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Berlin Phil fail

Rick FulkerMay 12, 2015

The job of principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic may be prestigious, but it's no longer a desirable one, writes DW's Rick Fulker. The failed vote has left a mark in the orchestra's impeccable reputation.

Berlin Philharmonic, Copyright: Sebastian Hänel
Image: Sebastian Hänel

The "Dude" from Venezuela or the versatile Israeli? Which sound magician - the Latvian septuagenarian or the forty-year-old French Canadian?

The interim result is out. It will be neither Dudamel nor Barenboim, neither Jansons nor Nézet-Séguin. Also not the other Latvian named Nelsons, who is so adored by audiences. No Italian by the name of Chailly, nor the German, Thielemann, who many had thought was destined for the job.

Nearly 12 hours of debate, and still no real result. The 124 sequestered members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are sworn to secrecy. It is possible that they did reach an agreement, but that their desired candidate turned down the offer. No one knows.

It's unprecedented in the history of the unique orchestra. Democracy, it is said, is a messy affair - especially the kind of direct democracy practiced by the Berliners. Each orchestra member gets one vote, except for the current principal conductor and managing director.

Where do they go from here? There will be a new election later in the year, said Peter Riegelbauer, the orchestra's leading representative, at the end of that very long day, May 11.

Dread and dream

Simon Rattle has said it several times: It's the world's most difficult conducting job.

Leading the Berlin Philharmonic is like having sex with someone you don't like, according to another statement attributed to him.

This is not just about the proverbial arrogance attributed to Berliners inside and the outside the orchestra. This group's principal conductor is also its music director and thus carries full responsibility for every artistic matter in the organization.

In the run-up to the non-election, there were signs of avoidance and reduced expectations. Andris Nelsons, currently leading the Boston Symphony, declared that at age 36, he felt he was too young for the job.

On the opposite American coast, the even younger Gustav Dudamel recently extended his contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic until 2022, thereby apparently taking himself out of contention. Likewise, Mariss Jansons very recently extended his contract with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Rick Fulker, Copyright: DW
Rick Fulker

And Daniel Barenboim - passed over twice in his long career (the orchestra elected Claudio Abbado instead, and later Simon Rattle) - made it clear that he was not available.

Only few seemed willing to take the risk of losing face by not being elected. Christian Thielemann was one. Although he's stressed that he's perfectly happy in Dresden and with that city's Staatskapelle, it was no secret that he looked longingly towards the capital city. This maestro, however, stirs up mixed feelings, preferring a comparatively narrow repertory and raising eyebrows with his non-musical statements - having expressed a certain understanding for the anti-immigrant protest movement in Germany, for instance.

Wither the Berliner?

Not long after the Rattle era began 13 years ago, discord within the orchestra became public. Traditionalists feared that their principal was exploring too many new works of music, neglecting the German Classical-Romantic core repertory and thus altering the orchestra's sound beyond recognition. Supporters, on the other hand, were enthused about Rattle's new pathways. With multimedial concert distribution and educational and social projects, he kept his promise of making the Berlin Philharmonic fit for the 21st century.

What remains of the most suspense-filled day of the year in the biz, or - in the words of Peter Riegelbauer - that "Festival Day of Orchestral Democracy?" Just broken glass.

The Berlin brand

Music "Made in Germany" is the Mercedes Benz of the classical sector, and in that context the Berlin orchestra is considered the super luxury model. With its own label founded last year and its Digital Concert Hall setting standards, the branding has been successful. "We can do it better," they seem to say - not only in terms of performance, but also marketing, distribution and networking.

How will the Berliners present themselves in the future? Will it be back to the legendary silvery sound and to the meat-and-potatoes classics. Or will there be further forays into the digital world, into society and into modern music?

And what does that "non-fateful" election day signify? The world's best conductors were considered. When they meet again to choose again, the musicians must now have the courage to elect "none of the above." Instead, they should crown a male or female baton-wielder whose name hasn't been mentioned yet. The contenders thus far - about whom there had been no consensus in two years of speculation in the music press - have now all emerged damaged.

Each must know that at the very least, a sizeable part of the orchestra is against him. That would make the most coveted job in the world of classical music the most miserable one.

Only one thing is certain: The Berlin Philharmonic brand has lost some of its lustre.

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