Sunday, 10 May 2015

Berlin Philharmonic elects new Chief Conductor

The Berliner Philharmoniker elects its new chief conductor on May 11th.  Just like the UK elections on Thursday, the race is too close to call, and the results might be a surprise. Everyone has an opinion on who should win, but the only opinion that counts will come from the musicians themselves, who know their orchestra better than anyone else, who know the conductors they work with, and have a pretty good idea of where they want to go in the next 10 years or so. Choosing a Chief for an orchestra of this importance is not simply a beauty contest, but a statement of artistic principle. In any case, there are no silly prizes for making the most unlikely guess. The Berliner Philharmoniker "brand" is so important that whoever they choose will have reasonable business sense, and know how the market works.  These musicians, at the heart of Europe, with personal networks beyond the imaginings of armchair experts,  aren't going to choose casually.

Latest update : no result ! So please read my piece :  Black Smoke, evaluating the impasse, more positive than negative.

Guesswork is pointless on its own. Wiser to think in terms of "why" not "who". Furtwängler and those before him established the Berlin Philharmonic's standards of excellence. Whether they liked Karajan or not is irrelevant: he pretty much created the market for recordings at a time when that industry was starting to take off.  Under Abbado, they reached even higher standards of artistic excellence. He built up Lucerne and the network of other orchestras which feed into Berlin, and create the co-operative vibe that makes Berlin the place to be for musicians.  They chose Rattle not because he built CBSO from scratch, but because he's a charismatic communicator. Just as the Berliners pioneered the burgeoning market for LPs , they've pioneered the digital market, which reaches far beyond. All over the world now, the Berliners are the "local band" whose live concerts can be enjoyed everywhere, by anyone. They're at a pinnacle. Where might they be going next?

I predicted the UK election results, not by preference but by rational deduction. So maybe I'll risk a guess on Berlin, though it might well result in an equally shocking upset.  The contenders are conductors way above my league, so I've no delusions that they'll quake in their boots because of my comments.  

Front runners are Andris Nelsons and Christian Thielemann, both regulars at the Philharmonie.  Nelsons would be the absolute cert if he hadn't grabbed a pawn and sacrificed a king. Whether he'll leave Boston as he left Birmingham, who knows? He's a prize racehorse who needs the challenge of being at the top.  Lebrecht did an April Fools spoof knocking Thielemann, which fooled many. But any orchestra that thrived under Karajan is probably aware that you don't have to love a man if he has artistic nous. In any case, the Berliners are strong enough to work with him, as they have done so for years. So what if he has a bust of Frederick the Great  It's not a thought crime.

Semyon Bychkov, whose work in Köln has been infinitely eclipsed by his more recent work, especially in opera,  which the Berliners have started to do more of, with good effect.

Daniel Harding,  who's been a Berliner since he was 19, working with Abbado and his many orchestras. A brilliant musician with very strong interpretive skills, though not the kind of flamboyant personality non-musicians seem to prefer.  But the Berliners are musicians, not armchair pundits.

Vladimir Jurowski, whom we know so well in London. Again, a Berliner since his teens, not connected to Russian circles since his dad left Russia when he was a kid. Intellectual, good at interesting programmes, but rather unworldly for political cut and thrust. Nontheless, he's confirmed til 2020 at the LPO, so he's a survivor.

Alan Gilbert, who possibly knows more what's going on than most outsiders do. He's conducted Berlin more than most (bar Nelsons and Thielemann),  and a much better fit in Europe than in the US.  The Royal Philharmonic Society invited him to give their keynote speech in April (full link here), in which he discussed the changing role of orchestras in the digital age. The Berliners are so good that they don't need a conductor to tell them how to play, but they do need someone with  a perspective on the future. 

I have a much longer list, with some wild cards, (including Volkov)  but the choice isn't up to me but to the Berliners themselves.  Chances are they're not going to go for grotesque but for sensible and musicianly. 

Here's a healthy bit of reasoned analysis in Die Zeit where they tend to have a pretty good feel for what's what.

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