Elbphilharmonie Grand Opening

5 Years of Elbphilharmonie

The Elbphilharmonie celebrates its birthday – time to look back.

Happy Birthday! :The Elbphilharmonie celebrates its fifth birthday

It's better to make sparing use of superlatives. But no-one can deny that the opening of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg exactly five years ago  marked the dawn of a new era. On the evening of 11 January 2017, the pride and delight of musicians and the public alike at finally taking possession of their new concert hall intensified into a concert moment of exuberant energy. It was like the first firing level of a rocket that launched the Elbphilharmonie with a thunderous roar into lofty orbit, into the very first rank of international cultural venues.

Gala concert: 5 Years of the Elbphilharmonie

The gala concert given by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under its chief conductor Alan Gilbert was broadcast as a live stream on 11 January at 20.00.

11 January 2017: Opening Night

Lichtshow zur Eröffnung der Elbphilharmonie Lichtshow zur Eröffnung der Elbphilharmonie © Ralph Larmann
Angela Merkel und Joachim Sauer auf der »Tube« Angela Merkel und Joachim Sauer auf der »Tube« © Bertold Fabricius
Eröffnungskonzert Eröffnungskonzert © Bertold Fabricius
Christoph Lieben-Seutter, Norbert Lammert, Joachim Gauck, Olaf Scholz, Angela Merkel und Andreas Voßkuhle auf der Plaza der Elbphilharmonie Hamburg Christoph Lieben-Seutter, Norbert Lammert, Joachim Gauck, Olaf Scholz, Angela Merkel und Andreas Voßkuhle auf der Plaza der Elbphilharmonie Hamburg © Bertold Fabricius
Der Akustiker Yasuhisa Toyota Der Akustiker Yasuhisa Toyota © Bertold Fabricius
Johanna Wokalek und Thomas Hengelbrock Johanna Wokalek und Thomas Hengelbrock © Bertold Fabricius

Strahlende Visionen

It was nothing if not a daring vision that these four people came up with: Hamburg project manager Alexander Gérard, his wife, art historian Jana Marko, and two of his erstwhile fellow students, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, well-known as the architects of the Tate Modern in London. There had long been discussion about what to do with the striking warehouse standing at the tip of the new HafenCity development. Built on wooden piles driven into the riverbed, it was once used for storing sacks of cocoa and coffee until the rise of container shipping robbed it of its function. The project was first presented in 2003, and both the city and the world's culture scene were electrified by the idea of converting the rectangular brick building into the base for a concert hall, a superstructure  whose glass façade would soar like a glittering wave to a height of 100 metres above the water.

When this vision became reality in 2017, shaking off the shadow of the agonisingly long construction phase, public enthusiasm for the new building knew no bounds. And the journalists were equally euphoric.


»A stroke of luck for music, for architecture, for Hamburg and Germany!«

Die Welt


British daily The Telegraph placed the Elbphilharmonie on a level with the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, while the Times felt obliged to admit that there was »no comparable concert hall« in London. »The whole world envies Hamburg the Elbphilharmonie«, wrote the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times predicted that Hamburg would enjoy a »Bilbao effect«, referring to the new Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city designed by Frank Gehry.

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg
Elbphilharmonie Hamburg © Maxim Schulz

The Elphi effect

It's true that the Elbphilharmonie's success is so overwhelming that it really cannot be expressed in a single sentence or a number. The clearest statement is undoubtedly made by a total of some 2.9 million concertgoers in the three years that lay between the opening in 2017 and the Corona standstill that started in March 2020. In the meantime, this figure exceeds 3 million people who have enjoyed more than 2,500 concerts; the Grand Hall is sold out practically every night. If we add the historic Laeiszhalle, which has also profited from the Elbphilharmonie boom, we are looking at 1.25 million visitors a year, most of whom, incidentally, are not tourists but people from the Hamburg metropolitan area. This represents a trebling in the total number of concertgoers, while the number of subscribers has quadrupled. The Plaza, which offers a marvellous panoramic view of the Hamburg docklands from the point where the old brick warehouse is joined to the modern glass superstructure, will welcome its 15 millionth visitor in March 2022.

Elbphilharmonie Plaza
Elbphilharmonie Plaza © Maxim Schulz

Instead of looking at the numbers, we can take a glance at the concert calendar, which confirms that the Elbphilharmonie programme is unique in terms of quality, variety and density. No other venue in the world can boast such a regular stream of top symphony orchestras, conductors and soloists. A guest appearance at the Elbphilharmonie is almost a must for today's classical-music elite. It goes without saying that Hamburg's own orchestras, first and foremost the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, contribute to this classy portfolio. As orchestra in residence at the Grand Hall, the NDR ensemble forms a kind of backbone to the programme with its subscription concerts and with spectacular special projects such as György Ligeti's opera »Le Grand Macabre«. Further contributions come from Ensemble Resonanz as resident ensemble at the Recital Hall, from the Philharmonic State Orchestra and the Symphoniker Hamburg.

At the same time, there is a lot more than just classical music on the programme. Elbphilharmonie audiences can also hear jazz, pop, music from all over the world as well as lovingly curated family concerts. Then there are festivals with a wide variety of themes: versatile artists like sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar or the performance artist Laurie Anderson, regional focuses such as Syria, Poland, Iceland or the Caucasus, or composers like Charles Ives and György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis and George Benjamin. Living legends from other genres also appear regularly on the programme: Burt Bacharach, Bryan Ferry, John Cale and Caetano Veloso, rock bands like Wilco or The ­National and underground stars such as Anohni or Solange, who created their own exclusive shows for the Elbphilharmonie. And fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who was born in Hamburg, even used the Grand Hall as an extra-large catwalk in 2017.

Highlights from five years of the Elbphilharmonie

Le Grand Macabre

The NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra brings the much-lauded opera production from New York to Hamburg

Watch the concert recording
Le Grand Macabre Le Grand Macabre © Peter Hundert
The National

The indie-rock institution at the Reflektor Bryce Dessner in October 2017

Aakash Odedra

Dancer Aakash Odedra gives a serene performance in the Recital Hall as part of the Reflektor Anoushka Shankar

Aakash Odedra Aakash Odedra © Anoushka Shankar
New York Philharmonic

Illustrious guests from across the world perform in the Elbphilharmonie’s Opening Festival

None © Chris Lee
Twinkle Concerts

Children’s concerts designed with loving attention to detail for all age groups take place in the Recital Hall

Watch the concert recording
Somnia – What Do Dreams Sound Like? Somnia – What Do Dreams Sound Like? © Claudia Höhne
Concert Cinema on the Forecourt

The Elbphilharmonie regularly broadcasts concerts at the open-air cinema during the summer – with a fantastic view over the Elbe river and cold drinks in the hand

Meute on the Roof

It doesn’t always have to be the Grand Hall – »Techno Marching Band« Meute ascends the Elbphilharmonie roof

None © Sophie Wolter
La Fura dels Baus

Arguably the world’s most spectacular theatre group stages Joseph Haydn’s »The Creation« in the Grand Hall

La Fura dels Baus: Die Schöpfung La Fura dels Baus: Die Schöpfung © Claudia Höhne
Belcea Quartet & Tabea Zimmermann

Intimate moments with the best chamber music ensembles in the Recital Hall

Watch the concert recording in the Mediatheque
Session in the Piano Storeroom

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen explores the backmost corner of the Elbphilharmonie

Verdi’s Requiem with La Scala

Riccardo Chailly and about 200 musicians from La Scala in Milan give a guest performance of Verdi’s mighty Requiem in Hamburg

Teatro alla Scala / Riccardo Chailly Teatro alla Scala / Riccardo Chailly © Daniel Dittus


Artists and audiences are lured into the Elbphilharmonie by spectacular architecture outside, which continues in the interior, from the curved escalator known as the »Tube« through the Plaza, which can be visited without a concert ticket, to the beautifully designed foyer landscape. It's exactly this factor that makes the difference, according to Elbphilharmonie General and Artistic Director Christoph Lieben-Seutter: »The quality of the surroundings is decisive. The overall experience provided by the architecture and the interior design makes visitors much more interested in and receptive to the music. And that in turn enables us to put on a more exciting programme.« The heart of the building, of course, is the Grand Hall. In contrast to the »shoebox« arrangement of most concert halls, it is laid out in the almost circular »vineyard« design, with tiered seating surrounding the concert platform. This places the audience much closer to the performers, and it also creates a stronger sense of community and a more intense listening experience.

Der Große Saal der Elbphilharmonie Der Große Saal der Elbphilharmonie © Maxim Schulz
Die »Weiße Haut« Die »Weiße Haut« © Gilda Fernandez

The Grand Hall has a so-called »white skin« that plays a central role both visually and acoustically: the walls and balustrades are covered with some 10,000 individually milled drywall panels that are roughly the size of a football field, and ensure optimum refraction and distribution of the sound. Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota was responsible for the computer-aided calculation and production of this remarkable surface. Lieben­-Seutter's evaluation, based on many concerts he has attended: »The acoustics are fantastic for many different kinds of music, especially for more complex scores, for contemporary music and electroacoustics, but also for Early Music played on original instruments that lack the impact of their modern counterparts. The acoustics are so focused and intimate that even the softest nuances and finest vibrations of the instruments can be heard very well even in the last row.«

No less popular with both performers and the public is the Recital Hall. Here the walls are made of French oak which, as with the walls in the Grand Hall, was milled to form to produce effective acoustics and also has a beautiful organic appearance. The flexible layout makes various configurations possible: in the classic »shoebox« set-up, the concert platform is located at the front of the room with tiered rows of seats rising towards the back. However, in the Recital Hall the seats can be removed in their entirety, enabling the room to be used for dance events or banquets as well. From chamber music and song recitals through staged family concerts to electro and unusual concert formats: anything is put on here that fits the Elbphilharmonie's quality standards and extends the variety of its programme.

Der Kleine Saal der Elbphilharmonie Der Kleine Saal der Elbphilharmonie © Maxim Schulz
Die wandstruktur vom kleinen Saal der Elbphilharmonie Die wandstruktur vom kleinen Saal der Elbphilharmonie © Gilda Fernandez


New standards are also set by the wide selection of music-education events. The range of concerts for every age from babies to high-school graduates is already extensive. But the real aim is to enable people to take active part in music above and beyond the pure concert experience; to this end, there are workshops, chances to meet artists and a host of other opportunities to join in. More than 3,400 events with nearly 200,000 participants show how great people's interest is and how grateful they are for the chance to satisfy it.


»Every Hamburg child should visit the Elbphilharmonie at least once.«

Olaf Scholz, former Mayor of Hamburg


With the »World of Instruments« in the basement, the Elbphilharmonie has a separate music-education section with several rooms. From the piccolo to the tuba and from the synthesizer to the gamelan, a set of Balinese percussion instruments, every conceivable type of musical instrument is available for school classes to try out when they visit in the mornings. For kindergartens in the suburbs there is a music bus, the »Klingendes Mobil«, which transports instruments and other objects for the youngsters to make music with. Last but not least, mention should be made of the five amateur ensembles in which Hamburg people meet regularly at the Elbphilharmonie to rehearse and give concerts, showing the pleasure they take in music and a strong connection to the concert hall.

»The Elbphilharmonie is the finest ship that will never set sail.«– Thus General and Artistic Director Christoph Lieben-Seutter in his inauguration speech on 11 January 2017. »It is securely moored by the Elbe, and has already won a secure place in Hamburg hearts.« The intervening five years have proved him right. The vision has borne fruit.

Text: Clemens Matuschek
English translation: Clive Williams

Mediatheque : More stories

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Video on demand from 22 Jan 2022 : NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

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