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Berliner Philharmoniker
Image: Sebastian Hänel

Berlin Philharmonic chooses its next principal conductor

Gaby Reucher / eg
May 5, 2015

Countdown to the election on May 11: who will be the one to lead the world-famous orchestra? Nothing has been decided yet, but knowing the tradition of the Berlin Philharmonic helps in the guessing game.


Exciting times for the Berlin Philharmonic: "It's not the calm before the storm - we are right in the middle of the storm," says Ulrich Knörzer, the orchestra's co-chairman.

In a few days, the orchestra's 124 voting members will chose their new principal conductor. Nothing has been decided, but rumors are circulating. Körzer stays matter-of-fact: "Sir Simon Rattle will leave us in 2018, that's a given. We are looking forward to our future, no matter who will be his successor."

During the last three years of his tenure, Sir Simon Rattle has big plans. Next season's program alone includes 64 concert and 10 opera performances. A new Beethoven symphony cycle is also planned, with the Berlin Philharmonic rehearsing the composer's nine symphonies before taking them on a world tour.

Berlin Philharmonic conductor Simon Rattle. Copyright: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The charismatic one: Sir Simon RattleImage: D. Kitwood/Getty Images

Filling in a big seat

Top conductors usually have long-term commitments, which is why the Berlin Philharmonic began searching for its new conductor two years ago, when Rattle announced he would not renew his contract.

It is a sought-after position yet not easy to fill. The Philharmonic does not just want a principal conductor but also someone responsible for the entire institution, including its concert halls and employees.

Although employed by the Berlin Senate, the orchestra members are free to choose their next conductor among all the maestros in the world. This privilege is unique worldwide.

The musicians will meet at an undisclosed location to elect their favorite conductor in a secret ballot.

Experience has shown that only conductors who have already worked with the orchestra usually make it to the short list. "It's a list of candidates we consider in order to narrow down the discussion a little," explains Ulrich Knörzer.

The session will end only when a candidate with a clear majority is chosen. The maestro selected will be directly informed and can then either accept or reject the position.

This person will be stepping into big shoes, worn by only half a dozen predecessors since the orchestra was founded in 1882.

The spirit of the ancestors

With each of its principal conductors, the Berlin Philharmonic's fame and sound evolved. In an interview with DW in 2004, Simon Rattle said he could still hear the spirit of his predecessors, tracing the orchestra's signature deep and rich sound directly back to Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Furtwängler took the helm in 1922 after Hans von Bülow and Arthur Nikisch had made the Philharmonic internationally famous with their interpretations of classical and romantic works.

Berlin Philharmonic conductor Herbert von Karajan. Copyright: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
The sound magician: Herbert von KarajanImage: E. Auerbach/Getty Images

Maestro Herbert von Karajan arrived in 1954 and remained orchestra the orchestra's head for 34 years, longer than anyone else. Drawing sumptuous sounds and sometimes brisk tempos from the orchestra, Karajan was called the "sound magician." Preferring his own musical interpretation to a performance faithful to the original, Karajan remarked to Deutsche Welle in 1982, "Imagine hearing something your head. Your goal is then to hear the same thing in real life. When you suddenly manage to create exactly the sound you hoped for, it's a true blessing."

The Italian Claudio Abbado, who took over in 1989, took a more democratic approach: "We talk together to find out what is best for the musicians. I'm not the chief, the maestro or the boss. I'm Claudio and we are making good music," he once said. Taking on many new young members, the Berlin Philharmonic became a notably international orchestra during his tenure.

Berlin Philharmonic conductor Claudio Abbado. Copyright: Imago Granata Images
The democrat: Claudio AbbadoImage: imago/Granata Images

Experienced and focused or young and versatile?

Sir Simon Rattle continued on that path in 2002, adding, "We need to bring music to the people, even to those who normally do not listen to classical music."

Rattle's education program offered workshops in composition and a creative orchestra for people of all ages. He also created the Digital Concert Hall, enabling people to listen to the concerts of the Philharmonic live or on-demand at home.

Some critics claim that in all that multi-tasking, Rattle neglected the classic German repertoire. That criticism is one factor adding to the excitement of the selection process.

Will the members choose someone who - unlike Rattle - will identify with a certain repertoire, or perhaps another multitalent who can play on all keys of the orchestra - from music to logistics and marketing?

Among the names floating around are experienced hands like the Israeli Daniel Barenboim and the Latvian Mariss Jansons, as well as young conductors such as the 34-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel and the 36-year-old Latvian Andris Nelsons. Somewhere in the middle is the German conductor Christian Thielemann, born in Berlin in 1959.

Sir Simon Rattle is undisturbed by all the speculation. He and orchestra director Martin Hoffmann are not allowed to vote. In 2017, Rattle will take over the London Symphony. He plans on building new projects with what he has called this "moving and forward-looking orchestra."

Berlin Philharmonic Daniel Barenboim (right) with Sir Simon Rattle. Copyright: Kathrin Streckenbach dpa/lbn
The contender? Daniel Barenboim (right) with Sir Simon RattleImage: picture alliance/dpa

2017 will be a transitional year for the conductor, as he will be working with two major orchestras at the same time. And in the years to follow, it can be safely assumed that Rattle will stay a guest conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic.

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