Rattling About In The Philharmonie

The Berlin Philharmonic produced a discordant sound when it tried to elect a new chief conductor

Germany Music
Will they, won’t they? Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons failed to clinch election (photo: Guy Evans, via Flickr)

If elections were predictable there would be no point in having them. Think back to Winston Churchill’s gloom in July 1945 on being dumped by the nation he had saved, to Harry Truman’s gleam at confounding the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, to the Michael Portillo deflation, the Ed Balls drop, the Bush Florida recount, those defining instants of democracy in motion. Shock therapy is what keeps politics alive and voters interested. Without it, we’d be electorally lobotomised.

Days after the UK general election, we were once more on the edge of our seats watching the doors of a Lutheran church on the outskirts of Berlin, awaiting the nailing of a proclamation. It was a Monday morning, May 11, and 123 permanent players of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were being counted into the building and relieved of their mobile phones. It was a 99.6 per cent turnout; only one eligible voter missing. At 10am, the doors were locked.

What happened inside over the next eleven and a half hours may never be fully recounted since the Berliners are a circumspect breed, but when the doors were finally unlocked late that night, the musicians trooped out into uncharted territory, unsure of their future direction.

Until then, it had been a day of frayed nerves. In past elections, the players’ debate was tightly focused and a result was reached soon after lunch. The result was faxed around the world in mid-afternoon and appeared on the following day’s front pages. On both occasions, the vote went against the odds.

In 1990, the New York agent Ronald Wilford nearly fell off his chair on being told that his diffident client Claudio Abbado had defeated the bristling frontrunner, Lorin Maazel. In 1999, I was sent a brace of champagne by an EMI boss after telling him that Simon Rattle had pipped Daniel Barenboim to the post. In the days of record prosperity, chance used to be a fine thing.

But in 2015 the world is online and impatient for news. Journalists hopped from foot to foot outside the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, complaining that there were no loos. An announcement was scheduled for 2pm, as usual. That deadline passed. A bulletin was promised for 5:30.

Der Spiegel flashed a joke page online, declaring victory for the German candidate, Christian Thielemann, 56. It went viral. So did a fake tweet in favour of the Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, 36, purporting to come from the horn player Sarah Willis and unsuspectingly reposted by Gramophone magazine. Both rumours were refuted by orchestra officials, awaiting a puff of white smoke from within the pristine chapel.

By teatime, there had been six ballots with no majority outcome. Thielemann’s supporters, mostly German players of the older generation, had been unable to win enough votes from younger, more globally-minded musicians who were fighting for Nelsons. Thielemann’s detractors argued that he was too right-wing for cosmopolitan Berlin; his supporters responded that Nelsons, though gifted, was an unknown commodity, newly installed at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and possibly not available in time for Rattle’s departure, in mid-2018. Both sides were at such partisan fever pitch that the possibility of a compromise candidate — Leipzig’s Riccardo Chailly — was barely considered.

Afternoon turned to evening. At five minutes to eight a final vote was called and a result was confidently expected outside. Whispers emerged that Nelsons was close enough for a majority to clinch it, only for the Thielemann faction to threaten a backlash. As light faded, the musicians trooped out of the church, divided and disheartened. The election result — a no-result — was completely without precedent, an outcome as rare as a tied score in a five-day cricket match.

Confusion reigned. For an hour or so it seemed the musicians might sleep on it and reconvene for a final ballot next morning. But there was no room in the schedule. At nine on Tuesday morning they were due to start rehearsing three concerts with the Estonian Paavo Järvi. The earliest free date for a new election was in December.

Apologists swung into action. Peter Riegelbauer, the players’ co-chairman, said there was plenty of time to reach a consensus. Haggard and tieless, he maintained that the mood of the discussion had been “very constructive, cooperative and friendly”. The aftershocks did not confirm that assessment.

One insider said that Rattle had done well to preside as long as he did over a pack of strong wills pulling in multiple directions. His successor would face insurrection unless he was elected by a clear and large majority, which appears presently unobtainable.

That leaves the Berlin Philharmonic in the worst of all possible worlds. No conductor of quality will want to work with a divided orchestra. Several — Dudamel, Nézet-Séguin, Barenboim, Jansons — ostentatiously withdrew in the election run-up. By December, Nelsons might declare himself unavailable.

The orchestra cannot function without a music director. It needs a face on the masthead to obtain the world tours and cinema audiences that are the bedrock of its claim to be the premier performing ensemble on earth. There is no talk — yet — of forming a coalition between Thielemann and Nelsons, putting the German in charge of core repertoire and the home audience and the Latvian on the banners as ambassador to the future and the rest of the world. Stranger things have happened, but dividing the job would blur the brand and Thielemann is an aloof character who does not like to share.

The other option would be for the Thielemann opposition to crumble and accept the inevitable. If that were the case, it would lead to profound changes in the orchestra — a Thielemann trusty as the new general manager and the departure of several player opponents. Thielemann would not bring peace to Berlin, let alone prosperity.

All of these elements conspired to make the Berlin Philharmonic election, unfinished like some of the best symphonies, a compelling spectacle for watchers at the church door and beyond. One of the world’s major brands failed at these hustings to secure its future and will fumble in the months ahead to maintain self-assurance.

That’s why elections are such fun. The powerful can be humbled and the rest of us receive assurance of the glorious unpredictability of any event that involves two or more members of the human race.