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ELBJazz Festival 2013: Hamburg, Germany, May 24-25, 2013

John Kelman By

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Hamburg, a Harbor City in Transition

One of the first noticeable points about Hamburg is its skyline: there is none. The city has strict rules prohibiting the building of anything that would obscure the many church steeples that are peppered throughout the city and, with the exception of a Radisson Hotel that really sticks out like a sore thumb; there isn't a single skyscraper to be found. Hamburg is also, by European standards, a relatively young city, having been largely destroyed by a fire in May, 1842. From the perspective of its architecture Hamburg is not much older than North American cities like Ottawa, Canada, and even Allied bombings in World War II, while damaging some of the city, ultimately missed much of it, thanks to a massive thunderstorm that kept the bombers from flying over certain areas of town—including the massive and impressive Town Hall, which is, curiously, home to both a municipal and state government—curious, because Hamburg, like Berlin and Bremen, is a state as well as city.

For North Americans, German cities also reflect something that rarely happens back home; in the downtown core, where real estate must surely be at a premium, there are huge squares like the one abutted by the Town Hall; spaces so large that no self-respecting North American city could avoid filling up that space with more buildings.

Hamburg, for a city of 1.8 million, largely avoids feeling cramped. In areas like HafenCity—a new development for the ultra-rich that includes some impressive and unique buildings like the Marco Polo tower—a condo apartment building where apartments go for somewhere in the vicinity of 14-16,000 Euros per square meter—and the still-in-progress Elbphilharmonie, a building that, by tying an old warehouse on the bottom with a brand new glass structure on the top that will house two theaters—one, seating about 2,100, the other, 900—luxury apartments and a Sheraton hotel, has already run up a tab of one billion Euros, and it's sure to have overages, given it's only partly completed, with its opening date set for 2017.

Still, taken into the building, after donning construction boots and hardhat— and signing a waiver that absolves the site of any responsibility, should anything go amiss—it was hard not to be impressed at the design of this important new addition to the Hamburg arts community. A six-story escalator (not finished) that actually curves so that the top cannot be seen from the bottom and vice versa, is just one of the extraordinary design features; the glass on the outside with its various curves and design to prevent greenhouse warming is another; a floor that will allow people to walk completely around the building (inside or out) and provide perhaps the best view of the entire city of Hamburg outside of the Hamburg Eye Ferris Wheel, yet another.

What's most impressive is the main concert hall; utilizing a design that places the main floor audience and three levels of balcony completely around the stage, the entire hall is acoustically isolated from the rest of the building by a sophisticated series of large metal springs; word has it that when the Queen Mary ship blows its horn in the port below, it will not be heard in the hall, nor will music in the hall disturb those in the hotel or apartments. And with acoustics designed by renowned sound expert Yasuhisa Toyota, with a sound reflector on the ceiling of the hall, every seat may not be the same with respect to its view of the orchestra, but every seat will experience the same quality sound. An impressive concept, as are the numerous large, cantilevered staircases throughout the building, and the rather innovative idea of making a building under construction a tourist site, four years before its official opening.

Nearby, a visit to a project called Re-Rite, situated in what will be the parking lot for the ELBphilharmonie, allows visitors the chance to feel what it's like to be in the middle of a large orchestra. Beyond surround sound, a number of screens with various orchestra sections that have chairs and a copy of the musical score provided—the televised performance displaying a number to identify where in the score the music is at any point in time—give some, like a young woman who was clearly a music student, the chance to actually follow along.

And what better piece to choose to give the visitors a real idea of the breadth and mass of a full symphony orchestra than Stravinsky's popular ballet, The Rite of Spring, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year after it was first performed in Paris on May 29, 1913. Captured by 29 cameras situated throughout the orchestra to provide real perspectives of what it's like not to watch an orchestra but to be in the orchestra, the sound was crystal clear, powerful and totally enveloping. There was a room where, with instructions from an onscreen percussionist, visitors could play along with the score on a large drum, a tambourine and a gong, and another room with iPads set up with headphones, providing the opportunity to learn something about each instrument and hear samples to both understand what it sounds like and how it fits with the overall combination of instruments that make up a symphony orchestra.

If all this affluence reflects a city that is very affluent, the Schanzen and Karolinen districts of Hamburg—a city that is, in fact (or, at least, in part) an island in the Elbe River (the largest of its kind in all of Europe)—it provided an opportunity to experience a more urban kind of living at a more affordable (but still, by North American terms, very expensive) level.

These areas may not be glamorous, but they were funky and appealing, with a store including the famous Herr von Eden shop—a prestigious clothing designer whose prices may have seemed a little steep (around 600 Euros for a suit), but whose designs were so distinctive and hip that musicians and others in the arts often shop there, and nowhere else. Initially designed for slim fits, the 20 year-old store has now begun facing the reality of the expanding girth of some of its longstanding clients, and there are now designs for those less svelte.

It wasn't all high end. There was a shop where some of the best in track suits, sweats, running shoes and other more casual fare could be had for very reasonable prices—certainly cheaper than those found in stores like H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch, and mostly of equivalent or better quality. The streets in these neighborhoods were narrow, with the three-to-four stories of apartments above the shops with funky little balconies where flowers and other decorations gave each a distinct style. A music store specializing in vinyl but with a smaller stock of CDs was also unique in its general focus on German rock in general but local, Hamburg fare in particular. It seems that, until recently, Hamburgers had written the fact that The Beatles first got their start there out of the history books but this has recently been corrected, and the city seems once again proud of that particular heritage, and books that trace the Hamburg music scene over the last 50 years now dedicate significant footage to the Fab Four's early years at various city clubs—many along the now-famous Reeperbahn, from 1960- 62—their triumphant return as full-fledged stars in 1966.

One of the major differences between HafenCity and residential areas like Schanzen and Karovtiertel is the activity; as the day progresses and evening approaches, the streets in HafenCity are largely empty, its residents comfortably situated in their homes, while Schanzen and Karovtiertel become busier and busier—clearly places where nightlife still exists, and in a big way.

There are many other things that make Hamburg unique; the renowned Mojo Club, which only recently reopened its doors and where the ELBJazz after-party took place, is a remarkable structure that, like the new ELBphilharmonie, is acoustically separated from the ground in which it resides, to ensure that the deep, throbbing subwoofer bass doesn't disturb anyone outside the club. Even more remarkable are its main entrances, which are only visible on the street as two circles with a large "M" in each on the asphalt; but at night, when the club opens, these hatch doors automatically open and two entrances rise out of the ground. High tech design goes right through from the club itself to the washrooms, where sounds from the club aren't just fed in, but actually have a toilet stall in which a DJ can set up and perform; it's not been used yet, but Managing Director Lief Nüske is certain that it will be, and in the relatively near future. From pristine acoustic to a terrific green room for artists and a remarkably sophisticated fire detection and response system, Mojo is now a truly 21st century club, run by people who are clearly bleeding-edge thinkers.

A most predominant impression of Hamburg, after just a few days, is a city with a pulse, a city that has many of the right ideas when it comes to urban planning for people of all income brackets, and a city committed to building a reputation predicated on the arts, fashion and stylish urban living.

With the Elbe River creating a natural division between the Altstadt area and the shipyard, and with the shipyard changing from year-to-year, the actual design of the festival stages in the yard has to change each year. That's not the only challenge. In using an area that had been employed in previous years, with a pre-existing space for loading equipment, the festival was hit with a surprise when a new housing complex began construction—right in front of that loading area. If ELBJazz is anything, it's adaptable, with a total of 10 stages/venues—four located on the shipyard, and six situated across the northern side of the Elbe River, largely near the Fischauktionsalle, itself an indoor venue for large-scale shows that, after the last show was finished on Sunday morning at approximately 1:00am, had to be completely cleared and restored to normal by 4:00am, when it would once again reopen as a functioning fish auction.

There were small, hot and sweaty clubs like Golum, where groups like Denmark's Girls in Airports and England's Troyka performed, and the Holzhafen Atrium, a beautiful but acoustically challenging indoor space with a ceiling of at least 150 feet and nothing but reflective surfaces that challenged but did not triumph over guitarist Jakob Bro. There were more traditional and attractive spots like St. Pauli Kirche, where Mary Halvorson and pianists Julia Hulsmann and Carsten Dahl gave well-received performances, as well as more unusual spaces like Stilwerk (normally a hotspot for interior design but, on the Saturday night, turned into a performance space for Miss 600 and singer Michael Schiefel).

In order to get from the shipyard to the Fischauktionsalle and nearby venues, a regular ferry moved from one end of the shipyard to the other, but this was no ordinary shuttle; for a couple of hours each evening, local artists performed on the boat, a sign that ELBJazz is also looking to support its locals. It might seem like a less than prestigious place to perform, but taking into consideration the vast numbers of ELBJazz attendees who took the shuttle once or more each evening, it was actually a tremendous exposure opportunity to tourists and journalists from abroad; and with a well-stocked bar, there were actually some who stayed on the boat for an hour or more, in order to hear the music on offer.

ELBJazz supports local musicians in other ways, too. An outdoor stage located nearby the ELBphilharmonie site was, sadly, hit hard by the heavy rains that came down on Saturday morning and early afternoon, and again on Sunday, when a young student band put on its performance; regardless, it was a sign that ELBJazz is about more than just big ticket items. Three Jazz for Kids performances on Saturday afternoon also threw a spotlight on the festival's desire to begin educating children about jazz from an early age.

And if North American festivals are struggling to replace an aging demographic with younger listeners, ELBJazz doesn't appear to be having that problem; there were, of course, a fair share of gray and no-hairs; but so, too, were fans ranging from late teens to mid-thirties. Programming more youth-friendly (but still substantive) acts like American keyboardist Jason Lindner's electrified, soulful and world-centric Now Vs. Now, the hilarious but equally deep Tin Men & The Telephone, which wowed festival promoters and club owners at the 2012 Dutch Jazz & World Meeting, ensured an influx of fresh faces to the festival's jazz audience.

In some respects, it's more than even the clear philosophy of the festival that is making jazz a young person's music once again; unlike North America where, in many ways, jazz has become a dirty word and the society has adopted an either/or set of values—you like this or that, and are not permitted, for the most part, to like this and that—much of Europe still sees value in culture, and not as some kind of elitist thing accessible only to a privileged few or as a means of defining whose tastes are better. Instead, culture is something for everyone, and ELBJazz demonstrated that through its wide-ranging series of concerts.

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