The Berlin Phiharmonic is like a smoothly-run corporation, says filmmaker Thomas Grube. In a DW interview, he explains what they do right, and what Simon Rattle's successor needs to be just as successful.
Director and producer Thomas Grube knows the Berlin Philharmonic better than just about anyone else. For his much acclaimed documentary films "Rhythm Is It!" (2004) and "Trip to Asia" (2008), he accompanied the orchestra across Asia and at home in Berlin.
DW: As a long-time observer of the Berlin Philharmonic, what makes the orchestra so special in your opinion?
Thomas Grube: That they've managed to be so successful and maintain such high quality for over a century.
I was interested in finding out the secret to how this kind of success can function so consistently without setbacks - and in a community of artists. It must be very frustrating to be an orchestra musician. When you're an artist, you want to be heard and to express yourself. You've spent half your life practicing an instrument - and then you go to an orchestra where you're just one of many and may not even be heard. Nevertheless, as a collective they have to give a top performance and be motivated every day.
Empowerment is the secret
I was interested in finding out what kind of system was behind that. On the one hand, they are all the best in their field. But that alone is not enough. It has a lot to do with the system and with the way the orchestra is set up. With this group, every single musician - to put it in business terms - is like a shareholder. The orchestra chooses its members itself. The musicians elect their principal conductor. And they are also involved in choosing the general director.
That's an unusual situation that leads to more self-confidence and a greater sense of responsibility.
German or not?
The Berlin Philharmonic is often associated with positive traits that are considered typically German, like strong technical skills and perfectionism. Is there anything typically German about the "corporate culture" you're describing?
You have to keep in mind that this orchestra is very international. There are many Germans, but also musicians from France, the US, Asia. It's very global and modern. The "foreigners" in the orchestra are attracted to the German musical tradition that the orchestra stands for and promotes.
To get back to the system, I think that our society can learn something from it. In a project I'm currently working on, I have a lot to do with large companies, and I often think of the Berlin Philharmonic. I think that if we had more workers' participation in decision making, if we gave individuals more responsibility and didn't just make them employees, then we could expect a lot more from people - especially when it comes to innovation and passion. And we need those for our future.
I often think of the orchestra because I think a lot of very good things are going on there. And that has a lot to do with self-determination and co-determination.
Many clichés about Germany can also fit Asian or other cultures, so I think things are intermingling more these days. What used to be German isn't so German any more, except for musical tradition. This orchestra maintains a particular way of playing, a particular string sound, a particular tradition.
Our first film "Rhythm Is It!" came along at the very beginning of the Rattle era, when there was a lot of openness toward creating a new sound. Musicians may stay in the orchestra for life - that's another important point. Nonetheless, over the years with Rattle, there's been a generational shift. A lot of the older musicians who played under Karajan went into retirement. Tons of young musicians joined. It was the younger generation in particular that was especially interested in the traditional sound. The older musicians were more curious about trying out new things.
On the road
In your film "Trip to Asia" you portray the orchestra's inner life. But how was it received by Asian audiences?
It was much more extreme. I've developed friendships with many of the musicians and have heard that they experience that again and again in Asia. The reception in Taipei and the open-air concerts, the fact that fans waited at the exit to get autographs from every musician - that wasn't just a one-time thing.
Things in Germany are changing a lot, especially at the Berlin "Philharmonie" during the Rattle years. But in Asia, it's conspicuous that a lot of young people are interested in classical music. That could be because music education is very important, especially in China and Taiwan. It's part of having good manners for a child to learn an instrument. After "Trip to Asia" I made a film with Lang Lang. I traveled in China with him and experienced the same kind of thing.
'Rhythm Is It!' traced Simon Rattle's innovative dance education project
After Simon Rattle, who implemented the Digital Concert Hall and developed a strong education program, for example, what will the next principal conductor have to do to retain an international audience?
I met Simon Rattle at the very beginning, with all his insecurities and his respect for the orchestra. We did an interview with him right at the start, and he said that his goal was to prepare the orchestra for the 21st century. In retrospect, he really has done that.
It's a modern, current orchestra, it's on the road more than ever, the audience in the Philharmonie has gotten younger. It's very successful, and the Digital Concert Hall is a good example. Rattle has very consistently done all the things he'd resolved to do.
What the new principal conductor needs is self-confidence. The musicians won't choose anyone who doesn't have it. I'm very curious to see what happens. I can imagine that, after Rattle's departure from tradition, a period of return to tradition will follow.
Thomas Grube's documentary films about the Berlin Philharmonic have received numerous accolades. "Rhythm Is It!" from 2004 focuses on Simon Rattle's stage production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" with 250 school children from Berlin. In "Trip to Asia," Grube traces the orchestra's extensive tour through six cities in Asia. He has completed film projects with a number of other world-class musicians, including Cameron Carpenter, Lang Lang, Anne Sophie Mutter, and Hillary Hahn.
Kate Müser interviewed Thomas Grube.