In Berlin an Old Tram-Repair Shop Attracts Prestigious Musicians, Irks Agents

In Berlin an Old Tram-Repair Shop Attracts Prestigious Musicians, Irks Agents :Piano Salon Christophori Lauded for Its Peculiar Acoustics and Experimental Spirit; Talent Managers Don’t Approve.

Forget the Berliner Philharmonie. The hip place to hear classical music here in the capital of Germany isn’t the late Hans Scharoun’s acclaimed concert hall but a former tram-repair shop with free booze and a collection tin for donations.

In just 10 years, Christoph Schreiber, a neurologist and spare-time piano restorer, has turned his workshop and occasional rehearsal room into Berlin’s quirkiest recital space for visiting pianists.

With its industrial air, peculiar acoustics, experimental spirit and period instruments, the Piano Salon Christophori has attracted prestigious pianists and other soloists from the U.S., Europe and Asia. Berliners have embraced it, but it has also drawn unwanted attention from talent managers and record labels whose affairs its unrepentant founder threatens to disrupt by letting their artists perform experimental pieces on exotic instruments in a rundown venue without their approval.

“It looks chaotic but it’s not,” says Mr. Schreiber, a lean 43-year-old in a fleece jacket. Lids, soundboards and other piano parts are propped against the walls. Industrial cranes, black with grease, hang alongside flea-market chandeliers from steel beams above the stage. Assorted canteen chairs, seating a potential audience of 400, stretch 10 rows deep. The cement floor glistens, wet from the gallons of water needed to maintain humidity the musical instruments require.

“The chaos here, crossed with the music, generates a new experience,” says Mr. Schreiber. “It’s like jazz, gypsy style.”

His revolutionary concept has struck at least three chords in this fiercely egalitarian city. Access to high culture is considered a right here and people are obsessed with classical music. The city boasts three opera houses, two large concert halls and eight professional orchestras. And Bohemian aesthetics prevail. The current mayor, Klaus Wowereit, once quipped that Berlin is “poor but sexy.”

Christophori eschews capitalism. Seats are assigned by a computer algorithm that rewards loyalty rather than wealth: Regulars sit closer to the stage and a single no-show will set you all the way back to the last row. Beer and wine are on the house (smoking is no longer allowed) and there is no fixed charge though donations are encouraged. Two-thirds of proceeds go to performers.

The salon is no rich man’s toy. Every other week, Mr. Schreiber spends 64 hours at Berlin’s massive UKB hospital treating hemorrhages, strokes and fractured skulls. The rest of the time, he pores over disemboweled grand pianos, scrubs the toilets and talks repertoire with visiting artists. He cannot afford a car, he says, and ferries wine crates and empties between his workshop and the supermarket in a bicycle trailer.

“I don’t read newspapers, I don’t have a TV. I work, I do this, and I look after my two kids,” he says.

An amateur pianist, an accomplished swimmer and would-be Chanoyu Japanese tea-master, Mr. Schreiber first developed an interest in old pianos in medical school. His passion acquainted him with performers, who would rehearse in his studio, initially located in a former post office, then in a hat factory and finally in its current riverbank location, off a street dotted with gambling parlors, pawn shops and kebab restaurants.

Ten years after its founding, the salon has 6,500 names on its mailing list and holds about 160 concerts a year. On busy nights, lines spill out into the yard past a cafe housed in the remains of an old bus. Star soloists have flocked in droves.

Artists say closeness to the audience and the salon’s interesting acoustics are the main draws. The dismembered pianos lining the walls “create a resonance that’s magnificent,” says Kotaro Fukuma, a Japanese pianist and salon regular. “It’s perfect for Franz Liszt.”

Another attraction is the chance to play period instruments renovated by Mr. Schreiber. These range from delicate French-made Erards and Pleyels to the titanic “Quattro Chord SuperflĂŒgel,” also known as the “Hitler Grand,” a 1,500-pound aircraft carrier of a piano built in 1943 as a very loud answer to U.S.-made Steinways.

Not everyone in the music business gets the doctor’s “Gypsy style,” though. Jan Brachmann, a prominent music critic, says Mr. Schreiber’s main feat is to have “built a relationship with artists while completely bypassing their agents.” But the agents are fighting back.

Two years ago, Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen canceled all future public performances at the salon after his label, Sony Masterworks, inquired about his first gig there. Anastasia Boudanoque, the artist’s manager in New York, says she and Sony thought the recital would be a confidential affair and were shocked to hear the salon had advertised it on its website, from where it was picked up by several listings magazines.

The venue, with its “almost speakeasy character,” is a good place for Mr. Chen to experiment and “try things off the bat,” says Ms. Boudanoque. “But what if a known critic shows up? One bad review in a big German paper can cause a huge amount of damage.”

Many music executives shudder at the thought of their artists playing obscure pieces on strange-sounding pianos in the musical equivalent of a scrapyard. Michael BrĂŒgemann, head of the German classical music business at Sony Music Entertainment in Berlin, says “it used to be that small concerts did not get much visibility. But now, with Google alerts and Twitter, the news is very fast
The artist is a lot more transparent.”

Mr. Chen is not alone. Several famous artists, including German crossover violinist David Garrett, German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott and Kit Armstrong of the U.S., use the Salon regularly for rehearsals and private recitals but not for public performances.

Paradoxically, the establishment is pushing back against Mr. Schreiber just as it embraces his laid-back approach. Berlin’s main halls have expanded their formats to short lunchtime recitals and late-night programs. Radialsystem V GmbH, an events company, organizes classical concerts in a converted water pumping station while artists on the stable of Deutsche Grammophon, a label owned by Universal Music Group, promote their albums in dance clubs.

The cycling brain doctor, however, seems to be one step ahead. His next project: A chamber music festival that will run over three weeks in September and mix standard works with less known pieces and improvisation. The organization will be decidedly bohemian: The 48 guest artists will stay at friends’ and their fees won’t exceed about $700.

So how big can Christophori grow before it, too, becomes a staid institution? Mr. Schreiber says the salon, now “a mouse among dinosaurs,” will remain one man’s hobby: “This place lives from its oligarchic nature; from the fact that everything—from the toilet paper we use to the music we play—is up to me.”

In Berlin, an Old Tram-Repair Shop Attracts Prestigious Musicians, Irks Agents

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