Orchestra in search of a conductor

Published : Jun 10, 2015 12:30 IST

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra during the celebrations of 50 years of the start of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, in Berlin on May 12.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra during the celebrations of 50 years of the start of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, in Berlin on May 12.

THE Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is known to be one of the finest orchestras in the world, combining technical perfection with acknowledged musicality and a sound that has been described as “magical”. It is also one of the most watched and talked about orchestras, often in the limelight for both musical and non-musical reasons. But recent events—in particular the still-continuing search for a new principal conductor to replace the illustrious Simon Rattle, who has announced that he would leave in 2018—are likely to be of wider interest even to those who are not so interested in classical music. The ongoing processes illuminate the dilemmas involved in cultural and creative pursuits in our times, not just in the developed world but everywhere.

This particular orchestra is fascinating anyway. It originated in a rebellion in 1882, when 42 members of an orchestra led by the conductor Benjamin Bilse broke away to form their own group, in protest against his imposition of low wages and travel by fourth-class in trains for concerts. The group was originally known as “Former Bilse’s Band” and got its more respectable present name later that year. They were obviously musicians of such quality that within a few years they could attract Hans von Bulow, one of the most celebrated conductors of his time in Europe, to serve as their conductor.

This helped to cement the orchestra’s international reputation, and since then most of the major luminaries of the world of Western classical music have served as principal conductor, musical director or at least guest conductor for the orchestra. In the 20th century, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Sergiu Celibidache led the orchestra. Under Furtwangler the orchestra was effectively close to the Nazi regime, performing not only in general public concerts but at clearly propaganda-driven events, to the point that subsequent scholars have even described it as “The Reich’s Orchestra” (the title of a book by Misha Aster published in 2007).

The second half of the 20th century was dominated by the towering and charismatic figure of Herbert von Karajan. He spent nearly four decades with the orchestra, from 1955 to just a few months before his death in 1989. He transformed the orchestra musically (producing a consistently lush sound that became distinctive and instantly recognisable); commercially (embarking on a massive project of recording the entire repertoire of the orchestra and actively assisting in marketing); in terms of its physical home (encouraging the building of what was then a futuristic concert hall with wonderful acoustics and with the stage for music-making situated in the midst of the audience); in its global reach (taking the orchestra on tours as far afield as Japan and China, as well as the Americas); and in terms of personnel (eventually bringing in some women players despite protests from the largely “unreconstructed” alpha males who then formed the orchestra).

This last point was much more difficult than expected. Karajan’s relationship with the orchestra was said to be intense and fulfilling, but also turbulent, and the last years were marked by frequent friction, which sometimes erupted into open disputes. For example, when Karajan sought to bring in the 13-year-old violin prodigy Anne-Sophie Mutter to perform a Mozart violin concerto with the orchestra, there were fierce protests. Yet, that remarkably gifted violinist went on to create some outstanding performances and recordings with the orchestra in a relationship that now spans more than four decades.

The charge of misogyny is one that has been levelled at this particular orchestra even more than others. It was one of the last important orchestras to hire women players, even though it had a woman guest conductor (Antonia Brico) as early as 1930 and several others thereafter. In 1982, the Swiss violinist Madeleine Carruzzo joined the orchestra (and still plays in it), but this was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the contested appointment of clarinettist Sabine Meyer, who apparently faced so much harassment that she left after a few months, and this became another source of friction between Karajan and the players.

Now the composition of the orchestra is quite different. It is more international: fifty of the 128 members are foreign (non-German), from 20 different countries. It is slightly less male: 17 women play in it, still less than most other major orchestras but certainly more than before. It is younger: the average age of the players is only around 38 years. But the culture of being independent-minded and player-driven continues. The nature of its formation as a fiercely independent and self-confident group of accomplished musicians has permeated both the organisation of the orchestra and its subsequent trajectory.

New members of the orchestra are voted in by all the players (not just those in the relevant section), with the conductor also having a vote. The vote is conducted after a musical audition on stage in full view of all the members, unlike the practice that is now common in many American orchestras, where the candidates play behind a screen so that attributes such as age, gender, race and so on are not known to the listeners. And so prejudices of different kinds can get reflected in votes, along with purely musical judgment. Only very powerful personalities (and Karajan was undoubtedly one such) can manage to exert some influence in such conditions.

The musicians of the orchestra also choose their conductor, in a closed and secretive process that has been described as the equivalent of a papal election conclave. Since this is possibly the most coveted job in the classical music world, they have always had an impressive list of candidates to choose from. They have generally chosen men who are recognised stars already, who also happen to be at the top of their own game, and who they were quite familiar with because of frequent appearances as guest conductor.

Thus, Karajan was succeeded by the Italian Claudio Abbado, who expanded the repertoire away from the core Classical-Romantic pieces so beloved of Karajan, to more 20th century composers and contemporary works. In 2002, Abbado was succeeded by the dynamic and exciting British conductor Simon Rattle, who has also proved to be extraordinarily successful in drawing consistently excellent and powerful performances from the players. Under him, the orchestra also developed an education project that seeks to remove the elitist label from the music and connect with those who have little experience of Western classical music.

Clearly, hard acts to follow for anyone who must come after these giants. The orchestra itself is not so easy to deal with: the ebullient Simon Rattle’s hair turned grey very quickly in his years in Berlin, and recently he was quoted as admitting that “nobody comes here thinking they are going to have an easy time”. Indeed, the great musician Carlos Kleiber actually refused this opportunity when he was offered the post before Abbado took over. That is why this May, all eyes in the classical music world were on the closed doors beyond which the members of the orchestra gathered to choose their next conductor. The aura of secrecy surrounding the exercise (the discussion is completely behind closed doors; even the actual contenders are only guessed at by outsiders; mobile phones are not allowed in the room) added to the mystery and allure. After hours and hours of discussion and several rounds of voting, they emerged to announce that they had been unable to come to a decision, and would seek to meet again and decide within the coming year.

The contenders

The rumour mills suggest that one of the strong contenders was Christian Thielemann, local Berlin boy beloved of the conservative faction, who is steeped in the Classical-Romantic repertoire and in the direct tradition of Karajan. But he may have shot himself in the foot because of not just musical reasons (the more limited focus of his repertoire) but also because of the uncomfortably right-wing views he has expressed publicly, including in a newspaper article in which he sympathised with the anti-immigrant group Pegida. This apparently generated strong reaction from others in the orchestra, who felt that this would sit uneasily with the requirements of 21st century music-making and the kind of cosmopolitan and multicultural city that Berlin has become.

Other names have been mentioned. The grey eminence Daniel Barenboim, who conducts the Staatsoper in the same city, has ruled himself out. Two prominent names are much younger. The 37-year-old Latvian Andris Nelsons would certainly fit the bill but he has just taken over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which makes it less likely that he would abandon his current home in just a few years. The 34-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, now based in Los Angeles, is one of the most exciting conductors to have erupted onto the global scene, achieving international recognition through the stunning Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra he created in Caracas, part of the Venezuelan government’s project to bring music to the masses.

Kirill Petrenko, currently in Munich, could be another contender, though his reputation for doing only a few thoroughly prepared concerts every year may work against him because of the demands of commercial profitability. Women are apparently not in the running, although several highly regarded women (such as Susanna Malkki and Emmannuelle Haim) have guest-conducted the orchestra in recent years.

All this is speculation, of course. More candidates may emerge in the coming year. And there are those who argue that the Berlin Philharmonic is now such a thoroughly professional and well-oiled machine that they do not really need a principal conductor, and can manage with guest conductors without much diminution of musical quality.

But that raises another problem. Increasingly, the role of the conductor is not just to bring together the performers to create great music, but to attract commercial contracts and sponsorships. Given the limits of the orchestra’s repertory, this is becoming more difficult, as Simon Rattle also found. It can only be achieved by someone who brings his/her own star power, is commercially savvy and can recognise what will be popular without sacrificing musical creativity and innovation.

These are difficult conditions to meet. So what is a temporary inability to choose a conductor may well reflect a more existential dilemma that is increasingly faced by many great orchestras and indeed by many performing artists in general: the difficulties of pursuing artistic perfection within the constraints posed by the requirements of material survival and commercial success.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment