The Berlin Philharmonic Spoilt for Choice

The Berlin Philharmonic, a world class orchestra with democratic roots
The Berlin Philharmonic, a world class orchestra with democratic roots | Photo: Sebastian Haenel / Berlin Philharmonic

It is a chief conductor drama: the Berlin Philharmonic has not – yet – found a successor to Sir Simon Rattle. And thus have presented themselves as an ensemble that is self-confident.

The failed election of a new chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic by its musicians is like a lesson: it has opened the eyes of observers worldwide, perhaps even those of the parties concerned themselves, to the realization of how highly complex today is the artistic and social situation of a great symphony orchestra – musically, economically, social-psychologically, market technically, medially and digitally. And when this ensemble wants to defend its nimbus as Germany’s most important orchestra, the problems and open questions are only aggravated. How tradition-conscious and / or innovative must the profile of a great symphony orchestra today be? What role does a top orchestra such as the Berlin Philharmonic play in society? In terms of what sound-aesthetics, musical politics and communicative policy is the Philharmonic planning its future? Which artistic director, man or woman, should be responsible for giving it after 2018 its face and weight, its goals and visions? How authoritarianly determining or democratically moderating should the chief conductor be?

The spectrum of candidates

Everything had looked so simple: Sir Simon Rattle, the British chief conductor of the orchestra since 2002, declared in 2013 that he no longer wanted to lead the Berlin Philharmonic beyond 2018. There was time for reflection and planning, for the orchestra and the media to discuss the names of potential successors, and the public debate heated up and came to a head in five or six conductors – until the Philharmonic announced at last the exact day of voting: 11 May 2015, a  Monday. 124 orchestra musicians met to determine by secret ballot their choice of chief conductor. The equally secret site finally leaked out – the Jesus Christ Church in Berlin-Dahlem, where Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle had done some of their best recordings with the orchestra.

A pair of possible candidates of the older generation declined the honour in advance: Daniel Barenboim rather casually at a press conference for his Berlin Staatsoper and Mariss Jansons, who shortly before the Berlin election day extended his contract with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. As the most frequently mentioned candidates remained Christian Thielemann, born in Berlin in 1959, Musical Director of the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden; Andris Nelsons, born in Riga in 1972, Chief Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and Gustavo Dudamel, born in Venezuela in 1981, Musical Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Not among the candidates were Kirill Petrenko, General Musical Director of the Bavarian State Opera; Riccardo Chailly, Chief Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and La Scala in Milan; and Antonio Pappano, Musical Director of the Covent Garden Opera in London. They had, however, supporters amongst the public and probably also in the orchestra.

The democratic principle

The election of their new artistic director lies exclusively with the orchestra members of the Berlin Philharmonic, not their present artistic director and not Berlin’s makers of cultural policy – that's an expression of musical autonomy. The upshot this time: after twelve hours of internal consultation and, presumably, heated debate, no agreement. And no notes, mails or SMS indiscretions from the orchestra, whose members know how to keep a secret. Come ten pm, four members of the orchestra board appeared before the assembled journalists, microphones and cameras. The double bass player Peter Riegelbauer took the floor: “There was a good and lively discussion and several rounds of voting. But unfortunately we couldn’t agree on a conductor”. Riegelbauer, an experienced orchestra politician, continued: “The process of this election will be resumed; we’ll carry on meeting regularly for our orchestra conferences, but we’ll take the time that is needed. It could take a year”.

What had happened? Evidently the musicians could not generate majorities for either of the two “hot” candidates who stand for controversial positions: Christian Thielemann and Andris Nelsons. Thielemann’s strong point lies in the German-Austrian symphonic repertoire of the nineteenth century, including Wagner. Especially the orchestra’s string section, it was said, desired Thielemann and were prepared to accept on account of his empathetic art of interpretation the wayward, polarizing “old German” personality of the conductor who began as Karajan’s assistant. A large part of the rest of orchestra, it appeared, was not. For them the Riga-born Nelsons should be the conductor of the future, a man in the authentic Rattle tradition, open to extensions of the repertoire in the direction of modernism, to education programmes and media relations.

The view of the classical music world

The reaction of the press to the “failure” of the election has been diverse: it ranges from admiration for the democratic spirit to regret and malicious glee. It has also made people think of the Vienna Philharmonic: an orchestra without a chief conductor. There has been a call for a “dual leadership”. But no one has thought of a woman at the conductor’s stand. The “power” of old traditions  – still – endures; the idea of a chief conductor is firmly anchored in people’s minds. A distinctive musical physiognomy, an individual sound culture, the glamour of a great musician – these – still – require an artistic head, an emotional authority, probably also as a projection surface for market and media. Sought for is the “all-rounder” with charisma, should he – still – exist.