Concert to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

26 Apr 2011

Staatskapelle Berlin, Strings of the Berliner Philharmoniker
Andrey Boreyko

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Chamber Symphony in C minor · Ukrainian and Russian Chorusses (70 min.)

    Therese Affolter Speaker, Christian Brückner Speaker, ”Credo” Chamber Choir Kiev, Strings of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Bogdan Plish Direction

  • Tōru Takemitsu
    Requiem for string orchestra (10 min.)

    Staatskapelle Berlin

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74 “Pathétique” (52 min.)

    Staatskapelle Berlin

  • free

    Benefit concert for the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (10 min.)

In a joint benefit concert in April 2011, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Staatskapelle Berlin commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl reactor disaster. This day of remembrance was all the more relevant given the nuclear disaster in Fukushima just a few weeks previously. The concert, with works by Dmitri Shostakovitch, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Tōru Takemitsu, was conducted by Andrey Boreyko. The chamber choir Credo from Kiev also sing liturgical songs and religious cantatas from Russia and Ukraine.

Chernobyl and Fukushima have become symbols of the risks associated with nuclear energy – and the devastating consequences, lasting over decades, children in particular suffer from. A reminder, but not only that: the aim of the evening was to commemorate the many victims of the reactor disasters in Chernobyl and Japan. The evening’s musical elements were accompanied by texts by Svetlana Alexievich, Günther Anders and other writers. Proceeds from the concert and the live webcast from the Digital Concert Hall went to organisations that provide help especially for young people in Chernobyl and Japan. 

A concert by IPPNW-Concerts, the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

The Atom in War and Peace

Eight years after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the atomic arms race was by then already well underway – US President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented his programme “Atoms for Peace” to the UN General Assembly. He declared that the USA would share its knowledge of atomic energy with the nations of the world – not to build new bombs, but “to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” The speech met with an enthusiastic response. Shortly after, the US Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to increase support for the commercial development of new forms of energy. General Electric Corporation sold millions of copies of a pamphlet on “the atom at work”, and Walt Disney Productions made the TV film Our Friend the Atom.

In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in Vienna. As an autonomous organization reporting to the UN General Assembly and Security Council, its mission is to support nuclear power programmes around the world. There was, however a side effect: every country in possession of a nuclear power plant also has access to the materials needed to build a nuclear bomb, because reactors using uranium produce plutonium. And so the operation of nuclear power plants increases the risk of international proliferation of nuclear weapons. At the end of 1985, there were 374 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide. From the founding of the IAEA up to 2006, the club of atomic powers grew from three members to nine. One thing became a certainty: the atom for peace is the twin brother and accomplice of the atom for war.

The first nuclear accidents with widespread radioactive contamination, in the USA and the USSR, commanded hardly any public attention. When a serious accident occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – one of the nuclear power plant’s two units suffered a partial meltdown, releasing significant radioactivity into the environment – TIME magazine titled its exhaustive cover story on the incident “Nuclear Nightmare”. Worse was still to come.

Chernobyl and the end of time

On 26 April 1986 at 1.23 in the morning, a series of explosions destroyed the reactor and building of power unit four. A pillar of fire spewed nuclear fuel and radioactive fission products into the atmosphere to be carried off by the wind. Northern Ukraine and what is now Belarus were most heavily affected by radioactive precipitation in the days immediately following, but within a week the Chernobyl disaster had become the entire world’s problem. In Germany politicians argued about reasonable limits of radioactive contamination in food, nursing mothers had their milk inspected, and pregnant women feared for their unborn children.

For little Belarus, where a large portion of the radioactive cloud landed, and its barely 10 million inhabitants, the event turned into a national calamity. Today a fifth of the population lives on radioactively contaminated land. That’s 2 million people, of which 700,000 are children. Exposure to radioactivity has become a leading cause of death in the region. In some areas the death rate exceeds the number of births.

The situation is similar for people in the bordering regions of Ukraine and Russia. In her book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Svetlana Alexievich allows them to speak for themselves. These are harrowing documents of the event that has gone down in history as the worst accident since the “peaceful” use of atomic energy began. More than half a million “liquidators”, mostly army personnel, from all over the Soviet Union are deployed – often involuntarily and without having been informed of the risks in their assignment – to deal with the consequences of the reactor disaster, especially in salvage operations. Those who must go up to the roof of the destroyed nuclear plant – for up to two minutes a day, with inadequate protection – in order to remove radioactive debris literally go through hell. Afterwards they are discharged from the army, receiving a certificate and a bonus of 100 rubles before disappearing into their homeland’s endless expanses. Apart from stories of a few individuals’ fates, there have been no reports of what later happened to these people. The inhabitants of Chernobyl believe that the “end of time” has come: “The image of the enemy has suddenly changed: the mowed hay could be lethal, or a fish or animal just caught, an apple. The world around us, which used to be so amenable and friendly, now fills us with dread.” (Svetlana Alexievich)

Those of us living far away do not feel this and suppress what we know: the tiny particles with long radioactive half-lives, those atoms of “peace” or “war”, gone with the wind following hundreds of above-ground atomic tests and the Chernobyl disaster, have become our permanent companions. They are inside us, in our lakes and seas and a few centimetres under the ground in our gardens, fields, woods and meadows. There are today, in 30 countries, some 440 nuclear reactors at 210 nuclear power plants. At any of these reactors, at any time, an uncontrollable breakdown can happen, and the nuclear worst-case scenario can repeat itself. Nobody wants to ask seriously about the consequences of a massive atomic disaster in a highly industrialized and densely populated country. Is Murphy’s Law – “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” – valid even when the highest standard of technology prevails?

Then something occurred that no-one would previously have thought possible: on 11 March 2011, at 2.45.49 in the afternoon, local time, Japan and its people were devastated by a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami. There were nuclear accidents at several reactors. Safety precautions malfunctioned. The rest of the world looked on helplessly at this country and its people. At that moment, every other nuclear power plant on the planet was still in operation.

Why have we learned nothing from all of this? The philosopher Günther Anders, author of the book Hiroshima Is Everywhere, viewed mankind as suffering from the condition he called “apocalypse blindness” or “apocalypse apathy”. We are “utopians in reverse”, incapable of imagining what we ourselves have made. (Utopians cannot make what they imagine.) Anders’s words following the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl are more relevant than ever: “The continuing use of these power plants is sheer homicide, genocide, even the extinction of the future. The comparison between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants is legitimate. Chernobyl showed that, even if their purpose – unlike that of bombs or rockets – is not the death of thousands, these facilities are resigned to those deaths. The expression ‘peaceful use of nuclear energy’ is a lie. It is we who are under attack, humanity as a whole is being attacked and must defend itself.”


Translation: Richard Evidon

Therese Affolter was brought to the Staatstheater Stuttgart by Claus Peymann after she had completed her acting studies in Vienna in 1974. Further engagements took her to the Schauspielhaus in Hamburg (1980 – 1982) and to the Residenztheater in Munich (1982 – 1984), before working with Jürgen Flimm initially in Cologne, then at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. In 1987, George Tabori brought her to his Theater Der Kreis, which he led at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna. Therese Affolter worked once again under the direction of Claus Peymann in the ensemble of the Burgtheater in Vienna; she then followed him to the Berliner Ensemble. She is particularly well known to theatre audiences as an interpreter of Brecht. In February 2002, she took on the role of Petra Kelly in the premiere of Das Ende der Paarung by Franz Xaver Kroetz. One of her greatest successes on screen was her performance as Ulrike Meinhoff in the 1986 Golden Bear award-winning film Stammheim (director: Reinhard Hauff). Therese Affolter’s awards include the Solothurn Canton Art Prize (2001). This will be her first appearance as a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.

Andrey Boreyko, general music director of the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker since the beginning of the 2009/2010, comes from St. Petersburg where he studied conducting and composition at the local conservatory. A winner of many awards (e.g. the “Grzegorz Fitelberg” competition in Katowice, and the “Kirill Kondrashin” competition in Amsterdam), he began his conducting career in St. Petersburg, Ulyanovsk, Yekaterinburg and Poznań. This was followed by positions as chief conductor and general music director of the Jenaer Philharmonie (who awarded him the title of honorary conductor), principal guest conductor of the Vancouver Symphony and principal associate conductor of the Russian National Orchestra. In the autumn of 2001 he became music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of the 2004/2005 season. From the beginning of the 2005/2006 season, he took on the same role as chief conductor at the helm of the Berner Symphonieorchester for five seasons. In addition to his obligations in Düsseldorf, he is also principal guest conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi San Sebastian in Spain. In September 2012, he takes up the position of chief conductor of the Orchestre National de Belgique. Andrey Boreyko has made guest appearances with leading orchestras all over the world, including the Munich Philharmonic and the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the major London orchestras, and the leading American orchestras in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. At the invitation of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, he conducted the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie in works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy and Bartók just a few weeks ago.

Christian Brückner was born in Silesia and grew up in Cologne. In Berlin, he studied German, sociology and theatre studies, attended acting courses, took voice classes, and quickly found engagements with the city’s radio stations and synchronization studios. He has provided the German voice for a great number of actors, particularly Robert de Niro, but also Alain Delon, Warren Beatty and Harvey Keitel. Christian Brückner has performed in innumerable radio plays, literary programmes and features, as well as audio books and television documentaries, for which he received the special gold Grimme Award in 1990. He continues to appear on stage in Freiburg, Berlin and New York. Christian Brückner’s public readings, which are often given in a musical context, are very important to him, and form a major element of his work today. His appearances in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation include the narrator in Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat in February 2004, and as the reader at the Philharmonic Salons in April 2007 and October 2008.

The Chamber Choir Credo was founded by Bogdan Plish in June 2002. Its members, 40 talented, young singers, are graduates and students of Kiev’s P. I.Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine and the University of National Culture and Art. In the last five years, the choir has rehearsed and performed more than 60 concert programmes. The main focus of the ensemble’s activities is promoting rare, ambitious sacred and secular compositions. The repertoire includes sacred music from the past as well as by modern composers. What is particularly impressive is the sound culture of the choir: duos, trios and solo voices are used on their own or against the background of the whole choir. For example, double choirs, antiphonal contrasts of male and female voices, and multilayered polyphony are exploited in The Chants and Prayers by Georgy Sviridov, a favourite student of Shostakovich. The choir has taken part in many sacred music festivals in Russia, Poland, Italy and Germany. In 2005, Credo was named “the crowning glory of the festival” in Rottenburg. Highlights in Berlin and Brandenburg have included the Remembrance Day concert in the Berliner Dom in 2006, the concert to commemorate Hiroshima in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in 2007, and the performance of Alexander Gretchaninov’s Liturgia Domestica in the Church of Peace in Potsdam-Sanssouci. The chamber choir Credo made its debut in the Philharmonie in Berlin with a lunchtime concert in December 2009; a recording of the concert is available on CD No. 62 on the IPPNW-Concerts label.

Bogdan Plish, born in 1977, is a graduate of the P. I.Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine in Kiev. In 2005 he won the Grand Prix for choir directors in Ukraine. In his work, Bogdan Plish places particular emphasis on sacred and secular a cappella works by classical and contemporary composers. In 2008, he appeard with the ensemble of the Kiev State Opera in Japan.

The Staatskapelle Berlin is one of the oldest orchestras in the world, with a tradition that goes back to the 16th century. Founded by Joachim II. Elector of Brandenburg as a court orchestra, its activities increased with the establishment of the royal court opera by Frederick the Great in 1742. The orchestra has close ties to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. Leading figures from the world of music have headed the opera and the orchestra’s concert seasons, which have taken place regularly since 1842. Gaspare Spontini, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Felix von Weingartner, Richard Strauss, Erich Kleiber, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Franz Konwitschny and Otmar Suitner are some of the conductors who have played a significant role in shaping the Staatskapelle Berlin’s instrumental and interpretive culture. Daniel Barenboim has led the orchestra as general music director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden since 1992. In 2000, the Staatskapelle elected him conductor for life. Regular tours have taken the orchestra to all the great European music centres, to Israel, Japan, China, and North and South America, highlighting its international position. The magazine Opernwelt voted the Staatskapelle Berlin “orchestra of the year” five times between 2000 and 2008. In 2009, it celebrated a triumphant success with their ten-part Mahler cycle under the baton of Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez at the Musikverein in Vienna and Carnegie Hall in New York. In addition to opera performances and symphonic concerts, many members of the Staatskapelle participate in a variety of chamber groups and in the ensemble Preußens Hofmusik. In their orchestra academy, which was founded in 1997, young musicians have the opportunity to gain professional experience in opera and concerts, with members of the Staatskapelle in the role of mentors, many of whom also are involved on a voluntary basis in the Musikkindergarten Berlin, which was founded on the initiative of Daniel Barenboim in 2005.

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