Just in: An American viola player joins the Berlin Philharmonic

Just in: An American viola player joins the Berlin Philharmonic


norman lebrecht

May 02, 2015

Allan “AJ” Nilles, formerly violist with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, has won the audition for tutti violist of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

He has been living in Berlin since January and announced the move in a San Diego interview. He was added today to the Berlin Phil roster.



  • Arabella says:

    No way! An American in Berlin – never thought we’d see the day!

    • Brian says:

      What about Noah Bendix-Balgley? I haven’t seen his passport, but I’m quite sure he’s American. He played a beautiful Heldenleben solo in Bonn in 2013, by the way!

      • Patrick says:

        And Matthew Hunter, viola. Both he and Bendix-Balgley have Ohio roots…

        • PaulD says:

          Sarah Willis, in the horn section, is a dual citizen of the UK and the USA.

          • Max Grimm says:

            Add to that Armin Schubert, 2nd violins (originally from Chicago) and Stefan de Leval Jezierski, horn (originally from Boston).

    • Selim says:

      Same with european singers on american stages…

      • Arabella says:

        Well, not really. There are a whole lot more European singers than there are American stages. There simply aren’t opportunities in the US. The MET is the one big venue and they do their fair share of hiring European singers. Piotr Beczala,Diana Damrau, Roberto Alagna come to mind plus tons more. Just look at this season’s roster!

        In fact there’s criticism that US stages give PREFERENCE to European singers over US singers with the precious few opportunities that exist. Hence the backlash, IMHO, by Mr. Gelb and company aggressively promoting US singers like Renee Fleming, Susan Graham and Joyce Di Donato. No one wants a repeat of the Beverly Sills story: a top American singer who was not invited to debut on her home turf, the MET, until mid-career.

        The US is very fair about inviting European singers, but just remember, there are fewer opera houses and fewer opportunities in the US than there are in Europe.

        • John C says:

          Well, Americans would have a problem i the doors of European orchestras and stages were closed for them. Classical music is much bigger in Europe than it is in the US.

          • Arabella says:

            Exactly. Which is maybe why so many of them try to keep Americans out.

          • Peter says:

            Arabella, who keeps Americans out. Could you say exactly who, please? I think you are imagining things here, reality is different.

    • Peter says:

      I have no idea what this comment is supposed to mean. Berlin is welcoming people form all over the world with open arms. It’s full of Americans and all kind of people with different passports, particularly in the cultural scene.

      Take the chief conductors of Berlin’s major orchestras for instance.

      Philharmoniker: Rattle, a Brit
      Staatskapelle: Barenboim, Global citizen (Argentinian, Israeli, …)
      Rundfunk SO: Janowski, German, born Polish
      DSO: Sokhiev, Russian (Ossetian)
      Konzerthaus: Fischer, Hungarian
      Deutsche Oper: Runnicles, another Brit (Scotsman)
      Komische Oper: Nánási, another Hungarian

      so in the German capital Berlin, only one out of seven chief conductors is German, and he is not even born in Germany. It probably doesn’t get more internationally minded than this. Keep chewing on your foot.

      • Arabella says:

        True. Berlin is doing it right, setting a wonderful example for other European orchs. But in the less sophisticated concert halls of Europe there is an often not-too-subtle bias against Americans. And not just in music. Not sure Europeans are aware of this themselves. Sometimes it’s hard to take Berlin out of this equation at 1st glance. But you’re right, Berlin is moving in the right direction. Hopefully other European orchs. will contemplate their example.

        • Peter says:

          “Berlin is moving in the right direction.” That is a hilarious comment, when 6.5 out of 7 chief conductors in Berlin are already not German. In which direction is Berlin supposed to move? To make it illegal by law for Germans to be chief conductors in their capital? Doesn’t make any sense.

          Sorry, but you must be someone without any actual experience on the ground in this subject. What bias against Americans? The reality actually is, that for instance in the many midlevel and smaller opera houses in the German provinces, there are a lot of Americans and other nationalities than homegrown talent, taking on the – usually lousy paid – entrance positions and opportunities for young singers, due to the fact that American work ethos has no problem being paid badly for jobs at the hopeful beginning of a career that give experience and a foot in the door, while European young singers tend to expect a rewarding fee right away. Also American opera singers know they have to go to Europe to get work, there is so few of it in the US itself. No wonder they are so keen to take any job.

          I think you are simply projecting old stereotypes. Time for a reality check.

          • Arabella says:

            Peter, we’re speaking about 2 different things. You are talking about conductors and I am talking about orch. musicians. I would like to see more readiness to accept US musicians in European orchs. Less European nationalism.

            The US hires tons of European players to fill orch. jobs that Americans are well-qualified for. We Americans are left scrambling for work. We look to Europe figuring that since European players can work in the US, we should be able to work easily in Europe. But it doesn’t always work that way. We encounter nationalism and biases against Americans and work restrictions and preference given to European citizens.

            Berlin is apparently cracking that prejudice. Although I’d love to see it outside of the viola and violin sections, where the candidate to job ratio is the lowest. That’s why I say Berlin is going in the right direction.

            You are also just speaking about Berlin which I admittedly do NOT know much about and I stand corrected.

            Europe is a very big place. Contrary to what you seem to think Berlin is not the center of the universe. There are a whole lot of other countries in Europe with orchs. and in many of them American players are a scarce commodity. I happen to be one of them.

          • Peter says:

            Arabella, you must back up your allegations of discrimination against Americans with specifics, otherwise nobody will take you seriously. I don’t know what you are talking about, I do not experience any such discrimination or work restriction against Americans or preference for Europeans.

  • Patrick says:

    He joins Matthew Hunter as the second American in the viola section. Mr. Hunter is from Ohio.

  • shenyeh says:

    He was a member of the San Diego Symphony. Great player!

  • Larry W says:

    Carrie Dennis, an American, was principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. She is currently principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

  • Arabella says:

    Well, good for the violas of the world! They seem to be a very open minded lot, seeing past politics and national boundries. A fine example for every other section!

  • Robert Levine says:

    And of course Fergus McWilliam, long time hornist there, is Canadian.

  • MacroV says:

    The last I heard, 50 of the Berlin Phil’s 128 members were not German. Maybe this makes it 51. The BPO is a very international orchestra. Which makes me think this idea that the crusty old Germans in the orchestra want to cleanse themselves of the “dreadful Rattle era” with a new director who is a master of Beethoven/Brahms/Bruckner is wrong; this is not your grandfather’s Berlin Philharmonic.

    • Peter says:

      Nobody wants that. Some, from all kind of nationalities, want a conductor who can make the orchestra sound as it sounded at its best times. That’s not the same.

      • Arabella says:

        Peter, I’m responding here because the other thread won’t take more replies. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I take it you’re not American. How on earth would you know if Americans feel prejudice from Europeans or not?

        • Max Grimm says:

          To give the current update on the numbers Macrov posted, the Berlin Phil currently has a roster of 129 musicians, 63 of which are not German. I admit that I do not know to what extent American musicians face difficulties in gaining entry into European orchestras and that it is without question that anti-American sentiments are à la mode in several places, I find it hard to concede to the notion that the low number of Americans in top European orchestras is due to anti-American bias without knowing just how many American music students are studying at European institutions and how many of them seek employment in Europe after completed studies. The number of musicians in top orchestras, who have not studied in the country they wish to work in, is quite low (and that applies to American orchestras as well).
          A less pertinent observation is language. I know of several musicians (mostly Anglophone) who did not receive permanent positions because they did not manage to learn the native language in a given time.

        • Peter says:

          Arabella, I wouldn’t know what Americans feel (ore more precise one American, you, since you can’t speak for all of them), but how on earth would you know if Europeans actually have such a prejudice, because what one feels, and what is actually there, are two different things…
          Maybe some people simply don’t like you, and it has nothing to do with your passport. Ever considered that to be a possibility?

          • Arabella says:

            Peter, maybe you’re just biased and you’re simply oblivious of it! I already have a job. It’s not about me.

          • Peter says:

            Why should I be biased, when *YOU* claim that Europeans were blocking Americans from entering their orchestras, without giving ANY factual backup of your opinion. But I start to develop an idea, why people might have problems with you, and it certainly is not because of your passport… 😉

  • william osborne says:

    For another perspective on the Berlin Phil’s employment practices, women comprise 14.7% of their personnel, the third lowest ratio in the world. By comparison, the Zurich State Opera, New York Philharmonic, and the National Orchestra of France have over 40% women.

    In the last decade the representation of women in the Berlin Phil has increased only 1.6%, also one of the lowest rates in the world, far slower than even the Vienna Philharmonic. The representation of women in major orchestras generally increases at about 1% per year until parity approaches. Berlin does not have even 1/6th that rate of increase.

  • PTN says:

    @peter MEOW!!

    • Peter says:

      from urban dictionary:

      acronym for, Morning Erotically Obsessed Woman (or Women)

      ??? are you sure about Arabella?