Breaking: Berlin Philharmonic election is postponed ‘for up to a year’

Breaking: Berlin Philharmonic election is postponed ‘for up to a year’


norman lebrecht

May 11, 2015

The stalemate, after eleven hours of discussion, has ended in disaster. The orchestra cannot meet again tomorrow to vote on a music director, because it has rehearsals.

An agreement was reached tonight to have a new election ‘within one year’.

There is talk of a date early in December 2015. Until then, ‘discussions will continue’ among the players.

But the brand is damaged. This is an orchestra deeply divided, within and against itself.

berlin philharmonie beethoven 9

UPDATE: Here’s the press release:

The voting for the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Berliner Philharmoniker brought no results today.

Orchestra Board member Peter Riegelbauer said: “After an orchestra assembly which lasted 11 hours, we have unfortunately come to no decision. There were positive and lively discussions and several rounds of voting, but unfortunately we were unable to agree on a conductor.”

123 members of the orchestra who were eligible to vote were present.

Riegelbauer continued: “We must continue this process and this election. That will have to take place within one year. We are very confident that we will come to a decision then. The process of this election will be continued, and the orchestra assembly will meet regularly, but we will take the time that is necessary. That can last one year.”

The mood during the assembly was described by all participants as very constructive, cooperative and friendly.



  • Peter says:

    I disagree. No other orchestra is choosing their own chief conductor by voting. The times do not produce many obvious candidates for this most demanding job. It is simply natural for an orchestra that wants nothing but the best, to take this election very seriously and if in doubt to take a break and reconsider. It speaks for the ambition of the individual players actually, and that means nothing but a great musical future lies ahead. Even without an obvious chief conductor.

    The question is though, if Thielemann is still candidate the next time.

    Also curious minds want to know, if they had a vote today, and the chosen candidate was contacted and declined? Possible…

  • Bviolinistic says:

    Perhaps the orchestra will decide that they don’t need a chief conductor and will invite the best musicians to conduct them in much the same way as the Vienna Philharmonic has been operating for decades.

  • Jack Burt says:

    Mr, Lebrecht… please… “brand damaged”, “divided within and against itself”? All observers agreed there was no clear favorite candidate, except for possibly Thielemann, who you oppose. You should be happy the “favorite” didn’t win today…

    One could just as easily see this as a positive sign – the musicians are taking their responsibilities seriously, and not rushing to a conclusion, which is obviously not so simple..

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Norman is quite right to suggest that a divided orchestra – and clearly they couldn’t decide who was the best man to succeed Rattle – does not bode well for the future. Quite apart from the repercussions of having desk neighbours with diametrically opposed views to your own, there would appear to be considerable uncertainty about the future direction of artistic policy. The factionalism that has emerged from this conclave is unlikely to be healed within a short space of time. At least the orchestra have not been taken in by the shallowness of some contenders: I would cite Dudamel here, who aside from being a media darling has very little to say that is musically interesting.

  • Will says:

    Nothing so dramatic. A good long discussion. Now time for allowing the air to clear. A few months for discernment.

    Concerts under potential candidates should be interesting too.

  • M2N2K says:

    We all know that the reason is not that there is more than one great maestro available but that the opposite is true. Postponing for a year or two is probably the right decision for BPO. If they are still divided next time, they should beg Sir Simon to stay as their Guest Principal for four or five years after 2018 and simply continue without MD during that time until a clear favorite has emerged.

    • Matt says:

      Yes! That would be nice. They are still on good terms with him and have many pieces left to record together 🙂

      • Greg says:

        I would think Rattle might stay another year to 2019 if asked…it depends on how discussions go with in the orchestra. He could do both orchestras for 2-3 years.

        Both Abbado and Karajan had the Vienna State Opera at the same time, so it might happen if needed.

    • poyu says:

      Rattle already took position in LSO, it is not impossible but would be very difficult for him to keep both orchestras in hand.

    • M2N2K says:

      What I meant of course was “Principal Guest”, not the reverse. It requires much less time commitment and responsibilities than MD does, which is why I think that Simon may be persuaded.

  • Jaakko Kuusisto says:

    Oh come on. This makes absolutely zero difference for the orchestra’s brand. You don’t even know if they were discussing 2 or 5 candidates, or more. There may also have been a winner who declined, for whatever reason. You simply don’t know, so why do you make these dramatic statements?

    • Katten Jansons says:

      Haha, well said.

    • Angela says:

      As I would like to point out, which was previously censored by the moderator, Mr Lebrecht, you do have a penchant for drama and it is often misleading. This is hallmark bad journalism.

  • CDH says:

    Will the omertà hold? Or are some of the musicians likely to leak? I know, I know, it’s not the UK cabinet…

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    People who make their living writing ABOUT music, rather than actually writing music, or performing music, are under constant pressure to create the illusion that what they have to say is important, and that their opinions carry weight, and make a difference in the world of music. This is not actually so- witness the classic question about how many music critics have had their statues erected- but the effort is unceasing. I’m afraid that this post (and the entire series of rather overheated posts about the BPO music directorship) originate from this kind of pressure.

    Like everyone else who didn’t actually participate in this discussion/election, I have absolutely no facts to contribute as to what transpired, and I’m not privy to the considerations which motivated the musicians. (That’s why I’m not going on the BBC tonight…) It is clear, however, that there are a number of competing, excellent candidates. Some of them are musicians I revere. Some are musicians who I actively dislike. But the musicians are obviously working hard to come to a consensus, and if they feel a need to postpone, it damages nobody- least of all the Berliner Philharmoniker “brand”. On the contrary, I consider it to be greatly enhanced. I am hard-pressed to think of another orchestra where the opinions of the players have been given much consideration in choosing a music director. Anyone who knows professional musicians personally will find it laughable to suggest that 124 of them will agree easily on ANYTHING. These are people who are in control of their future, and they intend to exercise that control. This is inspiring, not “disastrous”.

    • Urania says:

      Hmm, it is not that easy. This was not an election out of the blue. This was an event put on schedule long ago. There must have been talks before, in small groups, preparations to find a result. The orchestra members are not members of a tea party looking for entertainment. There have been names on the tray, these artists must not be amused now. This orchestra is getting tremendous public funds, they should have thought more deeply before and understood that the undertaking has a public impact. Maybe the spirit of commitment and understanding of music was lacking here, maybe a split because of different focus – generation gap.

    • tess says:

      exactly. Thanks for pointing this out.

    • Urania says:

      Hmm, it is not that easy. This was not an election out of the blue. This was an event put on schedule long ago. There must have been talks before, in small groups, preparations to find a result. The orchestra members are not members of a tea party looking for entertainment. There have been names on the tray, these artists must not be amused now. This orchestra is getting tremendous public funds, they should have thought more deeply before and understood that the undertaking has a public impact. Maybe the spirit of commitment and understanding for music was lacking here, maybe a split because of different focus – generation gap.

    • Jack Burt says:


    • Jack Burt says:

      I wish I had written that…. Thank you…

    • Nick says:

      Shalom Rackovsky is spot on. Having run an orchestra, I know how near-impossible it is to get even a reasonable majority on anything. Far better to postpone than end up with a Music Director whom many are against. As this blog has illustrated, contributors here belong to a variety of camps. So clearly the BSO members.

      The decision making process is not going to be in a year’s time. The phrase used is “within one year”. Who knows? it could be within the next couple of months!

      With all respect to NL, I cannot understand how the brand has been damaged. Appointing an MD three years in advance is always something of a lottery. A vast amount can happen within that time frame. We have already seen a flurry of MD contract renewals and resignations in the last few months alone. No doubt there will be more as the year progresses. As I have stated several times, perhaps one issue the players are discussing is whether their incoming MD can in fact hold two titled positions. Should that be the case, then the door surely opens for several proposed earlier here.

      One thing is for sure: these columns are in for a great deal more debate and speculation. That surely will keep life a lot more interesting for us readers than if a name had come out of the hat yesterday!

      • Nick says:

        Apologies – should have read “BPO members”

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          It’s actually “BP”, not “BPO”, Nick. Even if you want to maintain the outdated practice of translating the name of a foreign cultural institution int English, there is no “O” there anymore, since 2002.

          • Nick says:

            Mea culpa – to a certain extent! I’ll bet, though, that a majority around the world still use the pre-Rattle nomenclature, no matter that it may not be what the orchestra management wish! I note that threads on this site and most contributors are old school like me!

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            No big deal, Nick, I was just being a smartass (as usual) – although I do find it a little provincial when people refer to foreign cultural institutions by their translated name. In Germany, people don’t refer to the New York Philharmonic as “New Yorker Philhamoniker” or the London Symphony Orchestra as the “Londoner Sinfonie Orchester” – they refer to these orchestras by their actual name. The actual name of the “Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra” is Berliner Philharmoniker. It used to be Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester, and Berliner Philharmoniker only when they appeared outside of their regular work as the city of Berlin’s concert orchestra, e.g. when making recordings or playing in Karajan’s festivals in Salzburg. But they reformed that in 2002, “official” and “private” activities are not separated any longer. A sensible move, and one that Rattle insisted on before he accepted his post.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Their brand is damaged because they haven’t decided who will be conducting them… three years from now.

  • dead_elvis says:

    Speaking as an orchestral musician: Wow, and I thought I’d been through some torturously long orchestra meetings. Most orchestra meetings people get glassy eyed start to wander out after about an hour. I bow to their superior fortitude.

  • J. says:

    Lebrecht knows everything about damaged brands. Ask about him to critics, journalists, musicians and conductors.

  • Dave T says:

    Great news– for the blogosphere, that is. I look forward to the next 500 or 600 posts on this angst-producing and -causing topic.

  • Christy says:

    I believe the Boston Symphony also voted for their MD.

  • william osborne says:

    Actually, I think Normal provided an important insight by noting the division in the orchestra regarding Thielemann. What else explains the 11 hour meeting with no resolution? How will this resolve?

    Orchestras are almost always microcosms of the societies in which they exist. The Berlin Phil division points to deep divisions with the city of Berlin itself. One half represents an old, conservative, Prussian world still holding to authoritarian values (and with an added communist tinge that hasn’t quite dissipated,) while the other half represents the old West Berlin, a small island of progressive thought and restless autonomy defying its geographic and social location. The orchestra is a microcosm of these divisions. Which conductor can unify these two halves of the BPO? Or is it exactly those divisions that make the orchestra interesting? Or perhaps more realistically, are the days long gone that could make anything about orchestras interesting?

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Nonsense, William. The orchestra today overall is very young and international, there are hardly any members left even who have been there since the Karajan era, and those few that are were quite young then. There are no “old Prussians” in the orchestra anymore, that’s several generations ago.

      • william osborne says:

        An orchestra is shaped not only by who is in it, but also by the cultural sensibilities and history that surround it. Berlin’s unique history and culture gives the Phil unique qualities.

  • john says:

    We can now return to our other matters of concern. The Berlin Phil is a very good orchestra, in Europe there are at least 2 or 3 which have the same level of excellence and are not making such a big fuss. They simply perform without being arrogant. There are also other candidates not on the hit-pararade list which could enhance the orchestra.

  • Malcolm james says:

    Andrew Clements in The Guardian wrote that there are rumours that things aren’t turning out ‘quite as expected’ for Nelson in Boston. Everything I’ve head up to now suggests they love him over there. Is there any truth to these rumours, because if so he might accept the BPO, if offered it?

  • herrera says:

    1. Much has been made of the power of an “anti-Thielemann” group to block Thielemann thus the naming of a music director, but it should also be noted that any “pro-Thielemann” group can EQUALLY block anyone else from being named music director, hence, the deadlock.

    In other words, so long as there is a substantial “only-Thielemann” group, even if there is no “anti-Thielemann” group, there will be a deadlock.

    2. Well, that will be awkward for a leading candidate the next time he appears before the orchestra: he knows that a substantial minority is against him from being their music director. He must be thinking as he is conducting them, “who did not vote for me? Is it the string section or the brass section? is it the trumpets or the clarinets? Is it the first horn or the third horn? I’d better give the principal oboe a solo bow even if there is no oboe part in the piece.” lol

    3. The longer the orchestra waits, the harder it will be for the older candidates (in their 60s and 70s) to get the votes.

  • Anne says:

    Two clear sides emerging here. The silly, negative ‘damaged brand’ faction, and those who cannot stand any criticism of the BPO.

    I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

  • william osborne says:

    Seen from a larger perspective, the divisions that exist in the Berlin Phil also define a division that exists in the wider German-speaking orchestral world. The orchestras in the East such as in Vienna, Dresden, and Leipzig hold to older musical traditions. This includes traditional instruments for some of their sections that are seldom found in the Western regions.

    One of the reasons the East held to these traditions is that during the Cold War they could not buy the more modern instruments built in the West. They now use this to their advantage and suggest they are more authentic because they have not been “Amerikaniziert.” By contrast, the orchestras in Cologne, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and other Western cities look to the West and seem slightly more modern in their sensibilities.

    The Berlin Phil is a sort of East-West hybrid just like the city that is its home. If it follows its truest character, it will increasingly move toward an East German perspective, but perhaps at the expense of becoming a bit more parochial and losing some of its world status. It might be noted that some conductors, like Salonen, who are strongly oriented toward more Western practices, were not even mentioned as candidates. Thielemann would strongly move the orchestra east, and that is one of the reasons he has met with resistance. Most other conductors under consideration would maintain its hybrid character, or like Rattle, move it ever so slightly to the West.

    I suspect that over time these differences between the East and West styles will merge. In the global village, musicians simply learn too much from each other. Even the VPO has become rather American in some of its practices. And American orchestras are increasingly experimenting with things like rotary valve trumpets and the occasional German alto trombone. German brass instrument makers have even started producing hybrid instruments that sound German but have the playing characteristics of American, British, and French instruments.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      If you have been to as many concerts conducted by Salonen in London and elsewhere, and witnessed the utter cluelessness with which he approaches the traditional repertory – give him anything from the 20th century and the results are more persuasive – you wouldn’t be at all surprised that (a) he hasn’t been invited to guest-conduct the orchestra for quite some time and (b) wasn’t even on a short-list of possible candidates.

      • Petros LInardos says:

        I am afraid your criticism for Salonen’s strength on 20th century music and relative weakness on classics and romantics applies to several famous conductors.

        • Alexander Hall says:

          I wouldn’t disagree with you for one moment. However, if you want to be at the head of one of the world’s greatest orchestras and act as guardian to a long musical tradition of playing the “classics”, you need to say something musically interesting about Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven/Schubert/Mendelssohn/Brahms/Schumann, to quote just the obvious examples. People who throw up their hands in horror at the thought of such “museum pieces” miss the point. These are the composers that the vast majority of concertgoers want to hear performed.

      • william osborne says:

        So happy to hear that Salonen hasn’t been corrupted and fallen into that long dead world of orchestral stodginess.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    ==“brand damaged”

    No, no, no. If anything it elevates the brand. The seriousness behind decision-making.

  • Manu says:

    The problem came up last autumn when they invited Daniele Gatti. They saw what a real maestro is capable to do with a magnificent orchestra like them. But Amsterdam had anticipated.
    Giving two or three weeks every year to Nelsons and the young conductors represented by Rattle’s agent Rona Eastwood has proven to be a fatal mistake. Not to mention other disastrous choices as Heras-Casado, Antonini, Runnicles, just to name a few. Working with these conductors and not giving regular presence to Maazel, when he was alive, Jurowski, Kitajenko, Pretre, Nott, Adam Fischer, Frühbeck, even Afkham has proven to be a fatal mistake.
    This proves that there is a real crisis in the conductors branch and it would be good to open a debate on the tendency so called “democratisation” in great orchestras has driven us to.

    • Nick says:

      After Maazel felt he had been snubbed during the election which appointed Abbado, did he not state he would never conduct the BPO again?

      • Max Grimm says:

        I believe he was diplomatic and claimed that his cancellations of all upcoming engagements with the BPO at the time had nothing to do with the orchestra not choosing him (he did give some reasons of why he canceled but I doubt anybody truly believed them). I don’t think he returned to conduct them until 2000. Does anybody know if he conducted them again after that?

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Max, he wasn’t “diplomatic” at all, he embarrassed himself to the bone. He had called the press conference in advance on or right after the day the election for Karajan’s successor had been scheduled, and he had used his contacts behind the scenes to lobby individual players and factions in the orchestra, and to have a long fawning article about him placed in a major American newspaper during the summer (I think it was the NYT) whic elaborated on how he, and only he, was the only logical candidate for the job – complete with sanctimonious nonsense quotes from him along the lines of “the BP have lost their father figure, please let us not speculate about who will guide them into future now, but I will always be there for them” (I am paraphrasing from memory, not quoting) – all that did not go down to well and he was never a serious candidate anyway.
          Still, it was pretty obvious that he had called the press conference because he had expected to get the job, and then he suddenly announced that he would not conduct them again because he wanted to devote more time to composing. And then he took the highly paid job with the SOBR in Munich not long afterward. It was all really not very classy. And yes, he did come back in the late 90s or around 2000 or so. But I don’t know how regularly he conducted the BP from then on.

        • SDReader says:

          Michael Schaffer, since you are correcting others here, I will point out that not even BR uses SOBR, which wouldn’t go far Stateside.

  • Mark Stratford says:

    ==not giving regular presence to Maazel

    Well Maazel was so petulant when Abbado was chosen ahead of him (late 80s) it’s not surprising BPO took so long to invite him back as a guest.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    Greetings from Boston! Allow me to comment on Andris Nelsons…

    I’ve heard most of his programs in Boston, and he is a real talent and his first season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra could only be considered a great success. BUT…let’s not lose sight of the fact that Andris Nelsons is 36. He is still at the beginning of his career, and as well as he does with certain things, there is still much for him to learn. And I think he knows this. His performances this season of Bruckner 7 and Mahler 6 make this quite clear–they were micromanaged and did not convince overall while still having some fine moments. I daresay that in a decade, he will likely be putting across far more effective and convincing performances of these sorts of complex works than he did in 2015. This is to be expected.

    Nelsons has publicly said he is staying in Boston and that he is where he needs to be for his own development. And I think we should take him at his word because it’s entirely true, and either he is self-aware enough to realize this, or he has people close to him who can keep him grounded and not buying into the marketing machine’s “genius on fire” characterizations.

    The bottom line: Andris Nelsons is a tremendous musician and a real talent, and one day he has a chance to be the great conductor of his generation. But he’s not there yet, and I think he knows there’s still a long way to go before it happens. And for that reason, I suspect that even if Berlin offers him the position, he will decline it–at this time. Or at least, he’ll do so if he’s smart. And I think he is.

    Remember…Karajan took over the Berlin Philharmonic when he was almost 50. He said in an interview that it was important for him to have time to learn repertory and make his mistakes in places that were out of the musical spotlight (Ulm, Aachen) so he could learn what he needed to learn without the distraction of heightened scrutiny. He also said that too many conductors today make the mistake of not giving themselves the time they need to learn their craft and basic repertory before taking on such high profile positions.

    • Malcolm james says:

      So no real problems then – just an all-round recognition that he’s not the Messiah. Nelsons only has to look at Rattle and Jansons, his mentor, to realize that playing the long game can play dividends when you have the length of career a conductor potentially has.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      Judging from a BSO/Nelsons open rehearsal I attended last month, I’ll agree with your assessment. The program included a work by Gunther Schuller, Mozart’s last piano concerto with Richard Goode, and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. Overall, I heard lots of warm music making and a beautiful orchestral sound. The weakest link in the orchestra’s playing was in the slow movement of the Mozart concerto, a part where the septuagenarian Richard Goode glowed. Isn’t a slow movement the real testing ground for a musician’s maturity?
      Moreover, I couldn’t help wondering whether he was overconducting the music, but that’s for the musicians to say.

    • Daniel Farber says:

      Your evaluation of Nelsons is the same as early evaluations of Seiji Ozawa who, at first created great excitement and marketing possibilities (e.g. the long hair, the beads, the at-the-time exotic brand). As things turned out, his 29-year tenure was the musical equivalent of the Gobi Desert. Sometimes immaturity, a failure to grow in office, just sticks. The best critics–i.e. someone who doesn’t care whether he gets invited to the parties, like Lloyd Schwartz, have been vocally underwhelmed by Nelsons.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      “Nelsons has publicly said he is staying in Boston and that he is where he needs to be for his own development.”

      Probably a very honest statement, but if you think about it, not too flattering for the BSO!

  • Carl says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, I see no evidence of the “brand” of BPO being damaged as a result of what happened on May 11 2015. If anything, the BPO has confirmed their unique standing. They take extremely seriously what they do, there is no loss in delaying the decision. They have no one to blame except themselves if they come to regret what they do. Mr. Rattle found out that no one comes to lead the BPO to have an easy time. Democracy works for educated and outspoken communities, and these attributes apply here, to say the least.

  • Dave Bojanowski says:

    “The brand damaged? An orchestra deeply divided and against itself?” Please stop stirring up nonsense, Norman. It is quite annoying.

    Simon has almost 3 years left on his contract. Why shouldn’t they take their time with a decision of this magnitude?

  • MacroV says:

    Orchestras routinely have auditions for musicians that produce no result. The Berlin Phil has been without one of their principal horns for about five years now; presumably they’ll keep trying people out until they find the right fit.

    There are probably more people capable of playing principal horn in the BPO than there are conductors qualified to be MD. With that in mind, what’s so bad about them not being able to make up their mind?

  • Catriona says:

    The anti-Thielemann brigade trots out the same stuff about his being ‘limited’ etc. He used his personality and musicianship to make Dresden into a fine orchestra with a wide repertoire, easing them and the audience into modern works as Boulez did in NY. In Dresden and elsewhere, he has conducted excellent performances of Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Ravel, Berg, Henze. In the Dresden cathedral he conducted Bach. He is in tune with the enthusiastic Dresden audience. Let’s not forget his opera conducting, outstanding in Wagner and Strauss. He will be just right for the BPO. The East-West divide is a myth.

  • Catriona says:

    The anti-Thielemann brigade trots out the same stuff about his being ‘limited’. He has used his personality and musicianship to turn Dresden into a fine orchestra and gradually eased them and the admiring audience into modern works, as Boulez did in New York. He has a wide repertoire. I’ve heard him conduct Debussy, Ravel, Henze, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Bach in Dresden cathedral. He has even just conducted Cav and Pag!! And other operas including Wagner and Strauss. He will make a perfect conductor of the BPO. The East-West divide is a myth.

  • Eric Koenig says:

    So I nominate Giacomo Franci to take over the orchestra instead. Then I’ll be sure to get commissions for once. 😛

  • Urania says:

    Thielemann is a perfect marketing conductor. He did conduct all these pieces lately maybe he was told to do so, to polish his image. This does not mean that he is an inspiring conductor à la hauteur of Karajan – despite pr giving him often the title of K.’s assistant. The sound he produced in Dresden is very casual without depths. But thats maybe what the general public does enjoy. Er ist leider nur ein Nachahmer! BPO deserves better!

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      How do you know why Thielemann conducted these pieces? Are you a mind reader? Is that a natural talent, or are there online classes for that? Do you need a crystal ball for that, and if so, how much is an entry level crystal ball, and where can I order one?

      • Urania says:

        If one does follow Thielemanns career closely as I did since his first Tristan in Nuernberg, one can ask why this sudden opening? Of course he is still young and needed a broader repertoire to get the job in Berlin. But music making has something to do with the soul. If you understand, no crystal ball needed.

  • Will says:

    Not a very BP comment, but to clarify what was written about Nelsons and Boston above:

    Nelson did indeed make his BSO as a late replacement leading the Mahler 9 in Carnegie Hall. But it sounded above as if he was appointed on the basis on that performance. Rather, he was invited back and led concerts during the summer season in Tanglewood and then during the regular season in Boston.

    Then he was appointed BSO music director.