In February 2009 I led a group of 11 to 14 year old students to Berlin, where we arrived in  thick snow in mid afternoon. After a quick check-in at the hotel we made a fifteen minute walk to the Checkpoint Charlie museum. It was important to set the scene and place the current state of the city in the context of the recent history of the Wall, which stood for 30 years, and which was demolished 20 years ago this year. Our young students needed to fill in the details of their basic knowledge of the significance of the Cold War.

On Tuesday we were to hear about the influence of two live Britons: the orchestral conductor Sir Simon Rattle at the Philharmonic, and Norman Foster, whose work has revitalised the Reichstag building. We arrived at the Philharmonic Hall in time for our 9am guided tour, which included an expert description of the building and many insights about the architecture of this ground breaking design, and of the current Principal conductor’s passion for social inclusion in the orchestra’s life and work. We walked around the corner to visit the fascinating Musical Instrument Museum and were able to eavesdrop on a demonstration for local children by an expert, versatile and friendly musician.

After a quick stop at the Sony Centre in the Potzdamer Platz we walked up to the Brandenburg  Gate and onto the Reichstag. It is a sign of the drawing power of a contemporary building feature, in this case the Foster dome, that we were part of a 50 minute queue in the snow, and felt the wait was completely worthwhile by the time we reached the top.

Potzdamer Platz was divided by the Wall, and as we walked down the street from the square each day to our hotel we passed some remains of the Wall, so our students could sense the  significance of the 20-year long division of the city into two.

After lunch we walked back to the hotel and had a 90 minute rehearsal.

Wednesday began with a 90-minute walk which took in the historic Wilhelmstrasse, site of government buildings from the Prussian era which were later used by Nazi high command, past the imposing, heavily protected British Embassy and the whole Unter den Linden avenue. Our walk took us past numerous historic buildings including the Humbold University, St Hedwig’s church, where a simple plaque commemorates the 1933 book burning, the Staatsoper, and on to the Berlin Dom, the magnificent Pergamon Museum, and the Egyptian collection at the Ancient History museum. We returned to the hotel by public bus and had an hour long rehearsal before supper.

Thursday morning was centred on a visit to the Alexander Platz area: now a major shopping zone, but in earlier times this huge open square was a showpiece of Soviet dominance of East Berlin. We were welcomed to the Berlin office of the British Council by the Deputy Director for Germany, Dr. Patrick Hart, who explained the work of the British Council, recounted to us the curious story of why the red, amber and green figures on lights at pedestrian crossings are different in the former East Berlin from the rest of the city, and also pointed through the window to the spot where a sequence of the second of the Bourne trilogy was filmed. We walked through the thick snow to see a glimpse of the Karl Marx Allee and finally took refuge in the hotel for another rehearsal. For the evening we walked to the Bluemax Theatre to enjoy an entertaining performance by the Blue Man Group, mixing live music, video and comedy. The half an hour between the end of the show and the beginning of supper was the perfect opportunity for a snowball battle of epic proportions.

Friday was taken up entirely with our three performances. The first one was in the Friedensburg – Oberschule, a state secondary school which has a bilingual Spanish section lead by Sra. Cristina Violán in collaboration with the Spanish embassy in Berlin. About 250 students listened attentively and applauded enthusiastically to our programme of Spanish and English music, dance and poetry readings. Three German students also took part in the concert, and, after the customary gift of a flower for each guest, we joined our hosts in the school cafeteria for lunch and a chance to make new friends. We hope that this visit will lead to exchange visits between the Friedensburg – Oberschule and the British Council School.

A short train ride across town took us to the 5 storey Instituto Cervantes building which includes Spanish language teaching facilities, a library and a performance space. It was here that we performed to a small but contented audience, which included the parents of three of the members of our group who had travelled there for the occasion. This was our third performance at a centre of the Instituto Cervantes, following the ones in Beijing in 2007, and in New York in 2004.

I would like to thank D. Gonzalo del Puerto, Jefe de Actividades Culturales, who made possible our concert, and especially D. Diego Iñiguez, Agredado de Educación at the Spanish Embassy in Berlin, who arranged the contacts with the school and the Instituto Cervantes, and who attended both concerts. It was a special pleasure to include Guillermo Iñiguez, a former primary pupil, in the string pieces.

Our third performance was completely spontaneous, and due to the insistence of the owner of the restaurant which was a base for our evening meal each day. As the group had their instruments with them, he invited them to play, and the strains of Entre Dos Aguas and other melodies filled the restaurant, to genuine applause from the surprised customers.

Our last day in Berlin took us to two monuments from the darker side of the city’s history: the Jewish Museum, with its unforgettable Holocaust section, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, of which only the bell tower structure survives, and which reminded the students in the group who came to Liverpool in 2008 of the bombed out church there, St. Luke’s.

 

 

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