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Berlin Philharmonic: curb the speculation

The wires have gone wild with names of candidates to succeed Simon Rattle in the world’s premier podium. Some of the names mentioned have never conducted the orchestra, some will never be asked and others are unsuitable for any number of reasons.

Remember, this is not a beauty contest or Strictly Come Conducting. It’s a political and commercial decision that will be made behind closed doors by members of the orchestra as and when they have recovered from Rattle’s resignation announcement.

First, they need to find a basis for unified action. Although it presents a solid front, the orchestra has strong pro and anti-Rattle factions who will need to hammer out their differences before the succession can be broached. It may be two years before they hold an election and much can come unstuck in that time.

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Comments

  1. It WILL be Christian Thielemann and remember you heard it here first . . .

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      From god’s mouth to your ear? Good to know, we can all now move on and waste our time making provocative comments on important matters. BTW, watch out for that Tosca babe, I hear she’s a killer.

      • Novagerio says:

        But of course it is goint to be Thielemann. The BPO will by 2018 already have had its dose of “un-teutonised” intercontinentalism, in fact I am surprised Rattle lasted more than 5-7 years there! The position of music director of the BPO required – at least back in 2002 promising guarantees conerning recording sales, something that in our spotify age has lost significance. Back then neither Haitink, Maazel nor Barenboim were obvious guarantees in selling or for that matter making recordings, so they took Rattle instead. In the meantime, Thielemann has taken control of tow of the BPO´s most important territories: their lifelong contract with Deutsche Grammophon (they now record for the dull and slow selling EMI, Rattle´s company) and the Salzburg Easter and Withsun Festivals. It is far to clear that the old spirit of the BPO despite its obvious rejuvenation in the post-Karajan days is crying for the return of a teutonic leader. And remember, in concerts at home and abroad, the hallmark of the BPO is the core classic, romantic and late-romantic repetoire Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, occasionally Mahler (Haitink is by far the most convincing in that matter) and Richard Strauss -
        needless to say, a repertoire where Rattle has promptly failed.

    • Bob Summers says:

      Two conductors that should be considered are Susanna Malkki and Thomas Adès. Both are brilliant and have conducted major orchestras to great acclaim. I have heard both with the BSO in Boston, amazing!!

  2. Jan Müller says:

    I also guess it will be Thielemann even though I would prefer a guest conductor system since there is not conductor today who is up to the job. Rattle was not up to the job as he has been almost never convincing in the classic-romantic period, and this is fatal, despite his baroque and modern music strengths. It is embarassing for a chief conductor if people are queuing up for Thielemann or Barenboim, because they finally want to here a good interepretation of Brahms or Bruckner which the chief could never deliver…

    Thielemann is better in the opera than on the concert podium and the Salzburg/Baden-Baden constellation is not ideal.

    Nonetheless, they will choose a conductor with a face ready for marketing on BPhil Media, and marketing is much easier with one chief than with a handful of guest conductors. That’s why they will never allow for a (much better) guest conductor system. In the end they will decide according to commercial reasons (unfortunately, that’s what musicians are interested in).

    • Pablo Zamora says:

      Why do you say that te guest conductors system is better than having a titular conductor?

      • Bob Summers says:

        In Boston we vitally now have a guest conducting system. It does not work for the musicians or the audience.

        • Timon Wapenaar says:

          It is my view that the reliance on guest conductors (who were flown in from the northern hemisphere at great expense) was one of the reasons for the fiasco which transpired at the Johannesburg Philharmonic last year. The orchestra was tossed from baton to baton: no conductor had a run longer than three or four weeks. How does one actually create ensemble in those circumstances? On whom does the orchestra ultimately depend to understand it musically and to intermediate between management and musicians?

        • Jan Müller says:

          Hi Bob/Pablo,

          A chief conductor system only works on the highest level (which is what the Berlin Phil needs) if you can get the best conductor around. Unfortunately, the best ones are past 70 and choosing a chief who only represents the second best option (like Rattle, the same would apply to Thielemann or others) causes more damage to the orchestra than a system of very strong guest conductors.
          Just to give you an example: The Berlin Phil has always been famous for Brahms. Now, after a decade with Rattle, that has almost completely gone and I do not even want to listen to their Brahms concerts any longer, it is just to disappointing in terms of sound and interpretation compared to the times before Rattle. Now there are many younger musicians in the orchestra who have never done it properly. This is how a great tradition slowly dies out.
          A guest conductor system forces the orchestra to take over more responsibility. Of course you need the very best ones but I guess the Berlin Phil should be able to get them.

    • So there is not one human being on the entire planet who is up to leading the Berlin Phil. Really?!?

    • @Jan Muller says, “Rattle was not up to the job as he has been almost never convincing in the classic-romantic period”…

      I am quite sorry to say that I may end up agreeing with you. The Rattle/BPO Mahler 2 on EMI is one of the least effective readings of that piece I have heard.

      Although, it is ironic in a sense that the BPO, once known as the “Reich’s Orchestra’ is doing Mahler at all.

  3. José Bergher says:

    The matter of The Succesion should be taken up by the United Nations’ Security Council at once! It isn’t fair to keep Mankind in suspense for another 5 years. The Security Council should take into consideration the fact that I have already approved unanimously my suggestion to have Mehta, Muti and Maazel appointed as co-conductors of the orchestra.

    • Bob Summers says:

      Mehta and Maazel are on my worst conductors list. Muti is okay if he is stays well which is a big if. Berlin should go for a MD between 35 and 45, there are many viable candidates. We will have to be patient with the selection process.

      • Novagerio says:

        Mehta and Maazel have been in the top of the profession for over half a century, despite occasional dullness and lack of spontaneity or imagination; but still, they are real conductos compared to the mediatically pushed “wonderboys” we have to live with now a days! It is going be interesting to see if “the Dude” and the other kiddos stay in the profession for another 50 years…

  4. I think it could be Riccardo Chailly o Mariss Jansons – they are the only condutors that have the teeth to do the job – who won’t be too old in 5 years.

  5. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Here’s a name that hasn’t surfaced at all in these discussions: Tugan Sokhiev (born in 1977) and since 2008 conductor of Orchestre du Capitole in Toulouse, France. The recordings and concerts which I have heard have been excellent. He is billed as Russian from Northern Ossetia. A name to watch? or not? Keep those cards ‘n letters rollin’ in, folks…

    PS: I don’t think he has ever conducted BPO but has led the Concertgebouw and other major European ensembles as a guest.

    • He has, and he has been invited back regularly. He is also the new principal conductor of the DSO Berlin.

  6. RATTLE GREATLY OVERRATED
    It is a mystery why Rattle has been appointed to the BPh, given that his assets are so different from the orchestra’s strengths and performance tradition. Although it was a good idea to extend the orchestra’s repertoire with more contemporary and / or non-German music, it should be clear that Rattle is a very able, technically astute Kapellmeister. But he is musically and psychologically superficial, which is a waste with that orchestra. That he inaugurated community projects, which have since been taken-up in the rest of Germany, is dubious as well: where such projects are well suited for the more provincial ensembles – nothing against privincial ensembles – it is unnecessary to burden a top orchestra with these kind of things. It makes the initiative look like a cheap marketing enterprise.

    Rattle’s programme choices of contemporary music also leaves much to be wished for, he seems to think that dissonant complexities are the ‘edge’ of avantgarde music, an idea from the sixties of the last century. I once attended a concert of the BPh in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with Rattle conducting, which presented a 40 minutes philosophically interesting but musically abject sonic art piece before the interval, a monstruosity consisting of an accumulation of short, brazen and disjunct ejaculations, after which the audience could – in the second half – somewhat recover with Mahler IV. But it seemed that the OOMP (Obligatory Opening Modern Piece) was not only severely disruptive on the listener’s ears, but also on the motorics of the players, because the Mahler lacked all the Schwung, tenderness, subtlety and Viennese charm it desperately needs to come off the ground. After such a concert by a supposedly top orchestra, one reconsiders the ticket price, which was hughe, and one feels just betrayed and ripped-off.

    Also the BPh occasional appearances in factory halls – to lower the psychological barriers of concert venues for interested but too shy people? to show how ‘democratic’ the orchestra actually is? to lower ticket prices? – looks like a forced gesture to counter the impression of an ‘elitist’ institution.

    The tragedy of our times is, that in general, Western culture is so eroded that great personalities as they appeared before the modern world made inroads upon cultural awareness, no longer can develop. With all his shortcomings and ego mania, Karajan represented a type of musician still rooted in a period when the spiritual element was a conditio sine qua non for musicianship. Thielemann may come close to that quality level, but the earthiness and concreteness of his approach creates a barrier. The idealism of the 19th century may seem inappropriate in today’s world, but it is still a perfectly effective feeding ground for great musicianship.

    • I think there exists a great deal of genuine conducting talent which is totally under the radar of the “big” orchestras, not to mention the big managements. I personally know some Russian conductors whose skills, knowledge and musicianship far exceed that of Rattle, but who are stuck making rounds in the East European orchestras.

      I would love to see the BP to hire a “talent scout” who would follow the principles of the Gilmore Award for pianists where the nominees have no idea they have been nominated. If someone with real insight into the art of conducting could travel to all the obscure places to see promising conductors work repeatedly with their own orchestra and do guest concerts, we might finally get a real musician to the top of the profession.

      Unfortunately these days it is too much about the pretty face, brown nose, or political connections, so my hopes are not high…

      • Sasha Mäkilä says:
        January 12, 2013 at 7:24 pm

        “I think there exists a great deal of genuine conducting talent which is totally under the radar of the “big” orchestras, not to mention the big managements.”

        Are you talking about yourself?
        :-)

        “Unfortunately these days it is too much about the pretty face, brown nose, or political connections, so my hopes are not high…”

        And you think that was any different or better in the “good old days”?

        • Jan Müller says:

          Yes, it was much better in that respect, or do you believe Furtwängler made his way because of his “beautiful” face? :-)

          Rattle and also Nagano tipical creatures of this “Medienzeitalter”: average conductors with an interesting face and a certain appeal to the media.

          However, and that is the good thing about classical music, this bullshit does not seem to work. Despite the huge amount of money that is blown into the BPhO digital concert hall and its enormous advertisement the numbers of followers are desastrously low (often only 3 figures world wide). In the end, it is the quality that draws audiences to classical music and not the make-up, that is the essential difference between classical and pop music.

          I fully agree with your comment below: It seems that we are led to believe that Rattle was the first conductor who brought modern music to the Philharmonie…well, in the 60s there was a series in which famous composers came to conduct their music with the Philharmonic which in terms of quality I suppose was lightyears above what we hear today.

          Or the fairytale according to which Rattle has brought Sibelius back to the Philharmonic for the first time after the second world war (the British press believed all this nonsense, told to them by Rattle himself!). Well, if one reads the memoires of Wolfgang Stresemann, the grand old managing director of the Berlin Phil, one can easily find out that one of the greatest successes of Karajan was his Sibelius cycle, also played on a Scandinavian tour to great acclaim…this is what I dislike about Rattle: both on and off the podium, he talks a lot, but does not always say much or the right thing.

          • Jan Müller says:
            January 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm

            “Yes, it was much better in that respect, or do you believe Furtwängler made his way because of his “beautiful” face? :-)”

            > No, but he was a very impressive and commanding figure on the podium and while conductors never had to be particularly “beautiful” in order to be successful, how they came across on the podium has been something that has fascinated audiences for a long time since well before the “media age”. Norman chronicled this in detail in his book “The Maestro Myth”. The “Age of the Star Conductor” began with with Hans von Bülow, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Nikisch, all of whom were famous for their flamboyant, extrovert, or in the latter case, particularly elegant ways of conducting.

            In their day, star conductors like Toscanini or Koussevitzky were deified way beyond what is the norm today. In Osborne’s Karajan biography, he quotes a lot of reviews spanning his entire career and the focus those reviews had even many decades ago on just how he looked on the podium and how he came across is pretty astonishing. He quotes a French reviewer (from the 50s, IIRC) who, addressing him directly, waffles for paragraphs about “how you were the music, you embodied the music, you inhabited and lifted the music to new heights” (I am paraphrasing). So that was something that Karajan did obviously cater to, but it was very much the obsession of his age with figures of authority on the podium, not something he invented.

            “Rattle and also Nagano tipical creatures of this “Medienzeitalter”: average conductors with an interesting face and a certain appeal to the media.”

            > I think it’s a little more complex than that. They are both competent conductors but yes, they also know how to present themselves. But that has been important for a long time. On the other hand, there are also some conductors who have been highly successful in recent decades who probably weren’t the greatest looking or dramatically posing on the podium, like Levine, Boulez, Wand, or Harnoncourt, so it’s really not just that.

            “However, and that is the good thing about classical music, this bullshit does not seem to work. Despite the huge amount of money that is blown into the BPhO digital concert hall and its enormous advertisement the numbers of followers are desastrously low (often only 3 figures world wide). In the end, it is the quality that draws audiences to classical music and not the make-up, that is the essential difference between classical and pop music.”

            >But the quality of the playing and music making presented in Digital Concert Hall generally IS very high. I don’t know how economically successful the project is, but I think it is a great idea and it’s very nice that one can watch and listen to all of their programs in fairly high quality, plus the interviews. Obviously, both the concerts and the interviews vary in artistic and informative quality, but that is in the nature of such things. I certainly don’t see the DCH as just a vain marketing effort.

            “I fully agree with your comment below: It seems that we are led to believe that Rattle was the first conductor who brought modern music to the Philharmonie…well, in the 60s there was a series in which famous composers came to conduct their music with the Philharmonic which in terms of quality I suppose was lightyears above what we hear today.”

            >Indeed, and that series continued into the late 80s when it wasn’t really “necessary” to have such a specialized series because contemporary, or generally music of the 20th century beyond the tonal age had very much become part of the “normal” programming. The very first BP concert I ever heard, in the early 80s, was Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children” and Strauss’ “Don Quixote” with Zubin Mehta. And that was a regular subscription concert.

            And, of course, Abbado did a lot of contemporary music before Rattle, too, often in innovative programs which paired traditional repertoire with new works under a common theme.

            The important question is, why are we “being led to believe that” and why are so many people ready to believe that? I think many comments in this and the parallel thread show that many people still carry an enormous baggage of prejudices and long outdated stereotypes about German culture in general and in Berlin in particular. And we know that prejudices and stereotypes tell us much more about the people who hold them than the people they are allegedly about.

            “Or the fairytale according to which Rattle has brought Sibelius back to the Philharmonic for the first time after the second world war (the British press believed all this nonsense, told to them by Rattle himself!). Well, if one reads the memoires of Wolfgang Stresemann, the grand old managing director of the Berlin Phil, one can easily find out that one of the greatest successes of Karajan was his Sibelius cycle, also played on a Scandinavian tour to great acclaim…this is what I dislike about Rattle: both on and off the podium, he talks a lot, but does not always say much or the right thing.”

            >To be honest, at first I thought you might be exaggerating a little there, so I did some research, with really jawdropping results. Like these reviews which are full of those prejudices and stereotypes and which both mention say Rattle “pushed the orchestra out of its comfort zone” – as if an orchestra which is full of some of the best players not just in, but also from many countries in the world needed to hide in such a “comfort zone”. And both reviewers really struggle with their preconceptions vs. what they actually heard, but in the end, both somehow have to admit that it was really much better than – well, than what? What *they expected* because they had their heads full of those prejudices. Apparently the concert wasn’t quite enough to flush those out either. And, dear British reviewers, guess what, Karajan also conducted Ligeti’s “Athmosphères” in Berlin when Rattle didn’t even have facial hair yet.

            http://preview.tinyurl.com/an5nom8

            http://preview.tinyurl.com/c8kmpq2

            And note that the second reviewer initially confused Sibelius’ 3rd and 4th symphonies – I guess maybe Sibelius is a little outside her own comfort zone…

            This reviewer begins by writing simply how fabulous the concert was – but even he hasn’t quite gotten the stereotypes out of his head.

            http://preview.tinyurl.com/b2evffr

            “Even so, you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the Berliners evoking the daybreak of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Hearing was believing as the opening’s wafting and warbling awakened even senses we didn’t know we had. As violas led the swell to sunrise the pliancy and tonal refulgence of this playing was something to wonder at, its innate Frenchness seeming to belie any Germanic connotations at all. Karajan and James Galway were a seductive pairing…”

            Yes, that right, a flutist from Ireland or a critic from England automatically know and understand “innate Frenchness”, but highly trained orchestral musicians from Germany (and a lot of other countries as well) first need to prove that they can get past their being “Germanic”.

            That’s some really sad stuff!

            But the “Rattle pushes through Sibelius in Berin” thing is even sadder. You were not exaggerating at all:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhG8VkDy0cQ

            http://preview.tinyurl.com/33gzbz3

            Wow!

            And, yes, that is something that I really hold against Rattle. He is sitting there in Berlin and shamelessly and grinningly playing to those stereotypes, in the orchestra’s own internet channel. That is something that he should be taken to task for by the local press, but of course they don’t, because then they would be the evil Germans again.

            Of course, what he says is complete nonsense. Not only was Karajan a champion of Sibelius’ music who recorded all of his symphonies – except for, unfortunately, the 3rd – with the BP, some of them twice for two different labels. The BP also recorded several of them again later with Levine, and they have played his music regularly with other conductors in recent decades, such as Maazel, Davis, Salonen, or Berglund.

            P.S. – you mentioned Stresemann’s memoirs. He has actually written four books, one about Karajan, one about great conductors at the Philharmonie, one about his own life which is fascinating since as Gustav Stresemann’s son, he witnessed a lot of the complex and turbulent times of the Weimar Republic very firsthand, and one about how and why the Nazis got into power. I highly recommend these books to anyone ho can read German and who is interested in the political and cultural history of the period.

    • John Borstlap says:
      January 12, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      “RATTLE GREATLY OVERRATED
      It is a mystery why Rattle has been appointed to the BPh, given that his assets are so different from the orchestra’s strengths and performance tradition.”

      I don’t think that’s a big mystery. I think that was the actual main reason for why they chose him.

      “Although it was a good idea to extend the orchestra’s repertoire with more contemporary and / or non-German music”

      If you take a look at the orchestra’s programs in their online archive, you will be surprised to see that they used to play a whole lot more contemporary and “non-German” music than you think, before Rattle became principal conductor, and not just since the days of Abbado either.

      “But he is musically and psychologically superficial”

      How do you know how deep or superficial his psyche is?

      “That he inaugurated community projects, which have since been taken-up in the rest of Germany, is dubious as well: where such projects are well suited for the more provincial ensembles – nothing against privincial ensembles – it is unnecessary to burden a top orchestra with these kind of things. It makes the initiative look like a cheap marketing enterprise.”

      Not at all. It is not a burden for an orchestra which is financed by the community to look for news ways of reaching parts of the community they haven’t reached before, like the project where young people danced Le Sacre du Printemps. That was highly successful and reached a lot of young people who had no relationship to “classical music”. That has nothing to do with cheap marketing.

      “Rattle’s programme choices of contemporary music also leaves much to be wished for, he seems to think that dissonant complexities are the ‘edge’ of avantgarde music, an idea from the sixties of the last century.”

      Or maybe because he doesn’t conduct any of your pieces?
      ;-)

      “Also the BPh occasional appearances in factory halls – to lower the psychological barriers of concert venues for interested but too shy people? to show how ‘democratic’ the orchestra actually is? to lower ticket prices? – looks like a forced gesture to counter the impression of an ‘elitist’ institution.”

      None of the above. They very occasionally (twice so far, I think) play in the Kabelwerk Oberspree, an old, closed factory which is considered an architectural monument and developed as a venue for cultural events. And since the BP is one of the city’s top cultural attractions, they have naturally been asked to play there. A large part of it is also used as an university campus.

  7. “Rattle’s programme choices of contemporary music also leaves much to be wished for, he seems to think that dissonant complexities are the ‘edge’ of avantgarde music, an idea from the sixties of the last century”

    If anything the opposite is the case. He tends to favour a middle-ground, as opposed to the extremes of composers like James Dillon or Brian Ferneyhough who on a superficial level fit your description of ‘dissonant complexities’

    Rattle has been an advocate of Maw,Holloway,Harvey, Knussen and Ades .
    All these composers have their fair share of consonance. JM Staude is more dissonant, but in a very classical and orderly sort of way…nothing particularly outrageous.
    In their own time,Dorati,Kubelik, Stokowski and Mitropulous were no less bold in their programming of ‘modern’ music. Something which we should celebrate, not castigate.

  8. So many comments here tell us more about the person offering them than the issue. The Berlin Philharmonic hired Rattle and kept him because he inspired them, enlarged their repertory into contemporary music and even the baroque. They are now firmly seated for the 21st Century while some here have not yet adjusted to the 20th.

    • The Berlin Phil hired a young Rattle to pull them into the 21st Century. Why in the world would they now look to an old man to lead them forward? Most of the great conductors of the 20th Century were hired when they were young and vibrant . Only in retrospect do we view them as “Old Masters” aka Nikisch, Furtwangler and Karajan with the Berlin, Haitink with the Concertgebouw, Bernstein with the NY Phil, MTT with SF, the Dude with LA. The Berlin Phil sees itself as a cutting-edge institution. It needs a young conductor who can grow and establish an identity for and with the orchestra.

      • Lord Montague says:

        It’s true if we go by the past, most of the big names thrown around here are older than what was the average age in the past for their chief conductors, the age of Berlin’s chief conductors at their inauguration were:
        Furtwängler 36
        Karajan 47
        Abbado 56
        Rattle 47

        Abbado with 56 being the old guy.

        Now the names thrown around here would be in 2018:
        Thielemann 59
        Barenboim 76
        Ivan Fischer 67
        Esa-Pekka Salonen 60
        Valeriy Gergiev 65
        Mariss Jansons 75

        All older or much older than what we had in the past. That’s quite interesting. All of the sudden Thielemann with 59 looks like a young boy in comparison. Maybe that’s another hint at not hiring a new chief conductor but instead working with all of the good but older ones. Or maybe it’s just a hint at the progress in human medicine over the last decades. :)

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          Today 60 = 50; which means that the Dude is currently 22, LOL. The average European man lives to be almost 80 and rich, pampered conductors a little longer. Women, however, live at least 5 years longer, on average, than men. That means that Marin Alsop is the leading candidate for the Berliners.

          Thieleman at 59 would be perfect age-wise. But I think that the Berliners will come up with a new model for leadership. Sir Simon was the perfect transition and he could still be in the future mix, but not as Chief Conductor. Your list could be the staff starting in 2018. They’ve come too far to get stuck in the past.

    • Frank says:
      January 12, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      “So many comments here tell us more about the person offering them than the issue. The Berlin Philharmonic hired Rattle and kept him because he inspired them, enlarged their repertory into contemporary music and even the baroque. They are now firmly seated for the 21st Century while some here have not yet adjusted to the 20th.”

      I think you have hit the nail on the head with those comments, especially the last one. It’s amazing to see how much nonsense and what silly stereotypes about contemporary (as well as traditional) German culture people here have thrown around, along with all the random names they could come up.

      I am not a big Rattle fan myself, but the BP know what they are doing and what is best for them, and choosing Rattle at that point in time made total sense. I think also his way of focusing on and tweaking little details – although some say that makes him sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture – also appealed to them because that highly refined, sometimes maybe even overly refined, chamber music like style of playing is something they excel at. And that can lead to some very impressive results, e.g. their album of Debussy works. The last time I heard them live with Rattle was Mahler 2 which didn’t convince me as much. Rattle seemed to be see the piece more as interesting sonic material that he could tweak and he seemed less interested in the big dramatic arch. But then other listeners found exactly that approach highly interesting to hear.

  9. Jonathan Nott?? Daniel Harding?? Two names that I’m surprised have not been mentioned.

  10. I can still remember the Announcement of Abbado, with Maazel playing interviews the day before as the choose one. Maazel is the Al gore of classical music. However Rattle was obvious. Everyone was thinking about him. J. Nott and Thielemann sound to me Runner Up names.

    Does anyone say about Franz Welser-Möst? He is going to be 58 on 2018. What do you folks think?

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