Berlin Philharmonic: The fallout

Berlin Philharmonic: The fallout


norman lebrecht

May 12, 2015

The orchestra’s management has put the best face possible on yesterday’s calamitous indecision, claiming it as a triumph for democracy and stating that ‘the mood during the assembly was described by all participants as very constructive, cooperative and friendly.’

In the cold light of day, the damage can be swiftly assessed.

1 Imagine the board of Bayern München emerging from an 11-hour meeting, unable to choose a new manager. The sporting world would conclude that the board was deeply divided, ill-advised and unbusinesslike. For Bayern, read Berlin Phil.

2 Several faultlines have appeared in the orchestra: between Thielemann supporters and opponents, between Rattle loyalists and sceptics, between veteran players and newcomers. They will not be readily resolved.

3 Music director candidates who spent yesterday waiting for a phone call may declare themselves unavailable by December. Nobody likes being passed over, or considered second-best.

4 The uncertainty that came to light in yesterday’s discussion weakens the orchestra’s bold image.

5 At least four leading candidates told the Berlin Philharmonic they were not interested, at least for the moment. That has never happened before. The blow to confidence will take a while to sink in.

berlin philharmonie


  • Erich says:

    It is a poisoned chalice for any conductor, knowing that he (or she) is basically at the mercy of that far-too-powerful Vorstand. Frankly, those four gentlemen should resign en masse for have made a pig’s ear of the process. It is indeed the case that all the candidates now know that they are second choices at best – although this might in a way help to deflate a few of their egos, which is no bad thing!

  • Gordon Freeman says:

    Is this being somewhat sensationalised? Starting with your point number 5; there has been a conductor who turned down the post before. Did Abbado feel “second best” (your point no.3) when Carlos refused the same job? Was the orchestra’s brand or image damaged then (no.4)? I suppose it wasn’t as massively hyped and publicly scrutinised a situation back then… Indeed perhaps it was a very different; did the players vote for it? Was Kleiber’s refusal made public at the time? If so I would politely suggest that comparing this situation to the BPO’s past is irrelevant.

    As for point 2, there are always divisions in any orchestra when it comes to opinions on chief conductors. But has it ever actually destroyed an orchestra?! Fault lines are a part of any successful music business… and many successful non-gaseous planets.
    And point 1… erm… Isn’t there enough misconcieved comparison between classical music and sport existing in the world already? Maybe I am only speaking as a generally embarrassed Australian musician with regard to this point…

    Surely one of the points of attempting to choose a new chief three whole years before they are due to start is that it gives one a bit of spare time should a situation like this arise, yeah? I know it’s all terribly exciting but should the current BPO commentary just relax a tad?

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Carlos Kleiber was never really offered the position. When Karajan died, a few members of the orchestra contacted him and asked him if he might be interested in playing a role of some kind in Berlin. But he wasn’t. And he was never officially nominated nor offered the position. It wasn’t such a great idea anyway. At the time, he had never conducted the orchestra but canceled on them several times. He eventually conducted two programs in the 90s, with Brahms 2, then 4, and some of the other usual suspects he conducted in all his concerts. I was in the concert with Brahms 4. It was great. But he would not have been a realistic choice anyway.

      • Gordon Freeman says:

        Thanks for clearing that up! Was that performance of Brahms 4 where he made up some mafia story to go with the music? Or is that another myth…

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          I don’t know, Gordon, but – probably. 98% of these stories are apocryphal. But I attended the first rehearsal and it was very interesting to see how he worked with the orchestra. At some point, Brahms added 4 bars to the score which he thought should go at the beginning, but the changed his mind. Kleiber had written out those bars and he let the orchestra play them – not for the performance, just for the rehearsal, to set the mood:

  • Andrew R. Barnard says:

    Hogwash. The Berlin Philharmonic still has three years to make their decision. Their decision yesterday to postpone their vote was simply a move reflecting their own independence. Norman was actively campaigning against Thielemann, so what did he expect to happen, since there was no other clear candidate?

    If anything, the Berliners just proved their superiority yesterday.

    • Anonymous says:

      Why don’t you rely on your own writing to drive audiences to your blog, instead of trolling for clicks on other people’s?

      • Dennis says:

        Why don’t you come out from behind your “anonymous” cloak? He’s absolutely right. Why are they even having an election for a job that wont begin for nearly three years? Hell, some of the supposedly top candidates may be dead by then. Much ado about nothing; which is typical of Lebrecht.

  • Schubertian1234 says:

    You’re making a big deal about nothing, as usual. Not coming to an agreement now doesn’t lessen the validity of any possible candidates appointment. Perhaps making a media show out of the decision was a poor PR decision by the BPhil, but there was never any rush to have a music director and now there is more time to see how the younger candidates’ relationship with the orchestra will develop.

  • Henning Viljoen says:

    This is very sensasionilistic analysis of the outcome of the election. Cannot see how a person who will be elected next should feel second best. Such a person does not understand the democratic process or the existence of stiff competition.

  • Arthur Lindgren says:

    I tend to agree with Mr Lebrecht. Irreparable damage has been done to the institution by the messy way the voting was conducted.

    Even outsiders knew about the strong divergence of views among the musicians before the vote, but such differences really should have been sorted out quietly and in good time, for instance in working groups or through informal discussions. They had two years to do this.

    Apparently they didn’t use a simple majority vote to whittle the pool of candidates down to two for a final binding vote, so they knew from the outset that there were bound to be discussions anyway.

    The final choice, whenever that is going to be made now, will inevitably be seen as a compromise. The conductor selected will feel that the players settled for him only after disregarding shortcomings which precluded consensus in the first round and/or after bullying the opposition into submission. This will not be seen as an auspicious start for a new era of music-making in Berlin.

    • John Borstlap says:

      This last paragraph sums-up the most important point very well. Image the feeling of the new chief on his first rehearsel.

      It seems possible, even probable, that underneath these divisions a problem of cultural identity can be detected: Rattle extened the BPO’s repertoire considerably but this also ‘loosened-up’ the orchestra’s roots in the German classical repertoire as carefully groomed by Karajan. So, the obvious advantage of a more ‘modern’, ‘international’ image had a price, and it is understandable this has cultivated the wish of part of the players to recapture a precious heritage. But ‘going-back’ seems to undermine the newly-acquired patina.

      They cannot seriously ask someone before they have come to a resolution of these problems. A future candidate should have both Karajan’s and Rattle’s qualities. There is still time to detect him.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Norman, friends: let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. I see a big advantage in yesterday’s meeting, and that is that each and all positions could be discussed openly and honestly.

    As you told the BBC, Norman, the BPO may have rushed into electing a new music director. I agree. The experience will be a good learning occasion. I would hope that, next time around, the musicians take a few days off to a very remote location, if need be a monastery, a place conducive to the much needef process of discernment far away from media, blogosphere and other useless hype.

    • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      Addition much later in the day: among countless comments in the German press I cam across one that suggested the following: the BPO will not announce a date of a future election day, nor will it announce when and where its members meet. The only announcement made is after a successful election. I would think this requires a quite sophisticated social and any other kind of media avoiding strategy. Another comment was that the BPO members have gone home after the long day feeling quite perturbed by the relentless media hype. It’s May 2015, and thus there is plenty of time to confront and deal with whatever issues have arisen during yesterday’s conclave. The tough time was not yesterday, but will be the months ahead. May good artistic sense prevail and benefit what matters most: the music.

  • Simon S. says:

    Ad 1) The point is: In this case, it isn’t up to the board to take the decision. Just imagine the players of Bayern München having to agree on a new manager (unthinkable in professional football) – and they’re only 25 or so, not 124.

  • Jack Burt says:

    But Bayern’s manager wouldn’t be leaving until 2018… specious comparison.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has a chief conductor. His name is Simon Rattle. He leaves the position in 2018. The orchestra can decide then.

    When Furtwangler died in 1954 the orchestra chose Karajan in the same year. When Karajan departed in 1989 the orchestra chose Abbado in the same year. By waiting until 2016/17 the choice may be clearer as to who will succeed Rattle at that point.

    If – as I have said elsewhere – the orchestra finds it hard to decide, based largely on the fact that there are no truly great conductors left with the exception of Haitink who is 86, then why not follow the example of the Vienna Philharmonic and remain a great, self-governing orchestra who performs with a regular roster of guest maestri. It’s that simple.

  • Michael Endres says:

    The desperate Berliner Philharmoniker now made contact with this conductor, but his parents declined the job offer.

  • herrera says:

    Every other major orchestra in the world must feel mighty low today: Berlin basically said no other orchestra has a conductor we deem worthy of Berlin, you all have sucky conductors we would never hire on a full time basis.

    • aimere46 says:

      Things are the other way around: the only conductors that the Berliners deemed worthy, declined the offer by renewing elsewhere or ruling themselves out. This left the Berliners without a first-class conductor. So they decided not to lower their expectations, and just wait. It is no coincidence that Barenboim said few weeks ago that he was not interested, and Jansons extended his contract in Munich 3 days before the election! If you add this to Chailly’s long-term commitments to Gewandhaus and La Scala, it leaves you without the top 3 conductors alive. The Berliners were to choose between Thielemann and Nelsons and none of them made the majority.
      n my opinion, yesterday’s lesson is: top conductors do not need the Berlin Philharmonic.

      • John Borstlap says:

        …. Interesting perspective and probably right. They wait for their Messiah. Probably the orchestra will experiment again with lots of guest conductors in the coming seasons.

  • Marc-Antoine Hamet says:

    Keep calm, Norman, and let the Berlin musicians take the time they need to decide who their next Music Director will be!

  • Kevin Scott says:

    This is a situation where cool minds must prevail, and many of you have said that they should wait it out until Rattle’s tenure is at an end.

    But here’s the thing – there is no “done deal” because Berlin wants to find the right man – or woman – for the job.

    As I posted on my Facebook page, the idea is that there are conductors out there who would kill to lead either Berlin, or New York since they are in the running for a new director as well. I’m not just talking about Walter Mitty fantasists or even your local community orchestra conductor who should be leading a good regional orchestra, but conductors out there who have made a name and a reputation for themselves within the community and are STILL not known by the general public.

    Sure, when it comes down to brass tact, the players will be swayed into voting for Thielemann, but there will be factions that say otherwise, and this is a good thing.

    Some of the choices I have listed are indeed far-fetched (among them James Conlon, William Eddins, Wayne Marshall, Omer Meir Wellber, Sian Edwards, Sakari Oramo and Juanja Mena, to name but a few), but if the BPO gave some of those far-fetched choices a chance to appear, even as a guest conductor, the players might be surprised and find their new music director out of a fresh pool of conductors they never even thought of considering. The new conductor could be a man of sixty or a young woman of thirty. The new conductor could be one of the most established composers who has the yen for conducting a vast amount of repertoire, or they could be a musicologist who has their pet composer and those that influenced that composer, and is skilled enough on the podium to do more than a select few.

    The new conductor could be African-American, Asian, Slavic or Maori. The new conductor could be someone from a place on earth not known to have western classical music as a part of their culture, yet was trained either in America, England or Germany. The new conductor could open up further avenues in the world of music to bring different cultures to that city on many levels.

    The new conductor must be a visionary without forsaking the past. This is what’s totally important. This is the conductor that any orchestra must seek. This is why Berlin cannot vote what many perceive as a “done deal.” This is why Berlin, and New York, and many other orchestras, have to stop thinking about the “usual suspects” and start really looking at a larger pool of conductors out there and offer them the chance. If they don’t, the “usual suspects” will continue to roust the competition and rule the podium, and keep real music from happening

  • Max Grimm says:

    This is utterly ridiculous. It is the journalists, commentators, bloggers and classical music fans from around the world, who have hyped this search for a new MD into the high heavens and are now pawning the hype they created off onto the BPO, trying to disguise it as the orchestra’s lust for the spotlight, arrogance, division and indecision. Not to put too fine a point on it, the only things that really came from the orchestra were “we’re looking for Simon Rattle’s successor” and “we will vote on May 11th and may have a successor” that’s it.
    The fact that the orchestra members have, on more than one occasion, held lengthy debates, as well as taken several weeks and votes “merely” to decide whether a musician on trial should receive tenure, should have been indication enough that the search for a new MD will neither be a quick, nor nonchalant affair.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    Well then, its time to get back to discussing the New York Philharmonic search for a music director. Best picks: Gergiev, Dudamel, and Salonen, in that order.

    • M2N2K says:

      Your first two are much too controversial politically for New York. For that reason and a few others, Esa-Pekka has to be and probably is a clear favorite there.

      • Kevin Scott says:

        I agree…Salonen might be the best choice for several reasons – he’s conducted the orchestra before, he’s had a history of working with an American orchestra as a music director, he has a broad repertoire, and he’s a composer himself. But overall, he has grown as a musician over the last thirty years, so I think he would be the best bet.

        • John Borstlap says:

          …. And there is Jaap van Zweden whose rising star has earned him great accolades with all the top US orchestras – esp. Chicago and NY – and has raised the standard of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to great heights, and who has successfully debuted with the Berlin and Vienna Phils.

  • Malcolm james says:

    Also this hype comes down to the supposed special mystique of the BPO. In reality, it is ONE of the top conducting jobs in the world, not THE top job. In my opinion, the mystique was largely created by the personality of Karajan and Cold War politics. Berlin was island of capitalism in the middle of the DDR and the BPO was therefore a sort of gigantic ‘up yours’ to the Communists. Times change and now Berliners can go and see the Gewandhaus or the Staatskapelle on their home turf for the evening.

    • Dennis says:

      What nonsense. The BPO was one of the world’s greatest and most famous two or three orchestras well before the Cold War. The idea that the BPO’s reputation was manufactured as an “up-yours” to the communists (as if that would be a bad thing even if true!) is sheer stupidity.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But it is true that the image was carefully marketed in the Karajan time, his ‘intense meditation face’ with his name showing big on record sleeves with BIG letters and down in the corner in some minor lettering ‘Beethoven’. It was the first surge of aggressive plugging in classical music by big record labels, and has become a burden today.

  • AZ Cowboy says:

    All the digital ink being spent on this issue is symptomatic of what’s wrong in classical music today. Have you all not forgotten that the most important thing is the MUSIC? Ok, so the BPO is a great orchestra, but so are several dozen others. Great conductors? Is he (or she) that greatly important? Not as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been bored to death at concerts led by Bernstein, Maazel, Solti, Abbado, Svetlanov, Muti, Giulini, Rattle, et al. And they’ve given good shows, too. Great music making abounds, and it believe it or not, you don’t have to go to Berlin, London, or New York to hear it. The most astounding, shattering Mahler 6th I’ve ever encountered was by the Tucson Symphony some years ago. A minor orchestra in the American southwest, led by George Hanson (who won’t be considered for Berlin) gave a reading that was as blistering, emotionally draining and authentic as could be. Enough of this hero worship! Let’s get back to what matters – the music!

  • Peter128 says:

    I kind of understand what Norman’s trying to say here- since the election has been post-poned that does mean for sure that the orchestra could not come to a clear decision. But that does not mean that the next time they vote ( they said to revisit the subject within one year) will be just as difficult. I have been in love with this orchestra and everything that they are doing in the classical music world ever since the dch started in 2009. I have watched almost everything there is to see: concerts, interviews, documentaries, the list goes on. And if there is one thing I know about this orchestra more than anything it is that they take into great consideration of what really matters- the music, more than anything. They are also incredibly childish sometimes. Yeah, you heard what I said- thats one of the reasons that they are so good and so difficult to maintain. In Sir Simon’s words restated the orchestra is the hardest to conduct simply because they are all virtuosi and the conductor no longer is the head but simply a helping hand that is there for the refinement. Its’s like driving a top notch sports car or Rolls- Royce- its definetely not the easiest but if you can steer it in the right direction, then it’s like nothing else. That being said, even though they could not come to a clear decision, the votes were not all worthless because they have probably eliminated for sure a number of candidates and the possible list next time will be a lot shorter and will contain only what they really want. Give them time people, they still have 3 more years. Even with the media frenzy surrounding this topic and their position as the one of the best European orchestras, the berlin phil is just an orchestra like every other filled with people that have their own seperate opinions.

  • Luk says:

    is there rush? no, there is no rush, they have plenty of time to decide on a new conductor and considering there was no unanimity they decided to postpone. I don’t see how this is a big deal!

    I don’t believe it will have a great impact on the reputation of the Berliner, out or inside the musical world.

  • Iain Scott says:

    There is a story told of some famous conductor appearing on Desert Island Discs. he was asked what made a performance special and his reply was that it was 80% conductor and 20% orchestra. The next day the maestro turned up to rehearse a distinguished orchestra.
    Down came the beat and nothing happened. he tried again and still nothing. Looking perplexed he turned to the leader who said ” oh we just wanted to hear what your 80 % sounded like.”
    it can take over a year for a wind section to decide the principal flute or oboe,likewise the other sections. Musicians have to sit down every day and make music with people sitting beside them. That’s why it is important to spend time on choosing the music director.
    The decision is best left to musicians not armchair conductors.

    • Mark Mortimer says:

      Great joke Ian- How true

    • John Borstlap says:

      Makes me think of the Bruckner / VPO story: when B was invited to lead the orchestra in a première of one of his symphonies, he waited with raising his baton on the first rehearsel. When the leader asked him to begin he answered: ‘No, please gentlemen, after you.’

  • Robert Holmén says:

    This event will affect ticket sales and other interest in the orchestra by about 0%.

  • T-ARAFANBOY says:

    I think that at the end of the day there was really no one available that could compare to Karajan, Abbado or Rattle, and those who could are all too old.
    I would still like to see Dudamel get it.

  • Herbert de K. says:

    Why do so many people – mostly journalists – assume that all these candidates were just waiting to be called? Without being asked before? Why is everybody talking about “the most important job in the classical world”? Don´t you think all these candidates have opportunities enough to work in their job on the highest level all over the world? Without having to obey any limits set by probably the strongest Vorstand in the orchestral world? Without having to know, that at least 30% of the musicians are against him/her? Times have changed, there is more global playing than ever, so this procedure seems to be very old fashioned. Congrats to all the Maestri who might have said “No”. (Who do, refering to official statement, not exist – of course…;-))

  • John says:

    Other than being mildly curious, I’m really not that interested in who the BPO chooses to be their next conductor. So for me, at least, this isn’t some kind of scandal. Rattle is around for another three years, for heaven’s sake. I have a feeling they’ll sort this out well ahead of time. Seems to me the NYPhil had the same problem when they selected Maazel (by no means any favorite of mine). So hey folks, CHILL!

  • BPOVPO says:

    Berlin should become like Vienna and have no music director. Just the best of the best guest conducting and touring.

    • Peter says:

      Apples and oranges. Vienna is a closely knit team with a defined orchestral and sonic culture. Berlin is a collective of great individuals from all over the world. Berlin needs a molding creative hand of a musical director. Vienna, who play not even half as many symphony concerts than Berlin, doesn’t.

  • Nick says:

    Taking up the Bayern Munchen analogy, let’s recall the Manchester United took far less time to anoint David Moyes as successor to the most successful manager in British soccer history. And we know how that ended up – sacking in less than a year. Had the Board taken more time to analyse the state of the team and a much wider range of possible candidates, I’ll bet Mourinho would now be managing the team,

  • herrera says:

    The mistake was to announce a date and make an event out of it. They took themselves way too seriously, and they fell flat on their faces. They wanted the world’s media attention, but they created a circus and they became the clowns.