He Came to Berlin to Change the World. Then the World Changed Berlin.
BERLIN — Not way back, Sir Henry stood on the important stage of the Volksbühne theater in what was as soon as East Berlin and carried out the cosmos.
In “Quarantine, For Solo Human,” Sir Henry, whose given title is John Henry Nijenhuis, did in order a part of an interactive musical set up that despatched a planet spiraling by means of a computer-animated universe utilizing motion-sensor expertise.
As he gracefully waved his arms, a fragile celestial choreography emerged. Earth hurtled by means of a galaxy that expanded and shrank at his command. His gestures additionally managed the cosmic soundscape, adjusting the pitch and quantity of a “house choir” that harmonized to a Bach prelude enjoying from a MIDI sequencer.
“Quarantine,” which streamed on the Volksbühne’s web site throughout the pandemic-related summer season lockdown, was the musician’s first solo work on the important stage of the theater the place he has labored as music director for almost 1 / 4 century.
“The primary six months of Covid had been a blessing as a result of I might simply gap up in my house and conceive,” the 56-year-old Canadian stated. His interactive installations fuse his ardour for music together with his curiosity in pc programming, a lifelong pursuit since his research in the Nineteen Eighties at The College of King’s Faculty in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
On a stormy spring night, I met Mr. Nijenhuis at the again entrance of the shuttered Volksbühne. Carrying a chic brown herringbone overcoat, he ushered me by means of a labyrinth of backstage stairways to the theater’s Purple Salon, a nightclub-like venue that has been off limits since the pandemic started.
Balancing himself precariously on a stool, he stuffed two glasses with water from the sink of the long-disused bar. He wore a black gown shirt unbuttoned at the prime; his shoulder-length grey hair was pulled tightly again in a excessive ponytail.
Seeing him so snug and at house in the empty theater ought to hardly have come as a shock. Few individuals at the Volksbühne have been right here longer than he has.
For at the very least a decade after the Chilly Battle ended, the Volksbühne was arguably the most radical and artistically daring theater in Europe. As music director, composer and occasional actor at the playhouse since 1997, Mr. Nijenhuis has contributed to Berlin’s creative flowering whereas dwelling by means of dynamic modifications which have redefined the metropolis — and never for the higher, in his opinion.
He savors his recollections of post-Chilly Battle Berlin, a wild, bohemian outpost of creative experimentation spiced with a vibrant conflict between East and West.
Mr. Nijenhuis unabashedly embraced the East German revolutionary spirit at the theater. “We had a job to clarify socialism to the encroaching West in Berlin,” he stated.
“At the Volksbühne, you would all the time odor if the director wished to change the world,” he added. “And in the event that they didn’t need to change the world, you’d say to your self, ‘you may as properly be in the West Finish.’”
The theater “was a bulwark in opposition to unthinking, invasive types of capitalism,” he stated.
To his remorse, that environment evaporated over the years. “These days, the popularity of Berlin is as a celebration place,” he stated.
Nonetheless, few, if any, different North Individuals have so decisively left their mark on Berlin’s cultural scene in the heady years that adopted reunification. Mr. Nijenhuis has labored on greater than 50 productions in his almost 25 years at the Volksbühne.
“John is a mastermind of music,” stated the director David Marton, who has labored with Mr. Nijenhuis since an acclaimed chamber model of “Wozzeck” in 2007. In an e-mail, he advised that Mr. Nijenhuis is “maybe not acknowledged sufficient as a result of he works primarily in the theater and ‘theater music’ doesn’t get a lot credit score.”
Mr. Nijenhuis was born in 1964 in Newmarket, Ontario, to Dutch mother and father and grew up in Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the place his father labored for British Airways. After school, he spent a decade in Toronto, growing a method of piano he described as “two-handed mash-ups of, as an example, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with ‘Placing on the Ritz,’ or Ravel’s “Boléro” with ‘Take 5.’”
However skilled alternatives for musicians in Toronto had been restricted.
In 1996, he was invited to carry out at an arts pageant in Berlin. The venue in Prenzlauer Berg, in the former East, didn’t have a piano, so he had to make do with a lounge organ. The curious expertise gave rise to his nickname, which is a tongue-in-cheek homage to a ’60s lounge organist, Sir Julian.
Though his pageant look didn’t go to plan, Mr. Nijenhuis quickly started working at the close by Prater, a smaller venue run by the Volksbühne. His all-around musical profile, his information of Kurt Weill and Prokofiev, but additionally Fat Waller and pop and rock, made him sought-after in the culturally omnivorous and experimental milieu of ’90s Berlin.
“You might nearly stroll out the door and end up at a occurring,” he stated of the second. “There have been a lot of these ruined homes, bomb-wrecked homes that had been housing experimental music goings-on.”
That summer season he traded the skyscrapers of Toronto for the coal-heated tenements of Prenzlauer Berg. If Berlin provided him a brand new house, the Volksbühne grew to become his new inventive household.
Again then, the theater was firmly beneath the route of Frank Castorf, a provocateur who served as creative director from 1992 till 2017. Mr. Castorf had a passion for making mincemeat out of the classics in lengthy, demanding evenings that had been designed to shock theatergoers out of complacency.
However as the metropolis progressively advanced into the nationwide capital and headquarters to a lot of Germany’s greatest firms, the milieu inevitably shifted.
By the early 2000s, the Volksbühne was combating its ideological focus, and as its productions grew to become more and more self-referential its viewers started to drift away. And whereas the actors and administrators had been hurling Marxist provocations into the viewers, the metropolis was rapidly succumbing to the capitalist forces their theater was meant to defend in opposition to.
“I used to be ensconced in a powerful household,” Mr. Nijenhuis stated. “We had been all on the similar web page. I had a job to do, there have been fiercely inventive individuals and I misplaced monitor a little bit little bit of what was outdoors this constructing.”
He added: “It was very simple to fall right into a peaceable slumber and get up when the metropolis was gone.”
Whereas Berlin continues to take pleasure in a freewheeling popularity, Mr. Nijenhuis believes the metropolis has misplaced a lot of its inventive soul. “The change has been from an adventuresome, very daring city with adventuresome and daring artworks into an irretrievably bourgeois pleasure palace,” he stated.
As Berlin settled down, so did Mr. Nijenhuis. In 2015, he purchased an house in Prenzlauer Bergand married the American poet Donna Stonecipher.
More and more, Mr. Nijenhuis has discovered inventive achievement away from conventional productions, by means of programming and performing interactive musical installations like “Quarantine.” For the previous 15 years, he has additionally collaborated with the German creator and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, for whom he has scored films and accompanied in dwell performances.
In a single current look, he tinkers round on a grand piano singing arias by Monteverdi and Purcell as Mr. Kluge, a towering determine in German tradition, and the American poet and novelist Ben Lerner learn their works.
Mr. Nijenhuis is considered one of solely two ensemble members at the Volksbühne with tenure (it’s uncommon for performers in Berlin to keep at the similar theater for the qualifying 15 years and was rarer beneath Mr. Castorf, who had a penchant for firing individuals). Nonetheless, the current period of managerial and creative upheavals at the theater has been attempting; by his personal admission, he was “put in the broom closet” for 2 years by a creative director who didn’t worth his contributions.
Mr. Nijenhuis’s most up-to-date look onstage, in a manufacturing of “The Oresteia” in October, confirmed what can occur when his abilities and eclectic tastes are given free rein. The impressed musical alternatives ranged from Richard Strauss to Tom Lehrer.
“Had I stayed in Toronto,” Mr. Nijenhuis leaned in to inform me. “I might have most likely turn into a bus driver.”
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