The conductor and soloist scene in Germany

Conductors and soloists are often the center of attention at classical music concerts. Meanwhile many give concerts throughout the world. This internationalization has had an impact on the musical life of Germany.

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly; | Copyright: Gerd Mothes The concentration of concert and opera events in Germany continues to be unique in the world. In search of their bread and butter and in hopes of a career, highly qualified young musicians from all over the world stream into German music schools, opera houses, and artist agencies, putting local musicians under competitive pressure. There are 84 publicly funded German theaters with theater orchestras and choirs, as well as about 30 concert orchestras and 13 radio orchestras. Altogether there are around 130 general music director positions or chief conductor posts to fill, not counting the choir and lay choir conductors, as well as the directors of freestyle chamber orchestras, special ensembles of old and new music, church music directors, and wind orchestra conductors. Comparatively high is the emergence of solo performances in the season ticket packages offered by concert and opera houses, in church concerts and festivals.

At the same time, the internationalization of today's musical experience has increased so much that during the 2010 festival season in Bad Kissingen, where for 25 years the "Kissinger Sommer" (one of the largest German festivals for orchestra and concert music) has thrived, only three of the fifteen guest conductors came from Germany and of the fifty invited pianists, only nine were born and educated in Germany and Austria. Today, the elite of the internationally sought-after soloists and conductors come predominately from Russia, Latvia, Great Britain, and Scandinavia—and, as of late in certain genres (classical singing and piano), from China, Japan, and Korea. As a rule, the working language in the orchestras and on the stage is English. However, many are German speakers; in Germany, trained conductors and soloists of high standing are always active on the international stage. Franz Welser-Möst presides for example over the Vienna State Opera as well as the Cleveland Orchestra. Following his positions with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and the Mailand Scala, Christoph Eschenbach will join the Konzerthausorchester Berlin in the 2019-2020 season.

Musicians are travelers

This list could be extended into the past. For example, Christoph von Dohnányi had a decisive influence on the musical life of Cleveland, as did Kurt Masur, who was active as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Conversely, the same happens within the top German orchestras. It is not only the musicians who come from all over the world—it is also the soloists and head conductors: starting in the summer of 2019 the Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko stands at the top of the Berlin Philharmonic; at the top of the best German radio orchestra in Munich is Mariss Jansons, a Latvian; at the top of the WDR Symphony Orchestra is the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste; and the largest opera houses in Hamburg, Berlin and Munich currently have a Japanese-American, an Argentinian and a Russian. What was a matter of course in Furtwängler's time has positively become the exception in the 21st century: German conductors leading the most important German orchestras.

The internationalization of the music world is certainly nothing new. Above all it is not just a result of the general process of globalization in the music business. Even if historically there have always existed clearly identifiable national styles and schools in music, the language of music has always been international. As early as the 15th century, the music profession brought with it a recognized mobility. Musicians are travelers, always crossing borders on their way to places where their performances are in the highest demand and where they will be the best paid. Händel went from Halle to Italy and England; the young Mozart travelled to Milan, Paris, and London; Beethoven went from Bonn to Vienna; Scarlatti from Italy to Spain; Rossini and Bellini from Italy to France; and the biggest soloists of the 19th century (the century of the virtuosos), Franz Liszt and Niccolo Paganini, spoke not only several languages fluently (just like Daniel Barenboim today), they also had several places of residence.

Conducting: a young profession

The conductor's profession is the youngest of all the musical professions. It developed in the 19th century as the middle class appreciation for music expanded, large symphonies grew, and spacious concert halls and opera houses were built accordingly with more than a thousand seats. Soon orchestras expanded to formidable groups of 80 to 120 musicians. Carl Maria von Weber was one of the first music directors who didn't sit with the musicians; instead he stood in 1817 before the orchestra, conducting with a roll of notes in his hand. Ignaz von Mosel used something like a baton for the first time in 1812 and in 1844 Hector Berlioz wrote the first technical book about instruments. The first composers were both composers and soloists in one. Often they were also music theorists and critics. At the beginning of the 19th century, the first division of labor had progressed far enough that Eduard Hanslick, the first full-time music critic, came on the scene, as did Hans von Bülow, the first traveling "star conductor" who didn't need to be tied to any particular music director position. Above all, Hanslick played the piano well enough that he could publicly play four-handed with Liszt. Hans von Bülow also appeared as pianist and composer. His successor at the podium of the Berlin Philharmonic, Arthur Nikisch, was a professionally trained violinist whose successor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, wrote large symphonies and identified his main profession as "composer" all his life. With Herbert von Karajan began the age of the professional, dedicated conductor.

Not coincidentally, Karajan (who incidentally studied composition and initially began his career as a pianist) made the education of young composers a personal concern. First he gave master courses, employed assistants, and founded the first conductor's competition in 1969. More than 700 conductors, including Valeri Gergiev and Mariss Jansons, owe their start to the competition and Karajan's donation. When Christian Thielemann exceeded the timeframe set by the rules and was excluded (against Karajan's wishes) from the 1984 competition by a jury, this effectively meant the end of the competition. Although it couldn't completely compensate for the loss, "Der Deutsche Musikrat" was founded six years later with the "conductor's forum," an aid program with master courses and scholarships. Another earnest attempt is the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, which was carried out for the first time in 2004 in Bamberg. The first winner was the young Gustavo Dudamel (the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). Two years before that, the conductor's competition named after Georg Solti was founded in Frankfurt. Elite and well-funded, it took place every two years. However, of the prize winners in recent years, no one has yet had a successful career.

Competitions as Springboard?

An award from a competition does not guarantee that a conductor will become established. This applies particularly to the competitions in the solo divisions of international music, especially the numerous tradition-rich soloist competitions in Germany and less so for those on the international stage. A violinist who has won the Queen Elizabeth Competition (or a pianist who has won the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw), for example, can be sure that concert engagements at large concert halls will be offered to them; winning the German Louis Spohr Competition or the competition Violin in Dresden are small steps up small stairs in comparison. Currently the most important German competition for young soloists of all levels is the ARD Music Competition in Munich as well as the Bechstein Piano Competition, founded in 2006 as an attempt to equal the large international piano competitions in Brussels, Bozen, Warsaw, and Moscow. And increasingly many individual musicians use their standing to help the elite advancement of young musicians, among them the well-known violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who like other soloists, performs internationally.

As alluded to, despite all tendencies to be equal in the international music scene, there continues to be something comparable to national schools. At the same time it is hotly debated whether it is a matter of the importance of preserving traditions or if it really is about myths. One can observe, for example, the appendices of the legendary Russian piano schools at competitions (i.e. disciples of disciples of famous Russian piano instructor Heinrich Neuhaus). And the "old German" sound, which Furtwängler cultivated and Karajan elevated, is still alive today in German orchestras like the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Staatskapelle Dresden and will be tended and treasured by conductors like Thielemann and Barenboim.