Berlin Philharmonic An Orchestra in Discord

The members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra might find harmony while playing music, but their inability to agree upon a successor to Simon Rattle has struck a jarring note.
One conductor to rule them all.

Twelve hours after Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra members failed to elect a new artistic director, they were once again onstage, rehearsing Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony.”

It was scheduled to be performed that evening during a ceremony commemorating the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany 50 years ago.

At least in terms of the interplay between the instruments, harmony reigned once again.

On Monday, orchestra members debated about the future of the group and the ideal successor for Simon Rattle, who intends to step down in 2018.

There is a deep rift among the various factions in the world-famous classical orchestra which ultimately led the 124 members eligible to vote to announce they had failed to agree on a head conductor.

“The mood during the meeting was described by all participants as quite constructive, collegial and friendly,” according to a statement released Monday at 11 p.m. But the members of the orchestra are staying silent about exactly what happened at the gathering.

The official word is the voting procedure that the orchestra agreed upon and let a lawyer examine forbids revealing internal matters.

But according to a prominent figure from the Berlin classical music scene, many musicians were in the dark about the outcome of the votes.

The source said that after each round of voting Monday, only four orchestra members were informed about the exact results. The rest learned only that once again, no agreement had been reached.

On Tuesday, it was no easy task for conductor Paavo Järvi to lead a rehearsal under these conditions. At least he could stand in front of the orchestra without inhibition, because his name was not on the short list of favorites.

They include Andris Nelson, a 36-year-old Latvian who stands for the continuation of an aesthetic direction pursued by Mr. Rattle since 2002: curious, also in investigating the margins of the repertoire.

Christian Thielemann, 56, is a further candidate, Prussian traditionalist and a specialist in German Romanticism.

Then there's Daniel Barenboim, a close friend of the orchestra for more than 50 years and — despite all assertions that he would not leave the Berlin State Opera — someone who could fill the position with an august stature.

Ricardo Chailly is said to be the fourth candidate. A sensitive Italian, he is Mr. Barenboim's successor at Milan's La Scala and the director of music at Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Some observers speculated the selection ended up being between Mr. Nelson and Mr. Thielemann.

How problematic is the failure to agree?

Peter Raue, Berlin's best-known music lover who was present as a notary at the prior elections of Claudio Abbado and Mr. Rattle, made no comment.

Karl Leister, who was the solo clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1959 to 1993, said he doesn't believe the failure to elect a leader has damaged the orchestra’s reputation. He hopes nonetheless that it won't happen again. “The members are all — to put it in friendly terms — individualists,” Mr. Leister said. “But with a vote like this, you have to think of everyone and not just yourself.”

Internationally, the non-decision was greeted with surprise. British music journalist Norman Lebrecht wrote in his blog that he was concerned about the orchestra's prestige: “The uncertainty that came to light in yesterday’s discussion weakens the orchestra’s bold image,” he wrote. And he feared that candidates who might have been waiting for a call may no longer be reachable at the next round of voting. “Nobody likes being passed over, or considered second-best.”

Berlin's cultural secretary Tim Renner was more diplomatic: “It is sometimes better to postpone an important decision rather than to make one that doesn't have sufficient support in the orchestra.”

The Berlin Philharmonic might very well be the world’s best orchestra, but it certainly ranks among the world’s most emotional ensembles.

That was the case with the last three artistic directors. Until the selection of Herbert von Karajan, the orchestra did not decide on its own but only in consultation with the Wolff Concert Agency, which at that time managed the ensemble that was still organized as a private enterprise.

Only in 1954, when head conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler died, did the orchestra members make a decision entirely on their own. Two weeks after Mr. Furtwängler's death, they announced: “The assembled permanent members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra consider Herbert von Karajan to be the artistic personality who is capable of continuing the tradition of the orchestra. The resolution has been passed unanimously.”

Mr. Karajan agreed “with thousand-fold joy” and outmaneuvered the musicians, who at first wanted to engage him only for a test period, by making a demand that he immediately be granted the position for life. Which then happened.

Video: The Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle preform Symphony No. 4 by Schumann.

Things looked quite different 34 years later when the musicians searched for as a successor to Mr. Karajan. In the eyes of the orchestra, there were ten possible candidates. All were asked whether they would accept the position if they were elected — and except for one, all agreed.

By electing Mr. Abbado in 1989, the musicians decided against tradition and opted for a new direction. Whereas Mr. Karajan liked an opulent sound, Mr. Abbado focused on acoustic transparency. And on composers whom the orchestra had previously avoided.

The orchestra members made another progressive selection when Mr. Abbado announced he would be leaving Berlin in the summer of 2002. At that time, the orchestra was divided into the traditionalist Barenboim-devotees and the innovative Rattle-fans. The vote went smoothly, but it took a long time for the losing faction to come to terms with the result that made Mr. Rattle the winner. Some sources say that even today about 30 musicians have maintained their hostile attitude.

Mr. Barenboim's advice to a young maestro is famous: If he couldn't stand the thought of being hated by half the orchestra, he shouldn't take up the profession.

“Making music is simply a very emotional affair,” said double-bass player Peter Riegelbauer on the day after Monday’s vote. He and his viola-playing colleague Ulrich Knörzer led Monday's marathon session at the Lutheran parish hall in Berlin's Dahlem district. Mr. Riegelbauer as well declined to give any details regarding either the voting procedure or the discussion. But he appealed for understanding that the musicians had to adjourn the meeting: “We take this decision very seriously.”

During the selections of Mr. Karajan, Mr. Abbado and Mr. Rattle, the requirement of a head conductor was to make good music — and that was enough. Nowadays, the artistic director is also expected to be the face of the orchestra, a great communicator, open to all activities of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from youth-outreach work to being active online.

The Berlin Philharmonic might very well be the world’s best orchestra, but it certainly ranks among the world’s most emotional ensembles. Watchers of the Vienna Philharmonic might gain impression of an immobile collective of players; with the Berlin orchestra, an undulating ocean of bodies, everything is in motion.

Mr. Riegelbauer is particularly concerned that the non-decision might have hurt the candidates’ feelings: “That would be the worst signal of all.” For anyone who had considered himself to be in the running now knows that in the eyes of the orchestra, he can't deliver all the goods: to be a great artist, a politician and PR strategist, a profound interpreter and media darling. “We didn't intend to devalue anyone,” Mr. Riegelbauer said. “Because we hold all the candidates in high esteem.”

What’s next? Mr. Riegelbauer said it would be a year before another attempt would be made to vote and reach a consensus. He said he would prefer if things moved more quickly.

Nothing will happen until after the summer, to give the musicians time to reconsider their positions. Already some are wondering whether an entirely different solution might work better and if having just one head conductor is still in line with the times.


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the authors: [email protected]