The Wonder of Hamburg: Elbphilharmonie

Published on : Monday, November 22, 2021


On January 11, 2022, the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg celebrates five years since its grand opening. It is, admittedly, a modest anniversary, but still reason enough to celebrate. After all, the concert hall demonstrates evening after evening that the live music experience in an impressive architectural setting can inspire everyone, while also changing the character of an entire city.

With the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg has tripled its number of concertgoers and earned a global reputation as a distinguished city of culture. The anniversary is being celebrated with a nine-day festival from 9 to 17 January, a gala concert on the fifth birthday itself, and a spectacular new light artwork by the Dutch artist duo DRIFT.

The Elbphilharmonie

Located in the middle of the Elbe River and surrounded on three sides by water, the building houses two concert halls, one large music education area, food & drink areas, the Westin Hamburg Hotel with 244 rooms, 45 private apartments and the publicly accessible Plaza, which offers unique panoramic views of the whole city. The Elbphilharmonie was designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron.

The architects took the former warehouse Kaispeicher A (used for tea, tobacco and cocoa) and placed a new glass structure on top of it – the boldly curving roof landscape reaches up 110 metres into the sky. The Elbphilharmonie stands on the western tip of HafenCity, Europe’s largest urban development project.

Its artistic programme is all about quality, diversity and breaking down genre boundaries. Lively interpretations of classical masterpieces are just as important as the discovery of contemporary music from various cultures. The best orchestras in the world perform at the Elbphilharmonie on a regular basis as well as the great stars of jazz and world music.

Around a third of the programme is organised by the in-house concert promoter, HamburgMusik, under General and Artistic Director Christoph Lieben-Seutter. Besides the venue’s resident and partner orchestras ‒ NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra and Ensemble Resonanz ‒ a number of private promoters also present concerts at the Elbphilharmonie.

Bringing music to millions

 In the short time since it opened, the Elbphilharmonie has far surpassed all expectations: the quality, frequency and diversity of the programme are without parallel anywhere around the world, and the unique building has a higher profile than any other new cultural building this century. The clearest indicator, however, is the 2.7 million concertgoers who attended more than 2,500 enthralling concerts in the Elbphilharmonie’s two concert halls between the opening in January 2017 and the coronavirus closure in March 2020.

With the Elbphilharmonie and the Laeiszhalle welcoming 1.25 million visitors annually, Hamburg has tripled its number of concertgoers. Around 85 per cent of those visitors come from the metropolitan region. The number of subscribers has even quadrupled. The Plaza viewing platform on the eighth floor, offering 360-degree panoramic views, is already expecting its 15 millionth visitor in March 2022. The Elbphilharmonie thereby overshadows even top German tourist destinations such as Neuschwanstein Castle. Since summer 2021, the Elbphilharmonie has also been able once again to build on the usual standard of expertly programmed concerts with top artists on a daily basis. The extensive and diverse music education programme, one of the Elbphilharmonie’s core tasks, is also getting started again.

 First-class architecture for magical music experiences

What is the Elbphilharmonie’s unique appeal? The location and architecture are certainly key elements in its allure. The building is located close to the city centre in the former harbour area and boasts a distinct and unmistakeable look. The brick base is solid and Hanseatic. On it rests a bold, glass, ship-like structure that was designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. The Elbphilharmonie is certainly striking but not showy. It’s impressive but not intimidating. It was designed for people. It arouses feelings of elation and a sense of community; it is both a place of pilgrimage and a home.

 With a facade that always reflects the light differently, the building is a first-rate crowd puller. On the inside, it is the Plaza that first casts a spell on visitors – from there all the other areas of the building can be explored. In the concert area, the foyers offer unexpected views and angles. Clear forms and high-quality, perfectly crafted materials heighten the senses and prepare the mind for exquisitely performed music.

 The Grand Hall is the heart of the Elbphilharmonie, and it makes every live concert an intensive communal experience. There is such a close connection between the stage and the audience that it’s impossible not to become completely engaged. The boundary between musicians and listeners becomes blurred, and a respectful feeling of community emerges.

This inspires the artists to perform at their best and helps the audience to intuitively understand the music. Questions regarding the genre being performed, or whether the composition is famous or unknown, contemporary or classical, fade to the background. As a result, the supposedly difficult repertoire of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries meet with an enthusiastic reception here. Those who experience music in the Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall always end up wanting more.

They can’t get enough of the aural adventures and the intensity of the moment in this special venue – and are happy to trust the recommendations provided by the concert hall. The same is true of the atmosphere in the Recital Hall, of which audiences have also grown very fond.

 The Elbphilharmonie allows visitors of all ages to actively take part in and shape musical activities beyond the traditional concert experience. This includes an extensive workshop programme for children and teenagers from all school years, school concerts, meet-the-artist sessions, pre-concert events, and a wealth of opportunities for individuals and families to playfully learn more about and immerse themselves in music. Five amateur ensembles offer residents of the city a chance to gather at the Elbphilharmonie to rehearse and give concerts – these also foster close bonds with the concert hall.

Concerts and light art in the anniversary week

What better way to celebrate five years of the Elbphilharmonie than with a musical programme featuring the same variety and quality for which the concert hall is known? From 9 to 17 January 2022, some of the biggest names in music, including Sir Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Jordi Savall, Charles Lloyd, John Scofield and many more, are on the guest list.

These artists will perform contemporary music by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Thomas Adès and Jörg Widmann as well as classical music by Jean Sibelius, Gustav Mahler and Robert Schumann. Tickets for the birthday concert on 11 January featuring the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under the baton of Alan Gilbert will be given away by raffle. You can find further information about the festival programme at

The Elbphilharmonie’s understanding of culture is not limited to sound – as demonstrated by a light artwork created by the internationally sought-after artist duo DRIFT to adorn the concert hall in spectacular style for its birthday. DRIFT was founded by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta in Amsterdam in 2007.

Their works captivate and astonish through the use of original and unexpected light objects and their effects. Immersive art, which has been increasingly influential in the art world for many years now, seeks to dissolve the division between the artwork and the observer, and make it possible to experience the work through all the senses.

For the Elbphilharmonie’s fifth birthday, DRIFT promises a performative outdoor sculpture that creatively comments on the building as well as its surroundings and its inner life of music. The installation is funded by Freundeskreis Elbphilharmonie + Laeiszhalle e.V. and realised in close coordination with the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, which is dedicating a four-month solo exhibition to the Dutch artist duo (»Drift: Moments of Connection«, 6 January to 8 May 2022).

The cultural city of Hamburg

In the five years since the Elbphilharmonie first opened its doors, a new character has emerged in the cultural city of Hamburg. The city has a long and distinguished cultural tradition – and with the opening of the Elbphilharmonie, it now has a beacon that allows its diversity to shine far beyond the boundaries of the Hanseatic city.

The Elbphilharmonie is a symbol for the special qualities of Hamburg’s cultural landscape: open to everyone, uniting contrasts, creating connections. Cross-genre collaborations within Hamburg’s artistic scene and a variety of festivals ensure that culture is everywhere in the city and can always be experienced in new and unexpected ways.

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