Berlin firemen battle to save Philharmonic building

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BERLIN, May 20 (Reuters) - Scores of firefighters battled to put out a blaze at the home of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra on Tuesday that sent banks of thick smoke billowing from the city's architectural landmark.

Around 170 firefighters and more than 30 vehicles were trying to extinguish the fire, which broke out during an afternoon concert, the local fire brigade said.

Using saws, firefighters peeled back sections of the slanted roof to get closer to the fire, while flames began flickering through gaps elsewhere in the covering in late afternoon.

Musicians and visitors to the Philharmonie, a controversial design by Hans Scharoun completed in 1963, were not hurt in what was the first serious blaze at the building, police said.

"It makes you want to cry, to be honest," said 33-year-old baritone Christof Hartkopf as he looked at the burning building.

Hartkopf said he was due to sing in a performance of Hector Berlioz's Te Deum conducted by Claudio Abbado this weekend.

Police cordoned off the angular, yellow concert hall, which is renowned for its acoustics. As plumes of thick smoke spread across the city, scores of people gathered for a closer look.

Karsten Goewecke of the Berlin fire brigade told a news conference inside a fireproofed section of the building that efforts to extinguish the blaze would likely continue overnight.

Police said an investigation into what triggered the fire was in progress, but that it may have been caused by work being carried out on the roof.

Pamela Rosenberg, the orchestra's general director, said she hoped it could stage all of its planned concerts in Berlin.

"We're holding a crisis meeting this evening to look at where else we can go," she told the news conference.

The blaze was reported shortly before around 720 musicians, including 400 children, had been scheduled to rehearse Berlioz's Te Deum in the building, Rosenberg added.

"So thank God the fire broke out beforehand," she said.

The orchestra, which was founded more than 120 years ago, is regarded as one of the world's most prestigious. Britain's Simon Rattle is its principal conductor.

Officials from the orchestra told a news conference all portable musical instruments had been removed to safety.

Berlin's fire brigade said there was no danger the roof would collapse, but that the building was in danger. The extent to which water or foam could damage the interior was not clear.

The blaze appeared to have started between the roof and the insulating materials beneath it, the fire brigade said. (Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Ralph Boulton)