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A brand as strong as Mercedes: Herbert von Karajan, pictured in 1963 (Joop van Bilsen/Nationaal Archief)

One morning in the middle of May, around 120 musicians will converge on a gated villa in the Berlin woodlands to cast what they regard as the most important musical vote for a generation. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra will be choosing a chief conductor and, for the first time, the choice is neither clear-cut nor culturally seminal. The telling aspect of this secret ballot could be, truly, how little it counts. Which is why, conversely, the outcome is so intriguing.

Berlin is the cultural hub of Europe, with three full-on opera houses, the capital of Regietheater, every kind of world music and an orchestra which, player for player, outclasses all others on earth. The Berlin Philharmonic is a swagger band, an outfit that lets you know how good it is immediately by the way its sits. Watch the body language. Unlike the Vienna Philharmonic, where string players lean collegially inward to each other, the Berliners face out and proud, proclaiming an elite individualism in the midst of corporate excellence.

They are, in short, the tops. When Berlin has a vacancy, all it has to do is whistle and principal players in Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, London, Tel Aviv—yea, even Vienna—pack a clean hankie and fly in to audition. Conductors are keener still. No maestro ever turns down the Berlin Philharmonic. Yet, and here's where the cracks start to show, twice in as many decades the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic has stepped down and walked away from the best job in the world. Why is that?

Formed as a co-op in 1884, the orchestra has unmatched pedigree. Its first conductor was Hans von Bülow, Cosima Wagner's ex. Next was Arthur Nikisch, a magnetic Hungarian who shard his favours with the Boston Symphony and the LSO. On his death in 1923, there were two names on the ballot paper: Wilhelm Furtwängler, mystic and intellectual, and Bruno Walter, the audience favourite. Leaned on by their booking agent, Luise Wolff, the players chose Furtwängler.

At no time, then or since, was the Berlin Philharmonic as independent as it likes to pretend. Wolff controlled artistic policy until 1933. The Nazis nationalised the orchestra and paid good salaries. After the war, secure West Berlin funding bought political obedience.

After Furtwängler died, Herbert von Karajan was elected by acclamation in 1955. A darling of the record labels, with film-star looks and an equally airbrushed Nazi past, Karajan worked an economic miracle. Players who used to tour on five Deutschmarks a day found themselves earning three times their salary in record royalties. In the Karajan era, the Berlin Philharmonic offered cutting-edge German technology and immaculate sound. It was a brand as strong as Mercedes and every bit as smooth on the road. In a thousand unspoken ways the orchestra represented the new soft power of the risen-again German nation, at the heart of Europe.

Karajan's command lasted almost to his death in August 1989 (he quit four months earlier in a geriatric spat). The players, faced with a choice of the blatantly commercial Lorin Maazel and the ethereal Claudio Abbado voted for other-worldliness-only to resent it when the money dried up. Abbado, visibly irritated, resigned in 1998 (he survived stomach cancer two years later and devoted his last decade to festival and youth orchestras in a nimbus of celestial transcendence).

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maarten sevenhuijsen
March 11th, 2015
10:03 PM
Christian Thielemann is a top musician, top choice. All look forward to his Tristan, thjs summer in Bayreuth. However, for Berlin, Thielemann looks and talks, walks and feels too much like the one-time emperor von Karajan. Berlin, as much as the other top orchestras, need musicianship of the highest intimate quality - such as Barenboim and Jansons are capable of delivering, and Haitink, Ozawa pioneered. Those days are over, and such times are now passés.

March 3rd, 2015
4:03 PM
Since when was Pegida xenophobic? As a European Jew, Norman, you should be all for them. Instead, you're apparently voting for your own demise. You're not usually this cowardly.

Robert Swinhoe
March 3rd, 2015
11:03 AM
Can the BPO ever regain it's famous KLANG - missing since the leaving of the much missed HvK. Muted and 'refined' under Abbado and Rattle it has almost become Europe's leading Chamber Orchestra.

March 1st, 2015
11:03 AM
Christian Thielemann did not "endorse" the Pegida movement but prompted to listen to people's worries rather than hooting them down - like numerous prominent German politicians distant to any far-right tendencies.

Max Grimm
February 27th, 2015
8:02 PM
Technically, the orchestra was formed in 1882 not (as stated above) in 1884.

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