He Got here to Berlin to Change the World. Then the World Modified Berlin.

2021-05-28 15:07:13

BERLIN — Not way back, Sir Henry stood on the primary stage of the Volksbühne theater in what was as soon as East Berlin and performed 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 “area choir” that harmonized to a Bach prelude enjoying from a MIDI sequencer.

“Quarantine,” which streamed on the Volksbühne’s web site through the pandemic-related summer season lockdown, was the musician’s first solo work on the primary stage of the theater the place he has labored as music director for almost 1 / 4 century.

“The primary six months of Covid have been a blessing as a result of I might simply gap up in my residence 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 within the Nineteen Eighties at The College of King’s Faculty in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On a stormy spring night, I met Mr. Nijenhuis on the again entrance of the shuttered Volksbühne. Sporting a sublime brown herringbone overcoat, he ushered me by means of a labyrinth of backstage stairways to the theater’s Pink Salon, a nightclub-like venue that has been off limits because the pandemic started.

Balancing himself precariously on a stool, he crammed two glasses with water from the sink of the long-disused bar. He wore a black costume shirt unbuttoned on the prime; his shoulder-length grey hair was pulled tightly again in a excessive ponytail.

Seeing him so snug and at residence within the empty theater ought to hardly have come as a shock. Few individuals on the Volksbühne have been right here longer than he has.

For a minimum of a decade after the Chilly Warfare ended, the Volksbühne was arguably essentially the most radical and artistically daring theater in Europe. As music director, composer and occasional actor on the playhouse since 1997, Mr. Nijenhuis has contributed to Berlin’s creative flowering whereas residing by means of dynamic adjustments which have redefined the town — and never for the higher, in his opinion.

He savors his recollections of post-Chilly Warfare 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 on the theater. “We had a job to clarify socialism to the encroaching West in Berlin,” he stated.

“On the Volksbühne, you would all the time odor if the director wished to alter the world,” he added. “And in the event that they didn’t need to change the world, you’d say to your self, ‘you would possibly as nicely be within the West Finish.’”

The theater “was a bulwark towards unthinking, invasive types of capitalism,” he stated.

To his remorse, that environment evaporated through the years. “These days, the repute of Berlin is as a celebration place,” he stated.

However, few, if any, different North Individuals have so decisively left their mark on Berlin’s cultural scene within the heady years that adopted reunification. Mr. Nijenhuis has labored on greater than 50 productions in his almost 25 years on 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 electronic mail, he instructed that Mr. Nijenhuis is “maybe not acknowledged sufficient as a result of he works primarily within the theater and ‘theater music’ doesn’t get a lot credit score.”

Mr. Nijenhuis was born in 1964 in Newmarket, Ontario, to Dutch dad and mom 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 mode of piano he described as “two-handed mash-ups of, for example, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with ‘Placing on the Ritz,’ or Ravel’s “Boléro” with ‘Take 5.’”

However skilled alternatives for musicians in Toronto have been restricted.

In 1996, he was invited to carry out at an arts pageant in Berlin. The venue in Prenzlauer Berg, within the former East, didn’t have a piano, so he needed to make do with a front room 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 on 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 within the culturally omnivorous and experimental milieu of ’90s Berlin.

“You may nearly stroll out the door and end up at a taking place,” he stated of the second. “There have been a lot of these ruined homes, bomb-wrecked homes that have 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 supplied him a brand new residence, 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 have been designed to shock theatergoers out of complacency.

However as the town progressively developed into the nationwide capital and headquarters to a lot of Germany’s greatest companies, 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 float away. And whereas the actors and administrators have been hurling Marxist provocations into the viewers, the town was shortly succumbing to the capitalist forces their theater was meant to defend towards.

“I used to be ensconced in an impressive household,” Mr. Nijenhuis stated. “We have been all on the identical web page. I had a job to do, there have been fiercely inventive individuals and I misplaced observe a 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 town was gone.”

Whereas Berlin continues to take pleasure in a freewheeling repute, Mr. Nijenhuis believes the town 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 residence 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 writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, for whom he has scored motion pictures and accompanied in reside 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 one in every of solely two ensemble members on the Volksbühne with tenure (it’s uncommon for performers in Berlin to remain on the similar theater for the qualifying 15 years and was rarer beneath Mr. Castorf, who had a penchant for firing individuals). However, the current period of managerial and creative upheavals on the theater has been making an attempt; by his personal admission, he was “put within 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 choices ranged from Richard Strauss to Tom Lehrer.

“Had I stayed in Toronto,” Mr. Nijenhuis leaned in to inform me. “I might have in all probability grow to be a bus driver.”

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