Musicians Rush to Save Instruments as Berlin Philharmonic Goes Up in Flames

Firefighters on Tuesday battled a blaze below the roof of the Berlin Philharmonic's home that sent a plume of acrid gray smoke pouring from the crest of the famed 1960s building and had musicians rushing to save their instruments.

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The blaze broke out beneath the roof of the building over the main concert hall, which seats 2,440 and is famed for its extraordinary acoustics. Officials said there were no injuries.

Police spokeswoman Heike Nagora said that welding work had been carried out on the building's tin roof earlier in the day, and police were investigating that as a possible cause.

Senior fire officer Karsten Goewecke said the first call alerting officers to the fire came at 1:57 p.m. Firefighters then cut open parts of the tent-shaped roof, some 160 feet above the ground, to get at the fire.

"We know where it is burning" — in an interior area between the insulated ceiling and the metal skin of the roof — Goewecke said. He added that he believed a combination of roof materials such as insulation, wood and tar paper was on fire. A room containing technical equipment is located beneath the spot.

The cloud of smoke, which was visible from far away shortly after the fire broke out, diminished significantly during the afternoon. The capital's fire service declared the fire to be under control shortly after 7 p.m.

The fire broke out around the time a lunchtime concert in the building's ground-floor foyer was letting out and an hour before 700 people were due to start rehearsing Hector Berlioz' "Te Deum" for a series of weekend concerts being directed by Claudio Abbado, the orchestra's former chief conductor.

"Thank God the fire broke out earlier," said Pamela Rosenberg, the orchestra's general manager.

Goewecke said that about 300 people were in the building when the fire broke out, but they were evacuated without any panic.

Bassoonist Stefan Schweigert said he had arrived at 2:20 p.m. and found the fire already under way.

Still, musicians — assisted by firefighters — were allowed into the building to remove instruments they had left in their lockers overnight following Monday's rehearsal.

"We just tried to save the instruments that were locked in the musicians' lockers," Schweigert said, noting that many of the instruments, such as the pianos and timpani, were too large to be removed.

Schweigert said that, while he was in the main concert hall and the musicians' locker rooms behind it, he could not see any damage but could smell smoke.

Another musician, Finnish bassist Janna Fakfalr, said someone had called him to tell him the building was on fire. He said his first thought was to rush there and save his instrument.

"I could not believe it," he said, clutching his double bass in its burgundy case.

Peter Riegelbauer, a senior orchestra member, told reporters later that about 50 "priceless" instruments — most of them string instruments — were removed in total, and that "we can rule out" the risk of any damage to any others. Heavier instruments, such as concert pianos, were housed below the main concert hall, and not in immediate danger.

Rosenberg added that the Philharmonic's archive of music, located in the basement, was not at risk.

The removed instruments were taken to a nearby building. Riegelbauer said the Philharmonic was looking for alternative venues for the planned concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday under Abbado, the predecessor of current chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle.

Goewecke said there was no damage so far to the building's interior from water used to douse the flames. He added that firefighters were trying to use more foam than water in an effort to minimize potential damage.

The Philharmonie is a landmark in downtown Berlin, where its asymmetrical shape resembling a big-top circus tent juts into the skyline beside the Potsdamer Platz complex. At its center is the main concert hall, with its pentagonally shaped orchestra pit and tiers of seats that radiate out from it so that the musicians sit in the center of the audience.

Specially formed wooden structures affixed to the walls create highly natural acoustics for every seat in the house.