Who Will Lead The Berlin Band?

Nervousness surrounds the search by the world’s most admired orchestra for a new chief conductor

Germany Music
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).

After Abbado the choice was between Daniel Barenboim, an erudite player on the world stage, and Simon Rattle, half a generation younger and a proven inspirer of new audiences in a multicultural English city. It seemed a promising fit, but Rattle admitted difficulties almost from the outset with an institution that had become a Champions League team of impossible talents. “Nobody comes here thinking they will have an easy time,” he muttered recently, preparing for an early 2018 exit.

Now they have to choose his successor, but Berlin for conductors is no longer a dream job and some of the smarter players acknowledge that they need to rethink what it is they want from the next chief before they go in to vote.

Several candidates have already ruled themselves out by committing their futures elsewhere. The Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, popular with Berlin players and audiences, has signed on with Philadelphia until 2022. The Austrian Franz Welser-Möst  has extended in Cleveland. The explosive Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, at 34 the youngest under consideration, affects to be uninterested. Christian Thielemann, a powerful Wagnerian with antediluvian political opinions, put himself beyond the pale with remarks that appeared to endorse the xenophobic Pegida mass movement.

In a clear sign of nervousness, two men in their seventies—Barenboim and Mariss Jansons—have been discreetly asked by players if they would stand in for three years after Rattle goes in order to buy Berlin time to reconfigure what kind of orchestra it wants to be (both, I understand, said yes).

At the voting session, the players will consider two front-runners, neither of whom will necessarily accept the job. The Latvian Andris Nelsons, 36, recently moved from Birmingham to Boston, where his impact has been ecstatic. A summer favourite at Bayreuth and Lucerne, Nelsons brings a rare combination of youthful energy and experience beyond his years; he first conducted Wagner’s Ring at 26. But Nelsons has all to play for in the US. His wife, Kristine Opolais, is a star at the Met and he is seen as an obvious successor to the fragile James Levine. What does Berlin have to offer that beats Boston and the Met?

The alternative to Nelsons is Riccardo Chailly, 62, a wonderfully accomplished Italian who was Abbado’s teenage protégé in Milan and cut his music director teeth with a Berlin radio orchestra in Karajan’s time. Chailly alone has the ability to reconnect the Philharmonic to lost certainties.

But Chailly has a superb and happy orchestra in Leipzig and is about to become principal conductor at La Scala, where his father, Luciano, was artistic director. He will not be easily tempted. It is not inconceivable that, after the vote, the Berlin Philharmonic could go from one front-runner to the next and be rejected by both.

This orchestra cannot afford to elect second-best. It must pick a convincing figurehead or risk losing its seat at the top table where German culture is defined. There is nowhere to hide. The deadline is mid-May. Between now and then, the backroom conversation will intensify. At stake is the destiny of the best orchestra in the world, an orchestra that suddenly appears painfully unsure of itself. Intriguing? I should say.