Who’ll Take Over the Berlin Philharmonic?

That Eurovision contest was fun.  I’m putting it on my calendar for the rest of my life.

But now to classical music. This weekend’s FAZ [newspaper] has an entertaining piece on the behind-the-scenes positioning to replace Sir Simon Rattle as the Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle’s tenure has been a little rocky: in 2004, he got a taste of German criticism (which can be even more caustic and unsparing than its British counterpart), when Axel Brüggemann wrote in the Welt am Sonntag that "while Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband."

That storm blew over, but the rumors continue that after having a few non-
Germans at the helm (Claudio Abbado and Rattle) for the past sixteen years, the orchestra feels it’s time to pick a German, or at least someone with a more Romantic sensibility. According to Fabian Bremer in Sunday’s FAZ (21.5.2006, p.27), "The initial excitement about the British new-music specialist has blown over. The longing for a new Karajan is growing in these neo-romantic times." Rattle, for all his gifts, is apparently just a little too crisp, too user-friendly and too modern. 

The two front-runners to replace Rattle are Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann, the last Karajan’s German protege and currently Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic. Thielemann’s by far the younger of the two, but has already established a reputation with his Bavarians; his recording of Bruckner’s No. 5, which I’ve heard, is pretty glorious Bruckner, alternately primeval and mist-shrouded and blazing.

One doesn’t openly campaign for this post, of course. That would be Vulgar, and is Not Done. Instead, you limit your present musical engagements, just so everyone knows you’d be able to take over the post if you had to. You also arrange your current programs and engagements to highlight your strengths. If there’s an opportunity to show up yourself against your closest competitor, don’t miss it (such as when Thielemann took over during rehearsals for Barenboim during Bayreuth preparations, during which he showed that he, unlike Barenboim, knew the score of Tristan by heart).

Bremer ends the story with this lovely anecdote:

Daniel Barenboim recently performed a guest engagement in Munich, performing Bach’s "Well-Tempered Clavier." Christian Thielemann was also in the city, and, as always, had rented the five-star suit in the Palace hotel. The hotel piano was also in the suite. When Barenboim wanted to practice, the hotel director went to Thielemann and began to ask him, but Thielemann cut him off: "Mr. Barenboim can have whatever he pleases from me." The instrument was then pushed across the corridor. The next evening, both of the men cancelled their engagements and sat together at the hotel bar.

One thought on “Who’ll Take Over the Berlin Philharmonic?

  1. This post kind of fell flat, probably because it takes a very discerning ear to be able to tell the difference for most of us.

    I could try to be witty and ask whether Barenboim was trying to rattle Thielemann by asking for the piano – but I fear I’d achieve only half my goal….

    The Berlin Philharmonic is a brand name in the classical music business – I know that much. But I really don’t have the slightest idea about which of these composers is superior. Barenboim is in Chicago I think, and the Chicago Symphony had a huge reputation under Solti as the best in the US, but I don’t know whether that has endured since he retired.
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