Hamburg aims high

Germany’s second city aims to become a world cultural hub with the stunning Elbphilharmonie music hall.

Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall 311  (photo credit: Courtesy Hamburg Marketing)
Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Hamburg Marketing)
Mention Germany and most travelers think of Berlin’s museums and night spots, Munich’s beer halls and the awe-inspiring cathedral of Cologne. Often overlooked is Hamburg – the country’s second-largest city, Europe’s third-largest port and a burgeoning cultural center in its own right.
Hamburg (population 1.8 million) is Germany’s media hub, home to venerable publications like Der Spiegel, Die Welt and Die Zeit. A 1,200-year-old city, Hamburg was by the 19th century one of the world’s most important ports, strategically situated at the junction of the Elbe and Alster rivers and just kilometers from the North Sea.
For over a century the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg – to its use full name – was a key departure point for millions of Germans and Eastern Europeans, including Jews, departing for the New World.
The Port of Hamburg remains a focal point for the city, but the complex is currently undergoing a makeover that would render it unrecognizable to the tea and tobacco traders of old.
The flagship of the area’s renovation is the Elbphilharmonie, an extraordinary concert hall at the tip of the port complex, jutting out into the river and – at 110 meters – up into the sky. The project’s cornerstone was laid in 2007, and construction is expected to be completed within a few years. Building is behind-schedule and over-budget, but planners say the final result will put to rest any linger doubts over whether the city had overreached. Like the Sydney Opera House, they say, the Elbphilharmonie will serve as an icon for Hamburg that will be recognized the world over.
Hamburg’s musical history dates back to the 17th century.
Brahms and Mendelssohn were born in the city, and Handel, Strauss and Mahler all composed important work in it. Jazz greats like Count Basie and Duke Ellington passed through its Laeiszhalle – an intimate, century-old venue now run under joint management with the Elbphilharmonie – and The Beatles staged their first international performance at the now-defunct Star Club. But for years Hamburg lacked a large, modern, world-class concert hall to match the city’s storied pedigree – until now.
The base of the 200,000-ton Elbphilharmonie is the red-brick Kaispeicher (“Quay Storehouse”), a 19th-century former warehouse that will serve mainly as the venue’s car park. Soaring skywards from this base is an iridescent glass facade of more than a thousand curved window panels spreading over 21,000 square meters, or the length of three football fields.
The Elbphilharmonie’s plaza – sandwiched between the brick base and glass facade – offers stunning panoramic views of Hamburg Harbor, and is already open to the general public.
The design is the work of Herzog & de Meuron, the architectural firm behind Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium and Munich’s Allianz Arena, as well as the conversion of the the hulking Bankside Power Station into the new home for London’s Tate Modern museum. Private donors assisted by local authorities (Hamburg is a city-state with both municipal and state jurisdiction) provided the 240 million euros to finance the project.
Its stunning exterior notwithstanding, the heart of the Elbphilharmonie is its 2,150-seat Grand Hall, built in the now-fashionable “vineyard” style, with stage at center and balconies ascending, like terraces, around it.
Suspended from the ceiling is a cone-shaped sound reflector for distributing acoustics equally throughout the hall. Good acoustics are vital at any concert venue, but the Elbphilharmonie presents challenges of its own: music must be kept within the auditorium’s walls, and the noise of tooting ships kept outside them.
Complementing the Great Hall is 550-seat Recital Hall, and a smaller third chamber, the Kaistudio (Quay Studio), that will host rehearsals and experimental performances. Forty-five residential flats and a 250-room Sheraton Arabella luxury hotel are also planned for the premises.
“One will be able to enjoy classical music, jazz, world music, or pop; in short, the place to experience top musical performances. At the same time, here is where children and adolescents will be introduced to the world of classical music,” says Hamburg first mayor Olaf Scholz.
“The Elbphilharmonie is not to be an elite cultural temple, but an open house for young and old.”
Construction of the Elbphilharmonie is part of the wider HafenCity project, a 2.2-square-kilometer enterprise that is Europe’s largest inner-city development plan. The massive initiative will expand Hamburg’s downtown by converting old warehouses to offices, hotels, stores and residential buildings. Once complete – ground was broken ten years ago and building will last at least another decade – HafenCity will have expanded the city’s center by 40 percent, offering living space to 12,000 people and workplaces to 40,000 more.
HafenCity (Hafen means “port”) aims to be a model of sustainable living and working, part of a city-wide effort to embrace green technology – from eco-friendly home heating to low-emission public transport – that won Hamburg this year’s European Commission award as the Continent’s “Green Capital.” Hamburg’s artistic ambitions extend beyond the Elbphilharmonie – the city aspires to be nothing less than a world center of tourism, culture and leisure.
In February, the Laeiszhalle and other Hamburg music venues will host a 10-day “Sounds of Israel” festival, including top Israeli artists performing everything from classical to jazz and traditional Jewish fare. Featured performers include the classical pianist Elena Bashkirova, jazz bassist Avishai Cohen, the multiethnic Idan Raichel Project and oud virtuoso Yair Dalal.
Achinoam Nini, an award-winning singer who appears abroad as Noa, will perform with the acclaimed Hamburg Symphonic Orchestra. Nini is arguably best known abroad for singing the title song of Life is Beautiful, the 1997 Oscar-winning film portraying a Jewish-Italian man’s survival with his son in a Nazi concentration camp.
For many in Israel, travel to Germany remains a fraught proposition. Memories remain of the horrors of the Holocaust, an indelible tragedy which for many Jews and Israelis continues to define the relationship between the two countries. But the nearly five-decade relationship between Jerusalem and Berlin has seen Germany emerge as one of Israel’s closest allies in a Europe turning increasingly frosty to the Jewish state.
Political, military, cultural, commercial and scientific ties between the two nations are extensive, and so too is tourism: young Germans are a constant presence in Israeli volunteer programs, and their Israeli peers just as commonly spotted in the pubs of Berlin, Cologne and, of course, Hamburg.
Getting there Lufthansa operates regular flights from Ben-Gurion Airport to Hamburg via stopovers in Munich or Frankfurt, as do its subsidiaries Austrian Airlines and Swiss with stops in Vienna and Zurich respectively.
In June Lufthansa will inaugurate a twice-weekly route between Ben- Gurion and Berlin, with fast-rail service from the German capital to Hamburg in just an hour and a half.
The discount flier Air Berlin also operates direct and indirect flights to Hamburg several times a week.
Where to stay Adventurous travelers should consider The George, a gorgeous hotel in the St. Georg district, which – like the notorious St.
Pauli quarter in the western city – is a somewhat seedy area, formerly replete with drugs and sex workers but steadily gentrifying and now hosting lively bars, cafes and restaurants.
The George is a member of the German-based Design Hotels consortium, and its 125 rooms are exquisitely styled. Rates range from 139 euros for a small single room to 216 euros for a medium-sized double. Junior suites and full-size suites are also available, and free wireless andflatscreen satellite TV are available in all rooms.
Where to eat Guests at The George need not travel far for top-notch dining.
The hotel’s DaCaio restaurant offers fine Italian cuisine in an elegant setting (lunch entrees are between 7 and 20 euros) and the adjacent bar features a simpler menu with world-class German and international wines. Travelers interested in kosher dining may contact Chabad-Lubavitch in Hamburg at (+49) 404-142-4190.
The writer was a guest of Deutsche Lufthansa and Hamburg Marketing.