After 20 years in Manhattan, German star cellist Jan Vogler invited us on a tour of his city – on foot, on the subway, and on bicycles.
We’re there, right at the top. The uniformed doorman knocks three times on the inside of the elevator door. The 16-story building dates from 1924, as does the elevator. It is manually operated, with the kind of sliding lever old steamboats have on their bridge. “Come on in!” says a voice from the other side, and we step straight into Jan Vogler’s apartment, a penthouse on the Upper West Side. We climb up to the roof to take in the amazing view right across Manhattan. “This used to be a Jewish quarter,” says Vogler. “Today, there are lots of musicians living here, especially in the penthouses.” When there’s only sky above you, there’s no one to be annoyed by your music.
Vogler was born in East Berlin in 1964, and his prodigious talent was soon recognized. At just 20, amazingly young, he was appointed first cellist of the German Democratic Republic’s most prestigious orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden. Today, he is one of the most sought-after soloists in the world. He’s been living in New York for 20 years now. And he’s going to spend the day showing us this New York, his New York: we’ll be walking, taking the subway, and – pretty daredevil – riding bicycles.
We stroll along Broadway, the sun on our faces. First stop: Murray’s Sturgeon Shop. The place doesn’t seem to have changed much since it opened in 1946. Vogler comes here when he’s not touring. We take a few slices of gravlox – salmon reminds him of his mom’s cooking. “There’s still an Old World feeling in New York,” says Vogler, who was raised in Prenzlauer Berg, the dissidents’ area of Berlin. He sought and found a similar intellectual spirit on the Hudson: “New York is full of smart, talented people. It’s not always comfortable, but it shapes you.” Being cool is essentially a given in this city where people work hard, “are always ‘on’.” In his native Berlin, coolness is a front, and the city is “simply too cozy and complacent.”
We take the subway at 86th Street. Vogler first came to New York in 1989, for a tour. As an exceptional musician, he belonged to the East German elite who were permitted to travel abroad. He arrived with no dollars – and then lost his wallet. Vogler hauled himself, his cello and his suitcase the 34 blocks to the Juilliard Music School in the pouring rain. “I kept thinking: Why I am doing this?” In East Germany, he was a star, now here he was, tramping across a hostile city without a cent in his pocket. But when he woke up the following day, the sun was shining. “‘How lovely,’ I thought! And I’m still thinking it.” Not long after, still in New York, he watched the Berlin Wall fall.
At the Hudson Yards construction site, where 15 new skyscrapers are currently taking shape, we switch to the High Line, a former elevated freight line that was converted into a park in 2006. It’s one of Vogler’s favorite spots – he loves traditions, but also appreciates change. We leave the High Line at the Meatpacking District, the commercial area the track was built to serve in 1932. “Crazy how everything has changed,” says Vogler. Tesla and Louboutin have stores here, and Téchin, who designs Vogler’s stage outfits, also has a boutique nearby. Ten years ago, when Vogler came here for photos, the neglected buildings provided a rundown backdrop. In the booklet of his CD of Weill and Shostakovitch sonatas, you can still see that bygone world.
New York is full of smart, talented people. It’s not always comfortable, but it shapes you
Back to the apartment. The doorman has bikes ready for us: I get Vogler’s spare bicycle and his wife’s helmet. In Brooklyn, there’s a new generation of excellent, unpretentious musicians who love to experiment, including the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and The Knights, a young orchestra that now tours the world. We are going to visit Vogler’s friend, Eric Jacobsen, another cellist, conductor and founder of the two ensembles.
We set out along the Hudson River Greenway that follows the river – the busiest cycle trail in the United States. Ten kilometers further on, level with the One World Trade Center, we make our way across the concrete canyons of Lower Manhattan, detouring red traffic signals like welcome obstacles, crossing onto the sidewalk, returning to one of the green cycle paths, and then back onto the street, depending on which way happens to be clear. Laughing, we climb over concrete barriers, press on through the crowds on Brooklyn Bridge, where the tourists reluctantly part for us. We have to call politely to shoo them away – the bicycles have no bells. Vogler provides a running commentary (“There’s a lovely stink here”) and points out favorite buildings – speed sightseeing. Then, slowing the pace a little, we cross Brooklyn and Prospect Park to brake outside Jacobsen’s house. “That was Chinese delivery style!” Vogler laughs.
Jacobsen makes us coffee – hand-filtered, the hipster way. His wife, Aoife O’Donovan, a singer with the folk band I’m With Her, is rocking the baby and humming a tune from The Sound of Music. The room is filled with laughter, enthusiasm, musician talk; Vogel relates the small and big surprises of traveling with Bill Murray. He recorded a CD with the eccentric actor and they’ve been touring the world for the past two years.
Jacobsen wants Vogler to join him for a performance – with vocals and harp – of music from Carmen. “And at the end, you come dancing onto the stage in a red dress, yaa daa da-da, da daa daa da-da…” He’s joking, of course. Or is he? He could do the dress, Vogler laughs, but dance? Better not! “We’re always making plans, always!” he says, grinning. Bringing people together, planning events – he likes that. “There are thousands of ideas flying around and something always makes it to the street.” And if not, then at least you had a good time.
With all this creative energy, the idea of Jan Vogler someday no longer making plans – that’s really hard to imagine.
For Upper West Side residents, the Cafe Luxembourg is the place to share breakfast or a burger.
Clothes for individualists in the Meatpacking District. The young designer Téchin also tailors outfits for Vogler and Bill Murray.
Tasty Chinese fast food in Midtown Manhattan that pulls in a mainly young crowd.
The culture center has a rich program; directed by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis.
In May, Lufthansa is flying twice daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC) to New York/John F. Kennedy (JFK) and once daily to New York/Newark (EWR). Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app