Helena Madoka Berg, Luis Esnaola and Václav Vonášek

New members of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Helena Madoka Berg
(Photo: Sebastian Hänel)

They did it! After successfully completing their probationary periods, violinists Helena Madoka Berg and Luis Esnaola, plus contrabassoonist Václav Vonášek are now members of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Here, we introduce you to the three young musicians.

“A gift is also an obligation”: Helena Madoka Berg

“When I found out that I passed the probation period, I was very happy. However, it took a while for the news to sink in,” says Helena Madoka Berg, a member of the first violin section since 2016 and a full member of the Berliner Philharmoniker since the autumn of 2017. Born in Berlin, she comes from a family of musicians: both her mother and father are violinists, so it was only natural for her to take up the same instrument. Initially, she did not think about a professional career but then, in 2001, she won the Jakob Stainer Violin Competition and the jury members, including Igor Oistrakh, said: “A gift is also an obligation”. These words made a big impression on her, and Helena Madoka Berg decided to become a violinist. After studying at the Julius Stern Institute of the Berlin University of the Arts under Tomasz Tomaszewski, at the Juilliard School in New York under Robert Mann and at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin under Antje Weithaas, she received a scholarship to the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Karajan Academy. This gave her the opportunity to play in the orchestra and to be infected by the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of the musicians. Her first job after took her to the Munich Philharmonic, then in 2013 she joined the second violin section of the Berliner Philharmoniker – and failed to pass the probationary period. But her dream was still to be part of this orchestra. Encouraged by orchestral colleagues, she applied again for a position a few months later, this time with the first violins. As she says,“I had nothing to lose”. She was accepted: she convinced them and proved that she had developed: “As a section violinist, you usually have to hold yourself back a lot. But with the Philharmoniker, everyone can and is expected to develop as an individual. For me, it was a question of how far I could go without disturbing the group dynamic. That was an important learning process for me.”

“During this time; I grew up musically again”: Luis Esnaola

“I’m really happy, and very relieved to have passed the probationary period. Now I have the certainty that I can stay!” laughs Luis Esnaola. The native Spaniard, who has also been playing in the first violin section since 2016, is now one of the musicians to have been accepted as a full member of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He looks back with gratitude on the probationary period. He found it a phase during which he was able to learn and listen to much of his colleagues’ phrasing and sound. It was during this time – as Esnaola says – that he grew up musically again. The special highlights of his first orchestral position which remain in his memory are when he played Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, and the performance of Piotr Illych Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, conducted by Kirill Petrenko. His music-loving parents encouraged his enthusiasm for the violin. When he was only twelve, Luis Esnaola knew that he wanted to become a professional violinist. He studied with the greats of his field: Donald Weilerstein at the New England Conservatory and Antje Weithaas at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin, where he graduated in 2012 with a masters degree in music. During his studies, he received a scholarship to the Karajan Academy where he was taught by Christophe Horak. “The time at the academy was fantastic,” he says with great enthusiasm. “I gained my first orchestral experience, and I got to know the working rhythm of an orchestra.” Luis Esnaola’s first job was as leader of the second violins with the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich where he perfected his orchestral playing skills and deepened his knowledge of the repertoire: good preparation for the job with the Berliner Philharmoniker. What the young musician finds particularly fascinating about the Philharmoniker's violin section is that “The strings show a great deal of initiative but are still part of the overall sound. That’s a great combination”.

“We build the sound from the bottom up”: Václav Vonášek

The news that the Berliner Philharmoniker had accepted him as a full member reached Václav Vonášek before the end of the official probationary period. Shortly before the decisive vote, he had impressed his orchestra colleagues with his burlesque contrabassoon solo in Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère l'Oye. “I was lucky,” says the musician with a smile. “During the probationary period, all those works were programmed that featured great solo parts for my instrument and that allowed me to show my full potential.” When Václav Vonášek took up the contrabassoon position with the Philharmoniker in March 2016, he was already an experienced orchestral musician: he had ten years with Prague’s Czech Philharmonic Orchestra as second bassoon and contrabassoon under his belt and had mastered his instrument’s repertoire. But – as the musician says – things were very different with the Philharmoniker in Berlin: “Here I have seen that colleagues regard the tutti sections as importantly as the solos. They play them just as beautifully, with precision and expression. This is enormously important for the overall sound.” Added to this is the special atmosphere of the Scharoun-designed concert hall which never fails to inspire him. The contrabassoonist sees himself as a link between the woodwind section and the double basses, with which he forms the sonic foundation of the orchestra: “We build the sound from the bottom up.” A task that delights him. Václav Vonášek initially played clarinet before it was suggested to him after passing the entrance examination at the conservatory in Pilsen to learn bassoon. “I didn’t hesitate for a second and agreed immediately because I loved the shape of the instrument and its sound.” Later, he continued his training at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and at the Royal College of Music in London. In the English capital, he also met his wife, a Czech violinist. Now that he knows he is staying with the Philharmoniker, his main goal is to bring her and their children to Berlin.

Luis Esnaola Václav Vonášek