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Christian Thielemann
Thielemann says he still hopes a compromise can be reachedImage: Münchener Philharmoniker

Musical divorce

July 25, 2009

As the lights go on in Bayreuth, the Wagner festival's new musical advisor, Christian Thielemann, is having trouble at home in Munich. Music critics say losing the star conductor is a big setback for the city.


The writing had been on the wall for several days, yet the decision, when it came, still sent shockwaves through Munich's cultural scene and well beyond. Christian Thielemann, chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic since 2004, will not have his contract renewed when it expires in 2011.

Nuances aside, the consensus among local critics is that Thielemann's departure is a great, possibly irreparable, loss for Munich. Arts editor for Munich's Abendzeitung newspaper, Robert Braunmueller, said that unless an equivalent successor could be tempted to the job, Thielemann's loss would be remembered as a political debacle.

The Munich Philharmonic
The Munich Philharmonic is need of a new conductorImage: Münchener Philharmoniker

It wasn't money, or even the number of performances, that led to a breakdown in contract negotiations between the world-renowned composer and Munich's cultural affairs department.

The sticking point was a clause which gave the orchestra's general director, Paul Mueller, the final say in the choice of guest conductors and repertoire over Thielemann.

Thielemann objected to this curtailing of his influence, telling the Suedeutsche Zeitung "it can't be that I have say over 30 concerts and the director over 60. That would negate my position as chief conductor."

Responding to the decision for the first time publicly on Friday, Thielemann held out the possibility of a compromise in the dispute, suggesting that performance decisions could be agreed upon by a committee of colleagues. In a statement released by his lawyer, he said he hoped the council's decision would not spell the end of negotiations, "as final as it sounds."

However, a Munich council spokesperson called the conductor's offer "a little too late," adding that the council's decision was "final."

Christian Thielemann
Thielemann is popular for capturing another eraImage: KASSKARA/DG

An acute sense of loss

One of Thielemann's chief concerns has been that other conductors might dilute the carefully honed romantic sound of his orchestra.

Critics have pointed out that this is one of the reasons why few strong guest conductors have been allowed to conduct the Munich Philharmonic's concerts. It's a sore point in some quarters, where it has been argued that the orchestra has developed a limited repertoire.

Despite this, Thielemann's directorship will be sorely missed. Those who experienced his concerts regularly, and heard how he teased excellence out of the orchestra, no doubt feel an acute sense of loss.

Commenting from afar for the Berlin-based Die Welt, Manuel Brug didn't hide his disdain for Thielemann, accusing him of seeking duties that he is incapable of fulfilling.

But an accompanying questionnaire, in which Die Welt asked its readers who the best conductor of a German top orchestra was, provided a rather different estimation: 42 percent of respondents found Thielemann the best conductor, far ahead of his nearest rivals Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic) and Mariss Jansons (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) on 18 and 15 percent respectively.

The discrepancy between those who react to Thielemann as a person and Thielemann as a conductor sheds some light on why this event, which might otherwise have been a routine decision by a cultural council in any one of those German towns with a municipal orchestra, is now so hotly debated.

The Bayreuth festival hall
Thielemann is a regular at the Bayreuth FestivalImage: AP

Difficult search for a successor

Neither his personality nor his musical style conform to the standard view of what a modern conductor is supposed to be about. To some, the protégé of Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim is a dinosaur who no longer fits into the modern orchestral world.

But most of the audiences at his concerts and opera performances in Vienna, Bayreuth, and New York enjoy precisely that: an unapologetic throwback to a romantic musical expression that cares about emotional results, not musicological differences. It's one aspect that links Thielemann to his predecessor Sergiu Celibidache, who, 13 years after his death, still enjoys a cult-like following.

Thielemann's strength, like Celibidache's, is his skill in performing the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. The few pieces Thielemann adds to his limited repertoire are works he loves and knows by heart. The resulting repetition of his program was the cause of some controversy, but few minded when he could make any composition of Robert Schumann sound as though it was the best music ever written.

According to Marc Gegenfurtner, finding a successor who will be able to live up to Christian Thielemann's ability, and match the orchestra's considerable ambitions, will be one of the toughest challenges for the city of Munich.

Author: Jens F. Laurson

Editor: Kate Bowen/Nathan Witkop

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