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Culture

At the birthplace of the ballistic missile, a concert for peace

In its first appearance abroad since 2019, the New York Philharmonic performed at a German music festival located in a former Nazi munitions factory.

Shaped like a butterfly’s wing, the Baltic Sea island of Usedom straddles the border between Germany and Poland. In May, musicians from all over the world gathered there to play in a high-ceilinged brick concert hall. Symphonic music bounced off the rough beams and stylish exposed piping.

But the hall wasn’t made for musicians. During WWII, the German military built this space as a turbine room inside a weapons research facility. Nazi scientists developed one of the first ballistic missiles there, and thousands of prisoners labored within its walls to build the fascist war machine. Decades later, as Europe faces its deadliest conflict in a generation, this site of war hosted a concert series with peace as its theme: the Usedom Music Festival, headlined by the New York Philharmonic, which devoted its programming to works composed by victims of war.

“Right now, we have the war in Europe,” said Birgit Hesse, president of the parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the German state in which Usedom is located. “So the New York Philharmonic coming to Germany is a sign for us. It’s like a bridge. Music brings people together.”

The concert hall is located in Peenemünde, a municipality perched on Usedom’s northern, German tip. Formerly known as “Berlin’s bathtub,” the island is idyllic in the summer months and served as a summer home for the German emperors. In the postwar years, when the island was part of East Germany and the mansions of the rich became workers’ holiday homes, Usedom gained a reputation as a literary enclave. Some of the greatest German authors of the mid-20th century, like Günter Grass and Ingeborg Bachmann, met there to participate in the highly influential writers’ circle Group 47. Today, the island is a popular weekend beach destination for affluent Berliners. Tourists can cycle down its sandy, pine-forested coastline all the way to Poland.

But the island has a darker history as well. The German military built the Peenemünde Army Research Center in 1937, and transported thousands of malnourished concentration camp inmates — including Jews, German political prisoners, and prisoners of war — to produce ballistic rockets.

The facility became a power station during the communist period. In 1992, it was converted to the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum, with a permanent exhibition on the history of the facility.

The Usedom Music Festival, which began in 1993 and takes place each fall, held a special series of concerts in May to host the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra performed alongside Anne-Sophie Mutter, Thomas Hampson, Jan Lisiecki, and musicians from the Baltic Sea Philharmonic.

This year, programming for the festival included music by the German Jewish composer André Previn. Born in Berlin, Previn fled his birthplace at the age of 9, after an SS officer warned his parents that the city was becoming too dangerous for them. After escaping to Paris with just a single suitcase, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Previn eventually made a career composing film scores.

Mutter, Previn’s ex-wife and longtime collaborator, played the violin concerto “Anne-Sophie,” which Previn wrote for her as an engagement present.

In an interview with festival organizers, Mutter said that the concerto is connected with Previn and his childhood in Germany. The last movement includes the tune to one of Previn’s favorite children’s songs, “Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär” (English: “If I were a Little Bird”). “When he showed me the score I was insanely moved because it is also my favorite children’s song,” Mutter said.

For Thomas Hummel, the festival’s artistic director, featuring a Jewish composer was a priority. “You see how important it is to have a fight against antisemitism because it is real in Europe, and the United States,” he said.

Mutter performed the concerto in a glamorous ballgown of scalloped black lace, filling the concert hall with music of cinematic intensity. With Previn’s background composing music for the movies, it makes sense that the concerto sounded like the music of a dream ballet from a midcentury musical. The audience, filled with Mutter devotees, leapt to their feet at the close of the soloist’s passionate and precise performance.

Some performers had personal connections to the concert hall. Baritone Thomas Hampson, who performed selections from Gustav Mahler’s collection of folk poem settings “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”), said that his visit to Peenemünde felt like a homecoming. Hampson’s father, an American computer engineer, specialized in creating nuclear fuels. He used some of the technology created at Peenemünde in his own, albeit more peaceful, work.

Hampson sees the Usedom festival as shifting the beam of creativity from war to peace, just as his father’s work did. “This is a place where extraordinary things were discussed and took place, and this is now a place where extraordinarily beautiful things take place,” he said. “There’s a certain triumph in humanity in that.”

Hampson’s Mahler selections were deeply moving, sometimes unintentionally: The soloist occasionally struggled to fill the venue with his soldierly baritone. The strain in his voice was a reminder of the performance space’s history and the difficulty of ever adequately addressing it. The songs felt like an appropriate accompaniment to the creaking industrial apparatus of the concert hall: a lament and a warning, soaring over Europe, of the havoc of war. As a new war rages in Ukraine, these performances reminded the audience of the lasting devastation such conflicts cause.

Speaking on the importance of staging this concert at this historical juncture, Hampson said: “The arts are not a distraction. They’re a blueprint of who we are.”

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