»It’s not only about acoustics – not in any concert hall in the world.«

Elbphilharmonie director Christoph Lieben-Seutter talks about the first five years, the effects of the Corona pandemic and his favourite place in the building.

Christoph Lieben-Seutter has been General and Artistic Director of the Laeiszhalle and the Elbphilharmonie since 2007, so he has experienced a few ups and downs over the years. Even if the construction phase was fraught with scandal, everyone now agrees that the Elbphilharmonie has turned into a success story for Hamburg as a music centre, and for the world of classical music as a whole. As the concert hall’s fifth anniversary approached, Lieben-Seutter was interviewed by Hartmut Welscher of the online music magazine VAN, to whom he spoke about scandals, uncooperative artists and taboos relating to the construction of the concert hall.

Christoph Lieben-Seutter talks to Hartmut Welscher

Mr Lieben-Seutter, let’s start our review of your time at the Elbphilharmonie with the current coronavirus situation. You introduced the 2G system (admission to concerts only for people who have been vaccinated or have recovered) on 20 November, ten days earlier than it was actually required. Why did you do that?

We were given the choice of either closing down the Elbphilharmonie’s catering facilities or implementing the 2G rule, and we chose the latter option. And it turned out, as expected, that only a very small minority of our concertgoers hadn’t been vaccinated. 1,300 tickets had been sold for the first 2G concert with the Berliner Philharmonic, and only 35 of these were returned. We thought it was more important to maintain normal concert conditions, including the chance to have a coffee beforehand or a drink in the interval, especially as 2G was going to become binding a few days later anyway.

Were there any complaints from concertgoers who hadn’t been vaccinated?

Not at all. That would certainly have been different two months ago, and for a long time we didn’t want 2G because we wanted the Elbphilharmonie to remain open for everyone. But the situation has continued to worsen, so that people are more willing to accept harsher restrictions.

A lot of cultural institutions complained about lower attendance figures after the reopening. How was this at the Elbphilharmonie?

As of last week, we haven’t noticed any loss in attendance. We can look back on a wonderful autumn, full of inspiration. We were only allowed to sell tickets for 60 per cent of the seats, but these 1,300 seats were nearly always full, even though subscriptions had been suspended and tourists don’t play a significant role. The Elbphilharmonie has regularly been criticised as a tourist magnet, but the fact is that the number of concertgoers in and around Hamburg has trebled in the last five years.

© Valentin Berkefeld

In the last five years there have been all manner of scandals attached to the Elbphilharmonie: problems with the acoustics, Jonas Kaufmann’s refusal to appear any more, allegations of audience misbehaviour, people falling down stairs, a recent court case… The Elbphilharmonie has certainly kept the media busy. Which of these issues annoyed you the most?

Probably the business with Kaufmann. It was a mediocre project that we were originally going to turn down: it was quite a risk, performing Mahler’s »Lied von der Erde« with an inexperienced conductor and to be singing both tenor and baritone, even for an artist of Kaufmann’s calibre. Then there were the problems with his fans, who had to bear an hour of Mahler when they would have preferred to hear »E lucevan le stelle«. But the tour management told us that the financing of the entire tour depended on the concert in the Elbphilharmonie, so in the end we agreed and trusted Jonas Kaufmann to do a good job. Other cities experienced problems during this tour, and had a lot more complaints from the audience than in Hamburg. The only difference was that in our case, the concert hall was at fault, not the artists.

The only bad publicity is no publicity.

Yup, I sometimes said this to my staff to cheer them up. But overall, we really have no cause for complaint. The feedback on the first years of the Elbphilharmonie, both national and international, was colossal and overwhelmingly positive. It goes without saying that some things won’t go as planned in the course of over 2,700 concerts. I had actually expected much worse – individual performances having to be cancelled for technical reasons, for example, or huge traffic jams every day and I never dreamed that most concerts would be completely sold out!

Jonas Kaufmann said that he is going to sing in the Laeiszhalle for the time being, which he plans to do next year as well. Have you spoken to him again?

Only straight after the concert. It’s fine by me that he prefers to appear at the Laeiszhalle, which I am also responsible for. I’m happy about every successful concert, and most song and piano recitals are held at the Laeiszhalle because there are no seats behind the concert platform. In the Elbphilharmonie we have to take the special seating arrangements into consideration. We sometimes give the singers tips such as »For this kind of repertoire it’s better if you don’t stand at the front of the stage, but farther back.« Some artists are happy to accept these tips, while others aren’t. We have had plenty of super concerts with vocal soloists, and »Das Lied von der Erde« worked well with other conductors. But you do need performers who have a feeling for spatial acoustics.

© Sander Elb

More from Christoph Lieben-Seutter

In NDR Kultur à la carte, the general director talks to Friederike Westerhaus and takes stock of five years of the Elbphilharmonie.

The Elbphilharmonie does have special acoustics, doesn’t it?

It does, but I wouldn’t want to change them on any account. The acoustics are fantastic for many kinds of music, especially for more complex scores, for modern music and electroacoustics. Where Early Music is concerned, I’ve gone through a learning curve myself. I originally thought that the Grand Hall wouldn’t be the ideal setting, which is why we left these concerts in the Laeiszhalle. But in practice the Grand Hall turned out to be a prime example of the fact that you can definitely play delicate music on original instruments to an audience of 2,000. The acoustics are so focused and intimate that you can hear even the softest nuances and the finest vibrations of the instruments very clearly in the back row, especially with a smaller-sized ensemble. In Debussy’s music, on the other hand, it’s harder to achieve the right mixture of timbres than in other concert halls. So every concert hall has its strong and weak points, and it’s fun to work with these, to a certain extent.

Does the Grand Hall sound different from how it sounded five years ago?

Conductors who are appearing for the second, third or fourth time regularly ask me: »What have changes have you made to the auditorium? It sounds much warmer and pleasanter now; at the beginning I had some problems with the acoustics.« I must admit that I was tempted to cheat and say that we had indeed made some structural changes. Toyota has always said that you can only judge the sound after a year or two, once the auditorium is broken in – whatever that means in terms of physics, whether it has to do with the construction of the concert platform that is gradually rusting, or the dust settling on the windowsills…

Isn’t the Elbphilharmonie a good example of the fact that a concert hall’s success doesn’t depend on the acoustics at all?

It’s not only about acoustics – not in any concert hall in the world. If they are honest, there are only a very few people in the audience who hear the difference. Acoustics are an important feature of a concert hall, but not the only one by a long chalk. No less important are the architecture, the interior design of the auditorium and the quality of experience offered by the foyers. There are concert halls built in the 1960s and 1970s that sound good, but were built along multifunctional lines – something that doesn’t appeal to us at all today.

© Valentin Berkefeld

Why is ›one size fits all‹ still the usual solution for the acoustics? Why don’t classical concert halls use loudspeaker systems to shape the sound? After all, it’s obvious that one auditorium can’t offer the perfect acoustics for every style and genre.

You’re quite right, of course. The Elbphilharmonie is still a very traditional concert hall in the sense that the layout can’t be altered. We can’t perform Stockhausen’s »Groups«, for example; and when the auditorium was being designed, no thought was given to the fact that video would play a large role in the future. If I was designing a new concert hall, I would probably think about how to incorporate a visual elemental behind or over the concert platform much more easily than we can do here. But it’s still taboo to improve the acoustics in a concert hall using modern technology, as is common practice in many theatres and opera houses; the motto for a classical concert hall is that the auditorium alone must suffice.

Wasn’t the G-20 summit in 2017 the absolute low point of the last five years? I remember a live video broadcast on N24 showing the riots in the Schanze district on one side of the screen and on the other, leading politicians like Merkel, Trump and Putin listening to Beethoven’s Ninth in the Elbphilharmonie.

Yes and no. On the one hand, Trump is not someone we want in the Elbphilharmonie, and those responsible didn’t expect such violent protests. On the other hand, this is now in the past, it belongs to the Elbphilharmonie’s history. Perhaps we have acquired a thicker skin thanks to the difficult years before the building was finally ready for use: during the construction phase, the Elbphilharmonie was the scandale du jour. It didn’t matter what day it was: you opened up the newspaper and found three pages detailing the latest Elbphilharmonie scandal. That may be the reason why I wasn’t so shocked when the Elbphilharmonie was shown in a less flattering light.

You are in the building every day. What is there that bothers you, and what makes you especially happy?

It makes me genuinely happy that so many little nuisances have been eliminated, even if I would have liked them to vanish sooner. I have my own hobbyhorses such as the lighting on the concert platform: in my opinion, a classical concert needs to be well lit. The lighting was terrible at the beginning, but things have improved greatly since then. What still really bothers me are the lifts that take people to the parking deck: there are always hold-ups after a concert. The whole access issue is tricky in fact – it was planned one way, but in the end it was built differently. From today’s point of view, I would be happy if we had rehearsal rooms or studios instead of a parking deck. But if you do have parking, you want people to be able to get to their cars without delays. Anything annoys me that has the potential to spoil people’s visit to the Elbphilharmonie – that includes things like the taxi stand in front of the building, where to this day only two taxis are legally allowed to park.

What is your favourite place in the building?

Outside the actual concert halls, I love the 3-D foyer landscape, where the open-plan architecture means that you can see six floors overlapping one another like asymmetrical balconies in a way that doesn’t make geometric sense. To my mind, that is still an architectural stroke of genius. We are fortunate that the architects designing the Elbphilharmonie didn’t just focus on the façade, as is often the case with prestigious buildings, but showed the same level of ambition with all the inside details, be it the ladies’ toilet on the 15th floor or the foyers as mentioned. That makes a huge difference. When visitors approach the building and then take the »Tube« to get to the concert hall itself, passing through the Plaza and the foyer on the way, they are in a completely different frame of mind and are much more open to the music itself.

We just had a Hanns Eisler weekend with three concerts given before a full house. The audience was not only made up of Eisler fans, there were also lots of people who just came because tickets were still available. But the overall experience that the building provides, right down to the concert hall itself, makes people much more interested and receptive than at other venues, where they might say after ten minutes: »What is this we’re listening to? Let’s walk out.«

Leuchtröhren Foyer Großer Saal
Leuchtröhren Foyer Großer Saal © Hendrikmjr

Though there have been concerts where quite a few people walked out after ten minutes.

That’s true of course – but it happened exactly three times in a total of over 1,600 concerts given in the Grand Hall, yet people are still talking about it. These were all concerts where the organiser carted busloads of tourists to the event without telling them a Mahler symphony lasts 90 minutes with no interval when you can use the toilet. There was even one concert where people didn’t know they were going to be listening to jazz!

As a trained software engineer, classical music was not your original career choice. Has anyone ever looked askance at you because you don’t have a degree in music?

Not once. On the contrary, I managed to muddle through and often made the impression that I knew more than I do. [Laughs.]

Is your job as director of the Elbphilharmonie compatible with family life? You have to be in a concert nearly every night. Don’t your three daughters want to see Daddy at the dinner table sometimes?

Yes and no: they don’t know things any other way. My first daughter was born when I had just been appointed director of the Konzerthaus in Vienna, so my family was built around my working rhythm from the outset. Daddy wasn’t home in the evenings, it’s true, but when the children were still young I regularly came home at lunchtime. Instead of going out until late with the artists after a concert, I used to take them home with me after morning rehersal, where they happily sat at the table and ate my children’s mashed potato. They enjoyed that far more than lunch in some swanky restaurant. Plus, I always had a long summer vacation. And when I’m at home, I’m 100 per cent at home. In the meantime my children are all grown-up – my youngest daughter has just finished high school. But there’s not much time left for other hobbies between the Elbphilharmonie on the one hand and family on the other.

After the evening’s concert you can’t just take your impressions of the music home with you, you have to make small talk and go out to dinner with the artists. Isn’t that really exhausting?

It takes it out of you, there’s no denying that. It didn’t use to be a problem for me, but these days I have to do it in small doses. For example, I can’t eat meat in the evening any more, and I try to avoid red wine as well, otherwise I don’t sleep as soundly as I need to. Nowadays I hardly ever go to dinner with artists out of a feeling of obligation: I only go out with those artists whose company I really enjoy, when there’s something important to discuss.

Our last question is: Do you actually call the Elphi the Elphi?

I fought it for ages, but in the meantime I’ve made my peace with it.

The interview was held in December 2021 for the online music magazine VAN; where it can be read in its entirety (in German).

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