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Hamburg: Classical encounters

The city's long-awaited new Elbphilharmonie is a waterfront wonder that may well prove worth its hefty price tag

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:15 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 12:25 BST
Hamburg: Classical encounters

Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie

Photograph by Stuart Forster

It's a chilly Saturday afternoon and there's a palpable buzz of anticipation among the well-wrapped pedestrians streaming into the HafenCity quarter to visit the Elbphilharmonie building, Hamburg's new waterfront concert hall.

The upbeat mood among the sizeable crowd striding across the Wilhelminen Bridge make me feel as though I'm heading to a football match. Classical music, though, awaits the 2,100 of us who are fortunate enough to hold sought-after tickets for this afternoon's recital in the state-of-the-art venue (it also houses a 244-room hotel and 45 luxury apartments). It's rumoured that all 30,000 tickets put on sale in early February for the first series of concerts sold out within 30 minutes. More go on sale in April, although they're expected to sell out quickly too.

I overhear people talking about visiting the Plaza, an elevated public space 121ft up. This where the brickwork of the Kaispeicher A — a former warehouse — meets the glass facade of the building's new, upper storeys. An observation platform runs around all four sides of the Elbphilharmonie, providing stunning views over the harbour and moody neogothic structures of the Speicherstadt warehouse district.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at the large number of people keen to enter. After all, Hamburg's residents have been waiting a long time for this. Originally, 2010 was touted for the opening but the project ran markedly over budget and into legal disputes. Locals joke that, for two years, more lawyers than builders earned a living out of the building. The project's overall cost to their city eventually proved the equivalent of around £676m.

"It's too expensive, but looks good," I overhear a man tell his companion as we turn a corner, getting a chance to view the sweeping roofline, whose wave-like form is intended to symbolise Hamburg's seafaring heritage. The overcast sky reflects grey in the shining chrome inlays of the windows, reminding me of a North Sea swell on a winter's day.

Pausing for a few moments, I nestle into an arc of onlookers watching a rock 'n' roll musician with slicked-back hair and thick 1950s-style glasses playing the guitar. Simultaneously, he operates a jangling contraption on a cart topped by a blue street sign reading '1. Elb-Philharmonie'. It features dancing dolls representing four men in black suits — a reference to The Beatles, who played five residences in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962, making them an integral part of the city's musical heritage.

Visitors to the Plaza are allocated half-hour slots at the Elbphilharmonie. After collecting my pre-booked ticket, I scan the barcode and enter Europe's longest curved escalator, which leads into a white, tunnel-like entrance. It takes over four minutes to reach the top — time-enough for even the tardiest of phone users to snap a selfie.

Rippled glass protects the Plaza's tiled interior from the wind. I shuffle out onto the balcony to admire the view along the River Elbe and towards the 'Michel', the clock tower of St Michael's Church, which, until recently, was regarded as Hamburg's most iconic landmark.

Despite the Elbphilharmonie's high price tag, locals seem to be taking to the new one.

Follow @StuartForster

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