What can Berlin offer a player that Chicago can’t?

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Riccardo Muti took a blow to their pride last night when principal flute Mathieu Dufour ended a period of prolonged vacillation by announcing he was leaving next month to join the Berlin Philharmonic.

Dufour is a central attraction of the Chicago band and his decision was greeted with some bafflement. He will probably earn less in Berlin where, aside from deep public subsidies, commercial and media fees have dried up. He will need to find a new home, new friends, new fans in a foreign language. And he will be moving from an orchestra with a powerful and charismatic music director to one with an open podium and no certainty of its future direction.

So why?

Mathieu is saying nothing.

mathieu dufour

 

As a Frenchman, formerly at the Paris Opéra, he may feel the tug of his home continent. As a cosmopolitan, he will embrace Berlin’s dazzling diversity. And as an artist, he is ever ready to take risks.

He was, in any event, never the most settled member of the Chicago ensemble, having flitted off to Los Angeles for six months in 2009 when the CSO was between music directors. Appointed in 1999, Dufour belonged to the Barenboim era and never struck deep roots.

But his departure leaves Chicago with three big holes in the woodwinds – no principal flute from November, no principal bassoon since David McGill resigned in the summer and a big question over principal oboe Eugene Izotov who has successfully auditioned for the same post in San Francisco. Will he stay or, like Dufour, go?

 

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  • The question isn’t so much what can Berlin offer, but why is Berlin taking from American orchestras: new concertmaster from Pittsburgh, new principal flute from Chicago…?

    Isn’t the Berlin sound supposed to be unique? Isn’t the American sound supposed to be the opposite of the central European sound? Or has the much maligned internationalization of sound finally reached Berlin? Or has the much admired Berlin sound finally made it around the globe?

    The domination of the French school of flute playing (Berlin will now have 2) is to be lamented. All flutes sound alike, whether in Chicago or in Berlin.

    Clarinets and oboes still have distinct English, German, Austrian, American, French sounds. No French clarinetist would ever get invited to play in Berlin (and vice versa!). Let’s hope it stays that way.

    • Good questions. But wasn’t the so-called Berlin Sound always a compromise? Vienna was organic, Berlin synthetic.

      • I wouldn’t call Berlin’s sound synthetic but rather transcendental and multicultural, while Vienna is “authentic” and “regional”. Both are great qualities.
        The Berlin sound was under Karajan a further development and internationalization of the “German sound”. And louder… Louder not only by more force but also by playing the notes fully to the end. Post Karajan it is less obvious, what the Berlin sound actually is.
        What makes the Berlin Phil so great, is, that the individual class of all their players, up to the last tutti desk, allows them to play in many different shades and colors, not only one particular sound. Ideally they can give you whatever sound fits a certain composition best.
        The problem is that you have not many conductors these days that actually can shape an orchestra’s sound much beyond what they are offered the second arrive in front of the orchestra.
        The Berlin Phil, if you don’t ask them to do differently, first of all play loud…

      • Berlin sound is unique, unlike any other orchestra, because its sound always starts from the low voices, which gives a very powerful and yet equally springing unique tone that you describe as “synthetic”. Listen to any BPO recordings, you can hear low voices ALWAYS sound slightly earlier in milliseconds than the higher voices in all the entrances. I recently heard a live performance of Scharon Ensemble (members are from BPO) and that way of producing sound is even distinctively obvious in small chamber music group.

      • Heard the Berlin Phil open Carnegie Hall last night. Whatever Norman may mean by “synthetic” I can tell you it was glorious. Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances in glowing technicolour but with a burnished string sound that is unequalled by any other orchestra for depth and volume of sonority. And the orchestra isn’t just “loud” – Rattle pulled off a pianissimo in the Firebird finale that would have gotten the admiration of Celibidache (maybe……).

        The orchestra sounds more “European” than say the Philadelphians in this music as much as anything because the brass instruments are different. Rotary trumpets not so “bright”, trombones not so heavy in the way they project through the texture in tuttis etc etc etc. Horns dark and full throated. This all contributes to a blended “warm” sound where individual instruments are not quite as brightly delineated than if you were listening to a US band.

        Other comments in this thread I agree with. Also good to hear Anne Sophie playing the Bruch with such extraordinary beauty of tone. Great evening.

        Rattle has done amazingly well with this orchestra, finally now being embraced by a recalcitrant bunch of NY critics who for years found him fussy and out of his depth. They were wrong then and are correcting themselves now as Sir Simon’s interpretations and approach I find much the same as ten years ago.

        As I mentioned to my friend last night at the end of the Firebird……not bad for a scouser.

    • What is the “American sound” actually?
      AFAIK the stereotype, it is a tendency to full force brass, sonic brilliance in abundance, emphasize on the top voice. “Steely” vs a more “golden” sound of some traditional Central European bands.

      • Here’s a microcosm of the differences:

        Listen to a recording of Dick Woodhams (principal oboe, Philadelphia Orchestra).

        Listen to a recording of Heinz Holliger.

        (Or hear them both live.)

        Both are amazing artists, but you’ll immediately hear the differences.

  • Because the BPO is the finest orchestra in the world.

    Who wouldn’t want to play in the world’s finest orchestra?

        • Shalom, here we go again.

          It’s not “the best” orchestra in Germany, and hasn’t been for a decade. One of the Top 4, okay.

          So I don’t see how anyone can claim it is “the best” in the world, unless they are living in the past.

          You said you are a PhD. Prove your case!

          • Since you claim to know several orchestras that are better than the Berliners (and we do not), it should be easy for you to name them in order to prove your point. Disagreements in these matters are common and completely natural.

          • M2N2K, the same point came up last week, or earlier this week, in a different thread, and the other commenter, without being prompted, listed *exactly* the other three German orchestras I had in mind.

            So it is not hard or controversial. And your point is well taken that this is all debatable, which is why I won’t accept dumb assertions of Berlin Phil superiority. That is history.

          • Seriously SDreader, the obvious “Binsenweisheit” aside, that not one single orchestra can be best in all repertoire at all times, but in average, let’s hear. Which orchestras do you think are better than Berlin Phil and attract more high caliber players?
            I could think of two orchestras that have unique traditional qualities, that the Berlin Phil has not, but still I would rank the Berliners – in terms of excellence in a broad variety of repertoire and technical and musical capability of all individual players in average – the best overall. Those other two are Leipzig Gewandhaus and Dresden Staatskapelle. Bottom line the quality level of most major Symphony orchestras in Central Europe and beyond is extremely high these days, at least technically.

          • The Binsenweisheit is my point, so I don’t wish to set it aside. And now you, without being prompted, have listed two of the three other orchestras. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks completes the quartet. My ears and live performances in Germany give me this picture, and rankings among the four make no sense. Yes, there was a time — 50 years ago — when we could put the bromide aside and assert accurately that one orchestra stood out. Such claims today are just marketing hype.

          • Thanks for naming the other three very good orchestras. There are several more on that level in the world. My opinion though remains the same.

          • SDreader, we have to agree to disagree here. I know all these orchestras well, some intimately well. If you had come to the Mahler cycle in Leipzig for instance a couple of years ago, you could have witnessed, that your dictum stands on “tönernen Füßen”. Berlin still gets the best players in their auditions first and chooses accordingly, period. Now individual class doesn’t make a good orchestra yet, that’s true and here the other two I named have great qualities as well. But when it comes to ‘ability’ in a wide repertoire, you can’t convince me. I have heard all of them many times, in rehearsals and in concerts. Even many of the players in Munich, Dresden and Leipzig think that way.

          • Ultimately, it is all subjective, n’est ce pas? There is no dictatorship where anyone has to bow to only one orchestra (unless I am missing something…:-0).

          • The best orchestra in the world? Certainly depends on the criteria. But, player-for-player, I’d give the nod to the Boston Symphony. Now, for the first time in a very long time, the sum has begun to reflect the excellence of the parts. I heard that band recently for the first time in a couple of decades in Symphony Hall, a nothing-special program conducted by their assistant conductor (in the middle of a blizzard, no less) and I was flabbergasted. Really, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an orchestra play more…absorbingly…or with greater polish.

    • Berlin is to me more prestigious than Chicago, so I understand this choice.But i dont agree that it is the best orchestra in the world. The title of “best orchestra” if of any use (which I doubt) goes to me to the Concertgebouw. But of couse it’s a matter of personal preference…

      • The comments on this posting have evolved far from the posted topic into a discussion of the old parlor game of “which orchestra is the best in the world”, an ultimately fruitless pastime.

        Recently, The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommassini used the phrase “this essential orchestra” in describing the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I think this phrase is apt in the discussions here.

        To me, “essential orchestras” are those where outstanding musicians come together under superb conductors to present to the rest of us exceptional interpretations of the music we need to hear.

        By this definition, there could be many “essential” orchestras in the world, and the new parlor game could be to name them.

        Also, in the discussions above of Berlin vs. Chicago, it should be remembered that in the early 1950s, the Chicago Symphony invited Furtwangler to be their music director. He accepted, but the invitation was withdrawn in response to a wave of protest.

        • Of course any such ranking is subjective which is why it should be presented as an opinion and not as a fact. But in this case the discussion is directly connected to Mathieu”s choice. The argument was actually triggered by a rudely dismissive response to a legitimate opinion which is most likely shared by Mathieu himself.

  • Dufour was invited to resign. His demands for more and more time off, using offers from other orchestras as levers to force concessions, finally found a limit. He will have much more freedom in Berlin, where he will be one of two co-principals.

    • I can attest to Dufour’s frequent absence during the last several seasons (mostly when Muti was not in town). I go to CSO concerts almost every week. That said, Dufour’s sound will be missed before the CSO can find another principal. Thus far this season (two weeks only), Gingrich sounds very nice.

  • 1. Muti doesn’t believe in the star system: you can be a prima donna, but don’t behave like one.

    2. Barenboim too flits around: Chicago here, La Scala there… he seems to enjoy collecting titles of music director for the sake of collecting titles.

  • Chicago may have a ‘powerful and charismatic’ Music director, but one who has barely extended his repertoire in the last 20 years, preferring to trudge through the same old pieces again and again. Compare him with past (Abbado) and current (Rattle) Music directors, who constantly strived and strive to extend their musical horizons. No contest for a brilliant first flute who wishes to work in as broad a musical field as possible.

      • Completely agree, Anonymus – what’s the point of all this league-table nonsense that we get left, right and centre? Actually, maybe we could have a ranking for the world’s most different orchestras 😉

    • Looks like Mr. Dufour is in demand everywhere, so he might just ramp up his solo engagements were Berlin not to appreciate him. But considering his stature in Chicago, that would seem most unlikely…

  • Just a remark on Noah Bendix-Balgley: if you look at Noah’s education you see the European influence…Munich Musikhochschule: Mauricio Fuks, Christoph Poppen, und Ana Chumachenco…especially Chumachenco is a master maker like no one else…Mathieu Dufour will have good French speaking company in Berlin…Emanuel Pahud, Marie-Pierre Langlamet, Sophie Dartigalongue just to name a few…more over, the audition was already in June…and I have my doubts that the CSO and Muti were just recently informed…

  • A good summary by Mr Lebrecht and two interesting comments. A different continent and much closer to home (Paris). A co-principal. Very different schedule and work requirements. A truly exceptional player greatly loved by the audience here. One wishes him only the best. The Chicago bassoon chair is in very good hands now with acting principal William (Bill) Buchman. A number of strong flute soloists and orchestral players sat in during previous leaves by the principal. Principal clarinet Stephen Williamson is back from what proved a one year “move” to the New York Philharmonic. But, yes, sign-up sheets exist for auditions for the horn and bassoon principals and soon for the flute. We shall see!

    • Andrew, off topic, but how come the Don Giovanni piece is at CVNA while the CSO pieces are at the S-T, if you don’t mind the question?

      • Nice of you to notice SDR. We share some of the journalistic wealth at the Sun-Times. Classical Voice North America, the new-ishreview of the Music Critics Association, offered a nice opportunity.

        • It’s always worth following the good critics! But there writers are talking to each other and not to the public, don’t you think?

          • No idea. It’s a nicely designed free access site. I would think that it could gain a following, especially from places where there are no or very few other outlets. Certainly I write my reviews and articles for anyone to read.

  • Dan: The auditions were in May of this year. In August, the current Berlin principal, Andreas Blau, revealed in an interview that Mr Dufour would not start until fall 2015, and this remains the case today. His departure from Chicago now, to follow immediately the upcoming CSO/Muti tour of Warsaw, Luxembourg, Geneva, Paris, and a full week in Vienna, is a new development.

  • Chicago may have better pay than Berlin at the moment, but when you look around at the slasher-boards in Minnesota, Atlanta, and the Met, all of them for top-tier American orchestras, one has to wonder just how stable any American orchestra can remain in the absence of public funding and of the more democratic ownership models found in Europe (in America, it seems that it takes only the machinations of a few wealthy board-members to try and appropriate the orchestra for their own agenda of massive CEO bonuses and private entertainment, cf. the work-rule changes proposed by the Minnesota board in 2012). Consider also the greater civic pride in Europe, and especially the German-speaking lands: a lockout of the Berlin Phil would be absolutely unthinkable. Far better to leave while the sun is still shining, than after the storm has broken loose.

  • “ML”‘s reference is to Daniel Gingrich, currently acting principal horn, associate principal since 2002, and in his 30th season as a member of the section.

    • Mega-apologies! Ever since that millennium thing a few years ago I cannot keep spans of years straight. ;-( Dan Gingrich is in his *40th* season in the CSO horn section having been appointed by Georg Solti in 1975. Mea culpa.

  • “And he will be moving from an orchestra with a powerful and charismatic music director to one with an open podium and no certainty of its future direction.”

    Norman, as you know, Rattle will be with BPO another 4 years. I doubt they will put the orchestra in a situation that will be artistically compromising. And I’m sure Dufour will be excited to be a part of the changing times.

    And as far as charisma is concerned, Rattle is on another level for me than Muti.

  • “…public funding and of the more democratic ownership models found in Europe”

    Oh, you mean like in Italy, Spain, Portugal, where because of unlimited tax payer generosity, and because friendly understanding unions, and because of non-austerity budgets, and because of full employment in the arts, opera houses and orchestras are thriving as never before.

    “…Far better to leave while the sun is still shining, than after the storm has broken loose.”

    The sun has long stopped shining in southern Europe a long time ago. By the way, last I check, the American economy is still bigger than Germany’s, still bigger than all of Europe’s.

    • It doesn’t matter how big the American economy is in comparison to the German one. What matters is how much a country is willing to spend on its culture. There the US loses big time. Per capita spending in the US is minuscule, compared to Germany. Probably the US spends more tax money on military marching bands than on symphony orchestras.

      • Spending tax money on anything is not the only way to support things or to indicate their value or worth. Nor is private budget size for that matter. Having a government direct culture is also not without its problems. Beyond old arguments hardly worth having. Different systems each with its good and less good results.

        • Delusion? Germany spends 183 $ per capita on the arts a year. The US spends less than 4 $ per capita on the arts per year. Give me only ONE argument, why the US art financing system is better. Only one.

          • I don’t “argue” with ghosts. You made up the word “delusion.” I never used it. You ignore my point: Yes, German *governments* spend more on the arts than the UK or the U.S. People in each of these countries support the arts, whether through taxes or private donation and philanthropy — what Daniel Barenboim calls “paying their taxes by other means.” And the UK and the U.S. have great theatres, museums, orchestras, actors, musicians, dancers, and conservatories. So what? Start your own website and see if anybody reads it. Bye.

  • No one can dispute the scandals, near-tragedies, and tragedies at Minnesota, Atlanta, and the MET. Of course there are European orchestras and opera houses going through their own well-documented difficulties. Whether Chicago is unique within the U.S. I cannot say, but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and the Lyric Opera of Chicago are run in very different ways from those places and have the balance sheets and labour contracts to show this.

  • I am reading these interesting comments from the perspective of the Cleveland Orchestra, with whom FW-M has signed for a long continuation of his contract. And the turnover in the orchestra seems to be under control. And finances have been stabilized along with relative labor peace. And they have good management with an intelligent and involved Board which seems to have a knack for fundraising.

    As Cleveland is no Vienna, let alone Chicago, what are they doing so right in northeastern Ohio? I guess all of the above! Bravo to them and continued good fortune.

  • I would like to concur with Andrew Patner. While the future is never certain, Chicago, after all, has a bigger population and economy. It is easier for a few to dominate smaller (population- and economy-wise) cities, it is more difficult to do so in places like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. (Fingers crossed it will not happen here–though the CSO narrowly averted a disaster a few years back with just one cancellation.)

  • Hear! Hear! to Gaffney Feskoe’s important observations about Cleveland. Bravo to them, indeed. It has not been easy and it followed a set of difficult patches but the community and the board have stepped up, as they say, and remarkably. As to that strange 40-hour stoppage in Chicago two years ago, ML refers to, it led to a resolution and good multi-year contract and relations seem to have been fully rebuilt.

  • When a person like him makes such a decision,overall happiness will trump most other considerations like money. That said a BPO co-principal is only obligated to play 50% of the services whereas a CSO principal is on the hook for most of them, despite what we see onstage. BPO pays the same if you figure in all the masterclasses,solo and chamber a guy like him can easily do just a short train ride in any direction. As long as EU arts funding maintains, there is much more to do over there. The US is feast or famine for classical music.

  • andrew is right – while in north america they have ‘principals’ and ‘associate principals,’ both ‘teams’ are typically on call, at least during the ‘main’ concert series, where, again typically, associates play the overture/concerto first half, whislt the principals play after the intermission. that means being available 100% of the time for, say, 60-70% of the work.

    in european orchestras, two principals share the weeks, meaning they play 100% of the workload 50% of the time. the principal overscale is the main difference – in north america, a ‘big orchestra, principal flute may make between 50 and 100% overscale, whereas in europe you’re looking at 20-25% overscale.

    conclusion: time is money!

  • It will be interesting to see who Defour’s replacement will be in Chicago. The principal flute seems to be the most difficult position to fill in an orchestra. Normally, I would say that the CSO would have no problem finding a high caliber replacement, but the principal horn position and others remain unfilled. Still there is no rush, and the positions will be filled when Muti is satisfied. He is in charge plain and simple. Maybe they could lure Joshua Smith from Cleveland.

  • Was there a reason that Mathieu Dufour did not play in the CSO subscription concert on Saturday? I was looking forward to hearing him one more time before his departure to Berlin.

    • There is no need to read minds when person’s actions speak for themselves, yet I still used the word “likely” because there is no certainty in my reasonably informed guess. As for the comment to which I referred, “rudely dismissive” is as accurate characterization of its tone as I can come up with. If you suggest a different interpretation of “You need to get around more!”, then I shall be delighted to consider it.

      • My apologies, M2N2K. I had thought that you were characterizing another comment. Mea culpa. And I think “Tal”‘s comment below gets back to the point. Musicians today make moves for all kinds of reasons, going “up,” “down,” laterally, and diagonally.

        • There is no doubt that there are many personal reasons for professional moves. And yet, how many tenured Berlin Phil musicians do you know who left the BPO voluntarily to play in an equal (not to mention lesser) position with a different symphony orchestra over the last four to five decades or so? My guess is that the number of such moves is extremely low and may in fact be pretty close to zero, which, if true, would be a significant and very telling statistical fact. If you know of more than a handful such cases, please do not hesitate to share with us all names and details.

          • Nor have principal players left Chicago in this way. And no Chicago concertmasters have voluntarily walked away from the orchestra in modern times. These are two of the world’s greatest orchestras, in different countries, on different continents, with different structures, retirement policies, etc. If you want to rank them, go right ahead. If you want to attribute motives to people you do not know, no one is stopping you. Have a nice day.

          • Thanks for a good wish, AP, but you are incorrect. First, it just so happens that I do know Mathieu personally. Second, your statement about principal players not leaving CSO is ridiculous when we are talking here about a man who has done exactly that, not once but twice, in precisely that same way over not more than the last six years or so. And there are other examples too, not all of them necessarily principals: for example a young former first violinist in CSO who left just a few years ago to become a second violinist in a different American orchestra. The reasons often include personal ones, of course, but I still have not seen anyone here citing at least one or two such recent departures from the BPO. Have a great season!

  • Interesting issue and comments. However I believe most of the talk about the orchestra ratings ignore the fact job mobility in any field has risen in recent decades and a 15 year tenure is certainly respectable. If a first rate musician wills and can move from one great band to another after 15 years, hats off to him!

  • I, too, was disappointed he did not play in last Saturday’s concert. Called the box office and he is not playing this week either, which would have been the final Chicago performances before his departure. What gives? Such a shame there is not an opportunity for Chicago audiences to send him off with additional appreciative applause for his 15 years of stellar music making here.

  • I’m obviously the fool here for engaging with you, whoever you are. But as other people read this thread and you continue to make baldly ridiculous and false statements, I have to respond. Individual players leave orchestras all of the time. You brought up principals. I said that no principals had left the CSO in the ways that you cite and none have. I mentioned that a concertmaster walked away from Berlin and he did. You bring up the player who is now leaving Chicago — whom you may or may not know (I’m frankly not sure that you even know who he is). Well obviously I’m not talking about this case as it’s been discussed ad infinitum above and as you claimed that there were additional examples! And when he did “leave” Chicago before he did so with a leave of absence and rather quickly returned to Chicago. So yes, everything that has already been said has already been said. Maybe Mr Lebrecht will now shut this all down. 😉

  • No, AP, you are wrong again. First, I am not the one who “brought up principals”. You did that yourself, in your comment on October 8 at 2:54 pm. Second, as far as I know, the concertmaster who left BPO has not done so to play in another orchestra. Pursuing solo, chamber music or conducting career is a completely different story, which is why I specifically referred to those cases when a musician leaves for an equal (or lesser) position in a different orchestra. Third, it is true that Mathieu whom I do know personally did return to CSO soon after his previous departure from there, but still he did leave and is now leaving again. Fourth, asking to “shut this all down” simply because you have no adequate response to my comments is a very cowardly thing to do. And all this just because I expressed my agreement with another person’s opinion about a certain orchestra being the world’s finest!

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