Seven days in berlin

Mary-Jane Richmond (second right), pictured here in rehearsal, was one of 1500 singers in the world choir. Picture by Dagmar Titsch
ON THE NIGHT: Composer Sir Karl Jenkins conducts a dress rehearsal of The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, in Berlin on November 2. Picture by Dagmar Titsch

An invitation from Wales took Mary-Jane Richmond across the world to Germany. She writes about her first few days in Berlin.

The email dropped into my mailbox on May 9. It was from Wales, an invitation from composer Sir Karl Jenkins to join a world choir to sing his work The Armed Man, conducted by him, in Berlin on November 2.

It was to be a special performance to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, on a date close to Armistice Day.

I could do that, I thought. That would get me to the other side of the world, when I had thought my travelling days were over. On my last long-haul flight in 2013, out of Paris through Seoul and home to Auckland, I’d been pretty definite about never doing that again. Too far, too hard.

But I’ve sung in a choir for many years, and it is a big part of my life. So this, the opportunity to sing under the baton of the composer, with choristers from all over the world, could get me on that plane again.

Which is how I found myself in the arrivals lounge at Tegel Airport in Berlin at 8pm on Monday, October 28, walking towards a man holding a card with my name on it. This was the taxi I had bought and paid for online in New Zealand, and he was going to deliver me to my hotel in former East Berlin.

I’d had an overnight stop in Doha, after an 18-hour flight from Auckland. Then a relatively short hop of six hours to Berlin.

The Upstahlboom Hotel where I stayed, also booked and paid for from New Zealand, breakfast included, was within walking distance of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, where we were to perform on Friday, November 2.

It was in Friedrichshain, the only central district where major vestiges of the GDR (East Germany) have survived. It is described as an artsy hub, with a lively nightlife, but it has also enjoyed rampant gentrification. From the ground- floor restaurant I enjoyed sights of cyclists in any number, parents with babies on board or in

pushchairs, and a yoga class in a well-lit studio on the first floor of a building opposite.

Arriving in my room that first night, it was close to 9pm and all I wanted was to boil the kettle and make myself a cup of tea. What kettle? What tea? To my alarm, no tea-making facilities were provided. (Later in my three-week trip away, my well-travelled cousin in Yorkshire told me that is how it is in European hotels). The week stretched ahead of me, seven mornings without a cuppa first thing, six nights without a night- time brew.

On that first night, I ended up going downstairs to the restaurant and asking for a pot of tea which I took back to my room. I dealt with the mornings by going to the restaurant earlyish and making myself a cup from the breakfast bar to take back to my room. First world problem solved.

That email in May went out to choirs all over the world, and singers from 30 countries turned up in Berlin. There were 1500 of us. From Gisborne, just me and my colleague Mark Peters.

Our first rehearsal was on Tuesday afternoon, in the foyer of the Mercedes- Benz Arena. I had found my way there in the morning on an exploratory outing. Over the next few days I got to know that route very well, out of my hotel in Gubener Strasse, down to the main thoroughfare of Warschauer Strasse, the two lanes divided by trams, over the railway line then down to a thoroughfare under the main road which took me directly to the arena.

This multi-purpose indoor sports arena opened in 2008. It overlooks a plaza lined with cafes and restaurants, and a fountain flanked by great columns featuring ever- changing images of coming events. Jets of water shoot out of the ground at different intervals and at different heights. It was a spectacular sight at night.

Across the road, on the banks of the River Spree, is the East Side Gallery — a series of murals painted directly on to the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall. The gallery has official status as a heritage-protected landmark.

The arena can hold 17,000 people and is home to a basketball club and a hockey club. The first band to perform there was Metallica, in September 2008.

A who’s who of popular music entertainers have followed, including Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Pearl Jam, the Beach Boys, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, One Direction and Rihanna.

The Tuesday afternoon rehearsal had been offered as an extra before the official rehearsals began, for individuals and small groups not coming as part of a choir. It was held in the foyer of the arena.

I met up with Mark just before the rehearsal began; he was straight off a flight from Hong Kong, a day later than intended owing to a date/time mix-up. Still, he was raring to go and we joined the 200-odd singers who had turned up.

This was our first encounter with chorus master Nicol Matt and his offsider, accompanist extraordinaire Alexander Koller. They quickly charmed us all, introducing us to novel vocal exercises — one memorable one involved singing the names of European cars. They were impressive with their energy, enthusiasm and wit; not to mention their musical skills.

Rehearsal over, Mark and I went our separate ways, he to find the airbnb accommodation he had booked and me to my hotel.

Travelling internationally on my own for the first time, as a silver-haired superannuitant (just), I had had no wish to be wandering the streets of Berlin at night (it was coming on to winter and the nights were drawing in) seeking out places to eat. I was never going to be happy with a week of takeaways so, apart from the handy location of my hotel, the fact that it had a restaurant on the ground floor was also a selling point.

And very good it was too. I enjoyed a delicious meal, with a glass of wine (it might have been two), before heading back to my room.

The breakfasts were impressive, such a choice, from the typical German offering of cold meats and pickles and cheeses, umpteen varieties of fresh rolls and pastries, croissants, wonderful dark German bread you had to slice yourself before popping in the toaster, and six or seven choices of cereal and different fruits. A stainless steel pitcher of freshly-made coffee was on each table and a choice of teas was available if that was your preference.

We had another rehearsal scheduled for Wednesday at 2pm. In the morning I walked up to Karl Marx Allee, a 2km long, 90m wide boulevard lined with eight-storey buildings designed in the wedding-cake style, the socialist classicism of the Soviet Union. It was a flagship building project of East Germany’s reconstruction programme after World War 2. At each end are dual towers, at Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz. For many years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the street was used for East Germany’s annual May Day parade, featuring thousands of soldiers along with tanks and other military vehicles to showcase the power and the glory of the communist government.

Along the way are information boards highlighting different aspects of the boulevard’s history and architecture.

I retraced my steps back to my hotel for a quick lunch before heading over to the Verti Music Hall, on the Mercedes Platz, for our first “proper” rehearsal. We were so many the organisers had split us into two groups for these rehearsals, and Mark and I were in Group A. Group B were scheduled for the 6pm-9pm slot.

Once again we were under the baton of Nicoll Matt, with Alexander at the keyboard, taking us through various warm-up exercises before launching into the different movements in The Armed Man.

In this first rehearsal I was sitting next to an English woman who had sung the work multiple times, including in another world choir in Carnegie Hall in New York. Her copy of the music was signed by Sir Karl, and she had written on the inside cover all the performances she had been involved in.

Most of us had performed the work before, in my case three times with the Gisborne Choral Society. When we first applied to sing in the Berlin event, we had to send a video of a performance we had been involved in and Mark was able to find a recording that Jane Egan, music teacher at Girls’ High, had made of our most recent one, at the opening of the refurbished War Memorial Theatre in 2015.

We had to be at the arena just after 9am the next day. Seating 1500 singers in the arena presented a logistics challenge for the organisers and, for we singers, a lot of standing around outside. As well, we were meant to have been allocated lanyards for ease of entry to the stadium but, for the altos anyway, that did not happen until Friday. Such hiccups did not bother me, the waiting around gave me the chance to chat to people in line. In this way I got to know a lovely group of Irish women from the Wicklow Choral Society, just out of Dublin. One told me she had bought her engagement ring in Wellington — obviously a good decision since the happy union had resulted in six children. She was not wearing the ring because she said it needed fixing, and she laughed that with six children, that was not a priority. Another, Mary O’Sullivan, was keen to take my email address and a week after Berlin she emailed inviting me to visit.

Luckily the weather was clear and dry the whole week, so waiting around outside was no hardship. It was definitely autumn, some of the trees had already shed their leaves while others were yellowing, and we needed our jackets and scarves. But it wasn’t bitterly cold, which was a blessing.

Finally we were seated in the vast stadium, and our rehearsal was under way. We were still accompanied by just a keyboard, but that evening we had a full rehearsal with the World Orchestra for Peace. For many of us, amateur singers from community choirs, the experience of singing with a full orchestra was one to be treasured.

Rehearsal over, I walked back to my hotel. It was dark, and after 9, but there were still many people about and I felt no qualms about being on my own, unescorted.

Next time: the performance, and a weekend in Berlin.

An invitation from Wales took Mary-Jane Richmond across the world to Germany. She writes about her first few days in Berlin.

The email dropped into my mailbox on May 9. It was from Wales, an invitation from composer Sir Karl Jenkins to join a world choir to sing his work The Armed Man, conducted by him, in Berlin on November 2.

It was to be a special performance to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, on a date close to Armistice Day.

I could do that, I thought. That would get me to the other side of the world, when I had thought my travelling days were over. On my last long-haul flight in 2013, out of Paris through Seoul and home to Auckland, I’d been pretty definite about never doing that again. Too far, too hard.

But I’ve sung in a choir for many years, and it is a big part of my life. So this, the opportunity to sing under the baton of the composer, with choristers from all over the world, could get me on that plane again.

Which is how I found myself in the arrivals lounge at Tegel Airport in Berlin at 8pm on Monday, October 28, walking towards a man holding a card with my name on it. This was the taxi I had bought and paid for online in New Zealand, and he was going to deliver me to my hotel in former East Berlin.

I’d had an overnight stop in Doha, after an 18-hour flight from Auckland. Then a relatively short hop of six hours to Berlin.

The Upstahlboom Hotel where I stayed, also booked and paid for from New Zealand, breakfast included, was within walking distance of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, where we were to perform on Friday, November 2.

It was in Friedrichshain, the only central district where major vestiges of the GDR (East Germany) have survived. It is described as an artsy hub, with a lively nightlife, but it has also enjoyed rampant gentrification. From the ground- floor restaurant I enjoyed sights of cyclists in any number, parents with babies on board or in

pushchairs, and a yoga class in a well-lit studio on the first floor of a building opposite.

Arriving in my room that first night, it was close to 9pm and all I wanted was to boil the kettle and make myself a cup of tea. What kettle? What tea? To my alarm, no tea-making facilities were provided. (Later in my three-week trip away, my well-travelled cousin in Yorkshire told me that is how it is in European hotels). The week stretched ahead of me, seven mornings without a cuppa first thing, six nights without a night- time brew.

On that first night, I ended up going downstairs to the restaurant and asking for a pot of tea which I took back to my room. I dealt with the mornings by going to the restaurant earlyish and making myself a cup from the breakfast bar to take back to my room. First world problem solved.

That email in May went out to choirs all over the world, and singers from 30 countries turned up in Berlin. There were 1500 of us. From Gisborne, just me and my colleague Mark Peters.

Our first rehearsal was on Tuesday afternoon, in the foyer of the Mercedes- Benz Arena. I had found my way there in the morning on an exploratory outing. Over the next few days I got to know that route very well, out of my hotel in Gubener Strasse, down to the main thoroughfare of Warschauer Strasse, the two lanes divided by trams, over the railway line then down to a thoroughfare under the main road which took me directly to the arena.

This multi-purpose indoor sports arena opened in 2008. It overlooks a plaza lined with cafes and restaurants, and a fountain flanked by great columns featuring ever- changing images of coming events. Jets of water shoot out of the ground at different intervals and at different heights. It was a spectacular sight at night.

Across the road, on the banks of the River Spree, is the East Side Gallery — a series of murals painted directly on to the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall. The gallery has official status as a heritage-protected landmark.

The arena can hold 17,000 people and is home to a basketball club and a hockey club. The first band to perform there was Metallica, in September 2008.

A who’s who of popular music entertainers have followed, including Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Pearl Jam, the Beach Boys, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, One Direction and Rihanna.

The Tuesday afternoon rehearsal had been offered as an extra before the official rehearsals began, for individuals and small groups not coming as part of a choir. It was held in the foyer of the arena.

I met up with Mark just before the rehearsal began; he was straight off a flight from Hong Kong, a day later than intended owing to a date/time mix-up. Still, he was raring to go and we joined the 200-odd singers who had turned up.

This was our first encounter with chorus master Nicol Matt and his offsider, accompanist extraordinaire Alexander Koller. They quickly charmed us all, introducing us to novel vocal exercises — one memorable one involved singing the names of European cars. They were impressive with their energy, enthusiasm and wit; not to mention their musical skills.

Rehearsal over, Mark and I went our separate ways, he to find the airbnb accommodation he had booked and me to my hotel.

Travelling internationally on my own for the first time, as a silver-haired superannuitant (just), I had had no wish to be wandering the streets of Berlin at night (it was coming on to winter and the nights were drawing in) seeking out places to eat. I was never going to be happy with a week of takeaways so, apart from the handy location of my hotel, the fact that it had a restaurant on the ground floor was also a selling point.

And very good it was too. I enjoyed a delicious meal, with a glass of wine (it might have been two), before heading back to my room.

The breakfasts were impressive, such a choice, from the typical German offering of cold meats and pickles and cheeses, umpteen varieties of fresh rolls and pastries, croissants, wonderful dark German bread you had to slice yourself before popping in the toaster, and six or seven choices of cereal and different fruits. A stainless steel pitcher of freshly-made coffee was on each table and a choice of teas was available if that was your preference.

We had another rehearsal scheduled for Wednesday at 2pm. In the morning I walked up to Karl Marx Allee, a 2km long, 90m wide boulevard lined with eight-storey buildings designed in the wedding-cake style, the socialist classicism of the Soviet Union. It was a flagship building project of East Germany’s reconstruction programme after World War 2. At each end are dual towers, at Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz. For many years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the street was used for East Germany’s annual May Day parade, featuring thousands of soldiers along with tanks and other military vehicles to showcase the power and the glory of the communist government.

Along the way are information boards highlighting different aspects of the boulevard’s history and architecture.

I retraced my steps back to my hotel for a quick lunch before heading over to the Verti Music Hall, on the Mercedes Platz, for our first “proper” rehearsal. We were so many the organisers had split us into two groups for these rehearsals, and Mark and I were in Group A. Group B were scheduled for the 6pm-9pm slot.

Once again we were under the baton of Nicoll Matt, with Alexander at the keyboard, taking us through various warm-up exercises before launching into the different movements in The Armed Man.

In this first rehearsal I was sitting next to an English woman who had sung the work multiple times, including in another world choir in Carnegie Hall in New York. Her copy of the music was signed by Sir Karl, and she had written on the inside cover all the performances she had been involved in.

Most of us had performed the work before, in my case three times with the Gisborne Choral Society. When we first applied to sing in the Berlin event, we had to send a video of a performance we had been involved in and Mark was able to find a recording that Jane Egan, music teacher at Girls’ High, had made of our most recent one, at the opening of the refurbished War Memorial Theatre in 2015.

We had to be at the arena just after 9am the next day. Seating 1500 singers in the arena presented a logistics challenge for the organisers and, for we singers, a lot of standing around outside. As well, we were meant to have been allocated lanyards for ease of entry to the stadium but, for the altos anyway, that did not happen until Friday. Such hiccups did not bother me, the waiting around gave me the chance to chat to people in line. In this way I got to know a lovely group of Irish women from the Wicklow Choral Society, just out of Dublin. One told me she had bought her engagement ring in Wellington — obviously a good decision since the happy union had resulted in six children. She was not wearing the ring because she said it needed fixing, and she laughed that with six children, that was not a priority. Another, Mary O’Sullivan, was keen to take my email address and a week after Berlin she emailed inviting me to visit.

Luckily the weather was clear and dry the whole week, so waiting around outside was no hardship. It was definitely autumn, some of the trees had already shed their leaves while others were yellowing, and we needed our jackets and scarves. But it wasn’t bitterly cold, which was a blessing.

Finally we were seated in the vast stadium, and our rehearsal was under way. We were still accompanied by just a keyboard, but that evening we had a full rehearsal with the World Orchestra for Peace. For many of us, amateur singers from community choirs, the experience of singing with a full orchestra was one to be treasured.

Rehearsal over, I walked back to my hotel. It was dark, and after 9, but there were still many people about and I felt no qualms about being on my own, unescorted.

Next time: the performance, and a weekend in Berlin.

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