to standards that it would be had it been planned 10 years later,” admits Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the venue’s general and artistic director.

“Obviously we do everything we can do with how we use resources, recycling garbage, and using only green energy,” he adds. An initiative in place since the launch offsets emissions (via non-profit organisation atmosfair) of air travel of visiting artists and staff business trips.

Heart-shaped illuminated windows in The Westin Hotel, part of the Elbphilharmonie, in March 2020.
Heart-shaped illuminated windows in The Westin Hotel, part of the Elbphilharmonie, in March 2020. Photograph: Christopher Tamcke/REX/Shutterstock

“But yes, the building itself could be greener, let’s put it that way. We can’t change the glass facade – one of the features of the building.” Indeed, the dazzling curved glass facade that catches the reflections of the sky, the water and the city lights does make this one of the architectural marvels of the 21st century.

Will the city get their money back? This seems unlikely, but the success of the project is not measurable in economic terms. “The idea that you have to justify such expenditure by showing the economic impact is fundamentally misguided,” says Gilbert. “But … I think it’s ultimately measurable that this has brought a new vitality into not just the cultural scene but the city itself. People are not talking so much now about the cost overruns because Hamburg has an icon.”

Stream the 11 January anniversary concert (featuring John Adams, Thomas Ades and Esa-Pekka Salonen) here. The Hamburg international music festival begins on 28 April.