How strong is the stop-Thielemann opposition?

That’s what the Berlin Philharmonic election has come down to.

When the 124 players go into conclave tomorrow, the largest bloc on first ballot will favour Christian Thielemann. He is the only German candidate, Berliner to his bones, technically reassuring and popular with older audiences.

The drawback is that Thielmann, 56, is a blast from the past, deeply conservative in his repertoire and reactionary in his political views. Once accused by Daniel Barenboim of antisemitism, Thielemann has come close to giving coded support to the anti-immigration Pegida movement. Thielemann has not conducted for years in the UK and only once in the US. He is out of tune with Berlin’s vibrant, multicultural profile.

The question is: who’s going to stop him? Thielemann is unlikely to win on first ballot but so far as we can tell, there is no single candidate for opponents to rally around. The late withdrawals of Barenboim and Jansons have left the anti-Thielemann faction without an interim successor to Simon Rattle, available to hold the reins for 3-4 years until a young talent comes free.

Many in the orchestra favour Andris Nelsons, but he’s too new in Boston to up sticks and leave.

Riccardo Chailly, Kirill Petrenko and Vladimir Jurowski are the remaining options. Can one of them – or a rank outsider – call in enough support on second ballot to stop the Thielemann bandwaggon?

That’s what the election is about.

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    • Thielemann is an appallingly mannered conductor who poorly imitates Knapperstbusch and whose Tristan is vulgar and sentimental; Thielemann cannot conduct Bruckner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Wagner, Schumann or Beethoven (just like Rattle actually) so one wonders what the ‘politics’ are that gets Thielemann so well planted and placed so well? Also Thielemann is overtly anti-Semitic as well. Rattle was a fake conductor just as Thielemann is a fake conductor.

  • Why is there not more talk of Semyon Bychkov?

    A worthy candidate on so many levels and enjoyed by Berliners and the BPO alike. I struggle to understand why his name would not be in the mix.

  • Semyon Bychkov should not be ruled out (it’s just a pity he is not a ‘star’) and Dudamel is still in the game as well.

  • Thielemann toured the US with the Dresden Staatskapelle in April 2013. They performed programs of Brahms and Bruckner in Chicago, Washington and New York.

  • I never heard a single Thielemann record thet I enjoyed… Paavo Järvi, Vladimir Jurowski or Iván Fischer would appear ideal to me. I think the Berliners should also now have for the first time a conductor from Eastern Europe…

    • To be fair, Thielemann’s recordings with the VPO of Strauss’ Alpensinfonie and Heldenleben are very fine. That said, it’s difficult to disagree with Norman’s analysis.

      The Berliners have a bit of a problem here and who would have thought that so many conductors would rule themselves out and make sure they were firmly in place elsewhere before the BPO come calling?

      • If the best trump card in his favor are performances of Heldenleben and the Alpine Symphony, that kind of tells us everything we need to know. Let us hope the BP comes to its senses. They are, alas, very unlikely to pick Jurowsky: too interesting, too demanding. I can see why they’d like Nelsons: he is the anti-Jurowsky which is why Boston grabbed him despite a Jurowsky “audition” concert—the Shostakovich Fourth—that was really amazing. His problem: he really made the players work and sweat. Most orchestras prefer more amiability.

        • A guest conductor who makes an orchestra work and sweat is like a house guest who complains about the house, rearranges the furniture, refuses to eat the food, turns up the thermostat, stinks up the bathroom. He’ll never be invited back.

          • An entirely new interpretation of the task of the conductor. If this were consensus, orchestral playing would considerably sink in terms of quality.

  • Over past recent days the membership of the BPH has fluctuated from your present 124 to 129. I refer to DAS MAGAZIN DER BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER, which bears the title of »128«!

    • 124 will vote, because those who are on the “Probezeit” (first two years after joinig the orchestra) don´t have the right to if I´m not mistaken.

  • This seems a fairly correct assessment. The orchestra needs someone with German musical roots – musically speaking – but with a much broader outlook, and experience outside the German-speaking world, as to preserve its German identity but enlarged with Abbado’s and Rattle’s heritage.

    One imagines all those eligible conductors, restlessly tossing and turning about at night, feverlishly obsessing about the Throne.

  • “Thielemann has not conducted for years in the US or UK and is out of tune with Berlin’s vibrant, multicultural profile”

    What? I saw two concerts by him and Dresden at Carngie Hall. Abril 2013.

  • Thielemann has not conducted for years in the US or UK and is out of tune with Berlin’s vibrant, multicultural profile.”

    If needing to be “in tune out of tune with Berlin’s vibrant, multicultural profile” is a requirement, I seriously wonder how tolerant this “multicultural profile” actually is. It sounds rather totalitarian to me.

    • Of course it’s not a “requirement”, and the “vibrant multicultural profile” of Berlin is not a person or an institution, so it can not be “tolerant” or “totalitarian” because it’s *just a phrase* trying to describe the very diverse cultural landscape of Berlin today.

      • You must be the first person I’ve come across that protests on the use of metaphors – congratulations!

        • You must have met people before who don’t like metaphors. But I am not one of them. I have no “problem” with metaphors as such – just this one isn’t a very good one. I am not even sure if is a metaphor. A metaphor for what? The cultural landscape of Berlin, being as wildly diverse as it indeed is, can not really be metaphorically described as having the characteristics of a person or institution – exactly because it is so diverse.
          I haven’t had much time to chat on Slipped Disc recently, but I just looked at some of the discussions linked to above, specifically the one about T-man’s remarks concerning Pegida. Are you the same Christian whose quite detailed arguments there were deemed “not worthy to reply to” by Mr Osborne?

    • Couldn’t agree more. “Multicultural” stems from a multitude of strong individual cultural players, who by themselves could be rather monocultural, each with their own culture.
      A classical conductor is not more or less multicultural than a Techno DJ or a Brasilian Samba dancer. Actually the latter two are much less diverse in their cultural “repertoire” than a generalist classical music conductor like CT.

      • Very good point, Peter! People tend to forget that while “classical” music may be primarily the product of “white European men” from previous epochs, the repertoire “even” of someone like Thielemann who does have a strong focus on certain areas of the repertoire is still much more diverse than that of many, if not most other artists who do tend to specialize in one very specific type of repertoire or style. And there is nothing “wrong” with that either.

  • As this “campaign” winds down, before we place our final bets, can we please review a few NL-endorsed fallacies?

    Everyone loves a darkhorse, but can we please put a stop to this Jurowski nonesense?
    People cite the ‘outsider’ Abbado, but in 1989, he conducted the orchestra just days before the vote. Jurowski? “Remember that guy you dated four years ago? It didn’t go too well and you haven’t heard from each other since… Yes, that one. You should marry him – tomorrow!” It’s frankly absurd.

    Barenboim’s “late withdrawal”. Nothing of the sort. Barenboim’s remark was “ich bin kein Kandidat” – I am not a candidate. That is not a disavowal of interest, just an intelligent way of stating the obvious: he is not interested in “campaigning” for the job. If the Berliners would like him, they certainly know his number, and he would surely be ready to listen.

    Jansons, Nezet-Seguin and Dudamel “ruling themselves out” with contract renewals elsewhere. NL may not be the biggest sports fan but any football supporter will know that a contract extension by their club’s star isn’t worth the paper it is written on if/when their “dream move” comes along. At least two of the three named would obviously jump at the chance to lead the BPO, all would simply and sensibly like to appear loyal to their current employers in the meantime. As in poker, hedging your bets is far from folding.

    The choice will be an interesting indicator of many things, both for the orchestra and for the wider future of classical music. It is worth remembering, however, that we are still more than three years away from the new Chief Conductor actually taking charge. Until then, the BPO is still Sir Simon’s band. As we are peering into the crystal ball today for the results of tomorrow, the musicians have the much more difficult task of trying to anticipate the wisdom of their choice years into the future.

    It will be fascinating.

  • You’re incorrect in saying he hasn’t confuted in the US “in years.” He and the Dresden Staatskapelle toured the US a couple seasons ago, and their two concerts in Carnegie Hall were among the greatest musical experiences I’ve had in 50 years of concert going.

  • I think the Berliners should also now have for the first time a conductor from Eastern Europe…

    I was under the impression they already had (Sergiu Celibidache, Romania).

    • Celi was never their designated chief, “only” a kind of deputy principal conductor while Furtwängler was undergoing his denazification trial and not allowed to work.

    • While Celibidache was their principal conductor “ad interim” he was never their chief conductor and as such didn’t enjoy the same authorities and status. And when they chose Karajan instead of him, Celi’s ego took such a hit that it took 40 years on top of then president of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker nearly begging him on his knees for Celibidache to return to the BPO to conduct a single Bruckner symphony.

      • The BP didn’t choose Karajan instead of Celibidache. By the time that vote came up, Celibidache had already (and apparently unnecessarily) damaged the relationship between him and the orchestra such that he was not even a candidate anymore. That was very thoroughly researched and documented by Klaus Lang.

      • This is a very simplistic rendering of the facts. While he was disappointed by the Berliner’s lack of trust in him after Furtwängler’s passing he knew already before that the orchestra wasn’t right for him in the long run, they wanted commercial deals (recordings) more than his more purist pursuit of musical excellence which – he had already then made clear – was going to be without recordings. Furthermore, he had started to get rid of more seasoned musicians in favour of a younger generation, which didn’t go down well. Their choice of Karajan was obvious and Celibidache knew this ahead of time.

        Celibidache’s disappointment was rather in the more general principle that an orchestra of the quality of the Berliner would put commercial interests above the purely musical ones. He would not be given the conditions that he needed in order to get the best out of the orchestra (lots of rehearsals). He subsequently worked with orchestras that better fit his bill in that respect though only at the end of his career finally worked with an orchestra of sufficient quality to realise what he wanted. At their height the Munich Philharmonic under Celibidache were far superior to the Berliner, I noticed the big difference between them in the 80s and 90s in concert. Subsequently, the likes of Levine, Thielemann and Maazel then reversed that picture again, sadly.

        • Ganymede, I see have drunk the Celibidache Kool Aid, however, unfortunately, most or all of the above is not true.

          Celibidache’s falling out with the Berliner Philharmoniker had nothing to do with his rejection of recordings. He wasn’t yet that adamantly opposed to making recordings and that didn’t play such an important role at the time anyway, recordings were not yet a significant part of the orchestra’s income either.
          His often and loudly declared rejection of recordings dates to a later period and was obviously just an attempt to put down Karajan (and really every other conductor active at the time, as they all made as many recordings as they could). Ironically, Celibidache worked a lot for radio stations in Sweden, Germany and Italy where more or less every performance was recorded and broadcast.
          He later realized that he had manoeuvred himself into a corner with that, and as he craved attention and fame just as much as any other maestro (maybe more so than many, actually) he jumped on the advent of home video in the 80s and now declared that making concert films was now OK because it is a more complete experience to watch (him, of course!) and listen blablabla.

          Also, he did not replace older members of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He did not have the power to do that. Even the actual principal conductor of the orchestra can not hire and fire players. You don’t seem to know much about all that, so please don’t spread rumors you heard somewhere. The history of the relationship between Celibidache and the Philharmoniker is rather well documents, among others there are the very good books by Klaus Lang I already mentioned.

          Finally, he did do very good work with the Münchner Philharmoniker and they did play really well, often at a similar level as the Berliners or other top orchestras, and that was certainly a testimony to Celibidache’s qualities as an orchestra trainer. But they were not “far superior” to the Berliners or other top orchestras. Once an orchestra reaches that level, there isn’t really that much of a general difference there anyway. Nor did the standards of the Münchner Philharmoniker sag under later conductors. What Levine and Thielemann did there may not always have been as interesting as Celibidache’s interpretations, but that has not much to do with the playing standards of the orchestra. But amateurs often confuse these things.

  • If Norman means Thielemann hasn’t conducted an AMERICAN orchestra in years, he’s right. Thielemann guest-conducted Philadelphia during the 1997-98 season, making a CD of Wagner’s music released in 5/98. Other than that, he’s been here (as mentioned by others) with Dresden.

    • He conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra regularly (and wonderfully) and was considered a possible Sawallisch successor until he behaved badly on several fronts, including telling the German press he had the job. So he’s one of the people I blame for the Eschenbach appointment %)

    • He guest conducted the NY Phil in January 2002. I was at one of those concerts. I was not impressed, although Bronfman did a wonderful Mozart c minor.

    • Let us not forget that he made his US opera debut with the San Francisco Opera in 11/16/1991 with a searing and mouth dropping Elektra with G. Jones, N. Secunde and H. Dernesch as the dysfunctional Mycenaen female members of the late Agamemnon household. BTW Happy Mum’s Day!

  • It wouldn´t be my choice at all, but I guess Thielemann has the upper hand.
    So my answer to your question is “not strong enough, not united enough and in the end not motivated enough”.

    Highly unlikely that they find the majority they need in the first rounds for any of the candidates. So some members have to change their vote.

    What´s more probable?

    That the “Thielemaniacs” (no pun intended) take the pill and support a conductor like Nelsons, who will still be there in 2025, 2030, 2035?
    When he´s even maybe a little more ready to settle down than now (he seems to have too much energy for the concentration on Berlin which would be required…).

    Or that the supporters of the other (and younger) candidates will “allow” an era Thielemann, knowing it will not be too late for a 50 or 60 year old Nelsons, Dudamel, Nezet-Seguin or …?

    For the supporters of Thielemann it´s now or never.

    He probably won´t have the chance next time when he is 70 or 75, unlike most of the other candidates.
    So they will fight for him.
    They may prevent any other candidate if they are strong enough.

    From vote to vote, if they keep on, it will get more propable that they get what they want, than that the others unite AND get votes from the Thielemann-group. A lot of the Thielemann-preventers has to change their vote anyway, and they won´t discuss till tuesday I guess.

    I know, I know – this is senseless specualtion. But it´s fun and tomorrow it´s over.

    BTW
    Some commentator on “classicalcommentator” has posted a list of Thielemanns jobs in Dresden next saison. I didn´t check it thoroughly but
    I don´t want this for the BPO, their won reputation for “modern” music and Mahler, Sibelius etc. shouldn´t be only in the hand of guest conductors.
    But see for yourself and than hold against it, what Nelsons does with Boston.

    http://www.theclassicalcommentator.com/the-berlin-countdown-a-two-way-race/

    http://www.bso.org/Performance/Listing?brands=1182&startDate=10/1/2015%2012:00:00%20AM

  • Thielemann is not a “goose stepper” at all. He butts heads with everyone. He never holds back, even if what he says sometimes gets him bad publicity with some people. But he obviously doesn’t care. Someone as loudly non-conformist as he is would not have fared very well in the Nazi regime at all.

    He is a quirky guy, a little too conservative and rhetorically clumsy for my own taste, too, and not necessarily the bringer of deep musical revelations in my opinion either, but to denounce him in this way – anonymously on top of that – that’s low and cowardly. Your “contribution” tells us very little about him but already too much about you.

    • Well done, Ken. I think you are right. It will be either Nelsons or Bychkov. Or maybe not. I guess we will find out in 1-2 days.

      I think more than all the statistics and who is good at this or that repertoire (or not) and who is perceived by the public as this or that, what will really count in the end is if the next principal conductor can continue and further develop the style of orchestral music making, the corporate musical identity the BP have cultivated over the past few decades. And that is that of a sort of augmented chamber music ensemble with very high profile and often individualist players on every seat in every section who are more in a partnership with the conductor who guides and inspires their music making rather than “conducting” them in the traditional sense.
      Not that Karajan was nearly as “tyrannical” both as a person and as a conductor as he is often misrepresented as – especially by our dear friend and chat host Norman here – but the old BP and the relationship they had with him was much more of the old, more hierarchical kind. That did start changing with Abbado, Rattle continued that, and the next principal conductor will have to be someone who can be that kind of partner with the orchestra, who can just let them play and sort of channel where they are going rather than be a “traditional” conductor.
      And that’s not even a question of whether one thinks that kind of music making is generally “better” – that’s a separate and very complex discussion in itself. I myself witnessed how the way the orchestra played changed during the Abbado era, and at times it was wonderfully free and spontaneous ensemble music making on a very high level, at other times it was basically just directionless but highly refined sailing through the music, when Abbado basically just showed up and presided over the orchestra’s sensitivity feasts.

  • My only concern about the election of Thielemann is that it will take his mind off the job at Bayreuth when Katharina needs all the help she can get. He is supposed to be mentoring her…

    And what about Dresden? That has been a dream partnership too, especially in Salzburg.

    He should get it, on merit, but I just wonder if it would be for the best – for him, and for everyone else!

  • That’s why, considering everything, Riccardo Chailly is clearly the best option! Vote for him, Berliners! 🙂

    • I think Chailly is a very good conductor, but he is already in a very good orchestra-conductor relationship in Leipzig, just 1.5h or so from Berlin – so one can easily go to Leipzig from Berlin to see him with the GOL. I think it’s better for the cultural landscape of the region overall if he stays there and someone – hopefully – interesting takes over the BP. Then people in Berlin and Leipzig can have both.

  • Let us not forget Herr Thielemann made his US operatic debut on 11/16/91 conducting Elektra with G. Jones, N. Secunde and H. Dernesch as the Mad Housewives of Mycenae. BTW Happy Mum’s Day to Klytemnestra!

  • Hmm, maybe Daniel Harding has a chance. He’s very popular with the orchestra, possibly rather young but no less experienced than Jurowsky, and he’s available (he could leave the Stockholm orchestra), he’s well established with many of the top orchestras and would – I’m sure – do extremely well. He has a wide repertory , both in opera and concert, he would bring a lot of things that Thielemann doesn’t have. Politically, he’s totally “clean”.

    Musically he’s in my view far more exciting than Jurowsky or many of the other names, and even more so than Rattle.

    Who knows!

  • Not sure if you can really call that a metaphor either, but in any case, I think you should be more careful with the M word and use it in a less inflationary manner.

    My comment was a friendly and subtle (perhaps too subtle, it seems) way of saying “this isn’t really any of your business, it’s up to the orchestra members to decide” and “you probably don’t understand enough about what criteria are critical for the selection anyway”.
    Of course I understand that people who are interested in “classical” music are very interested in this question, and as an old Berliner who grew up going to BP concerts way back in the Karajan era, I am mildly interested in it, too. But I still think it’s nobody’s business but the players’. And if people do want to speculate, they should at least speculate based on some realistic insight into what criteria may really be decisive. If you scroll down on this page, you will find a post in which I let myself dragged into the speculation game a little bit, too. But I am also aware that I may be completely wrong.
    And lastly, as you can see in this and the other discussion about Thielemann and his statements about Pegida in January, when questions like this come up, some people have a tendency to use the opportunity to vent their own prejudices and dislikes with an air of moral superiority, as if they were in a position to judge candidates based on their perceived character and political positions. That’s why I find many of the comments made about Thielemann inappropriate. He is a conductor who I personally don’t think is all that “great” and whose political statements I don’t generally agree with either but some of the exaggerated comments made about him are both very unfair and completely off target anyway.
    I may be proven wrong, but I don’t see him as a really serious candidate for the job either, not based on his alleged character flaws and “right wing” political views”, simply because I don’t think what he has to offer as a conductor and artistic figurehead is what the majority of the orchestra members are looking for.
    The fact that many here assume that he is a given forerunner just because he is German and he also behaves in a rather “Teutonic” manner to me seems to say more about the prejudices and misconceptions of those who make these statements. The orchestra is a rather young and international group these days anyway, more so than perhaps any other “top” orchestra.

      • This is not surely a joke. I am deadly serious. And I neglected to include Dutoit and Ashkenazi. (I take the opportunity to correct the spelling of Haitink, which I spelled Heitink.)

  • I also will be happy when the election results are in. Just so the Thielemann haters will shut up for a while. And if you guys take Nelsons from us , then at least have the courtesy to send us Thielemann. If the Berliners want him who are you to say they can’t have him. Please concentrate less on politics and more on music making. I have many Thielemann CD’s and DVD’s and enjoy most of them. Bitch!, Bitch!, Bitch!!!!!!!!!!!!! that is what I hear from many in this crowd.

  • Get your facts right! How is Thielemann the “only German candidate”?! And why should the Berliner care about Boston? If they want Nelsons (or Jansons or …), they will elect him no matter what. Their pride would not allow them otherwise. I mean, they elected Carlos Kleiber, although it was clear he would reject. Whether Nelsons (or Jansons for that matter) would reject remains to be seen.

  • There is no clear emerging conductor of the future who has it all. Thielemann is IMO among all available choices the least bad one. Nelsons, Dudamel are big talents, but have also too big of deficits elsewhere.

    The solution might be to go without a chief conductor for a while until there is an obvious candidate who “has it all”.

  • Jansons has just prolongued with the bavarian radio, and his heart condition won’t allow him to surf on multiple positions anymore, and Thielemann won’t agree to dance to the Berlin Senate’s tune, as we already saw in 2002. Obviously, things are different in Saxony.
    Also, the Ballgame is entirely different today; the record industry is basically dead, and concerts are now mostly “seen” than “heard” nowadays (Livestream, Arte, Medici etc) so, a mediatically strong “podium-pinup” will obviously be more attractive in order to satisfy the masses. It won’t however come as a surprise if nobody is elected today…

  • Sorry Norman. This is inaccurate: “Once accused by Daniel Barenboim of antisemitism”. It wasn’t Barenboim who accused him, rather it was a member of the Berlin city government who accused him of having made an anti-semitic remark *about* Barenboim in rehearsal. Supporting evidence or a first hand witness were nowhere to be found.

      • Other way around. It’s CT who sued the politician who spread the rumour (the lawsuit failed: http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/archiv/christian-thielemann-scheitert-mit-seiner-klage-gegen-wolfgang-girnus-wer-sagte–juderei–,10810590,9913312.html). CT and Barenboim spoke shortly after the comment was publicized and Barenboim said that he believed CT’s version. I am not aware of any litigation threat by Barenboim and can’t find any sources supporting that claim. If you have one, please share.

        Disclaimer: I’m in no way a fan of CT’s, but accuracy is important.

        • Misha, Norman doesn’t understand German, you have to include at least a brief summary translation!

          At the time (and let’s not forget that it was a long time ago), there were also rumors that Barenboim or someone close to him had started that rumor in order to score cheap points against Thielemann. But fortunately, it became clear fairly soon that that was definitely not the case.

          • M,

            Didn’t my sentence immediately preceding the link (with the parenthetical) summarize the contents? 😉 The link was just there to confirm to anyone with access to google.translate that I’m not making this stuff up (unlike some people). 😉 Agree with your views on CT in your larger post further up, btw.

          • Yes, your summary was adequate and correct – I just couldn’t resist the little stab at uncle Norm! 🙂

  • Don Ciccio, the position will start in 2018 when Gielen will be 91 and end at least one decade later! And Gielen is no Pierre Monteux! 😀

  • Thielmann is an appallingly bad conductor and cannot conduct Bruckner, Schumann, Wagner as his recordings testify. Barenboim is also a terrible Bruckner and Wagner conductor and not a real conductor (like Thielmann and Rattle are not real conductors). We live in an age of dumbed-down charlatan conductors.

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