What really happened in the Berlin Philharmonic election

Christian Thielemann and Andris Nelsons apparently split the orchestra down the middle. So why don’t they hire them both?

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

The morning after the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra failed to elect a music director, I took a call from Bild-Zeitung, Berlin’s most popular tabloid, seeking analysis. Later, they asked me to write a full-page op-ed.

Now shut your eyes a moment and try to imagine any circumstance in which the Sun would ever shine an inch of space on an orchestral conductor — unless, of course, he or she was snapped pants down by paparazzi in an M4 layby. Nothing will ever convince British tabloids to overcome their class-based scorn for art and, while we may think of German media as less counter-elitist, Bild readers consume no more Beethoven per head than Sun browsers. So why the sudden interest?

Because, for Germans, this is existential. In Germany, culture defines nation. In Britain, it defines nothing. Angela Merkel likes to be seen enjoying herself at symphony concerts and, every summer, at Bayreuth. David Cameron would not know how to chillax at a Britten opera, or when to clap.

The intense focus on the Berlin Philharmonic election was triggered by the emergence of a German candidate as music director, the first since Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1922 (Furtwängler’s 1955 successor, Herbert von Karajan, was a fly-in Austrian who overnighted at the Kempinski Hotel).

The German of 2015 — hailed by some as a man of destiny — is Christian Thielemann, Berlin born and bred, German as bratwurst in a bierkeller. German, and then some.

Thielemann, 56, is a musical conservative who shuns atonality and pretty much anything written after the death of Richard Strauss. His outlook is resolutely retro. He likes saying that Germans have nothing to apologise for, a coded phrase that places him on the outer fringe of the democratic right. In January, he issued a diatribe that appeared to show support for the Pegida anti-immigrant movement. A loner, never married, aloof and uncollegial, Thielemann is a powerful if conventional interpreter of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, a trusted crucible of the national heritage. Germans saw his Berlin election as being as inevitable as the hung Parliament predicted by British pollsters.

Within the orchestra, Thielemann had a powerful body of support. Two players who look after business affairs, Peter Riegelbauer and Olaf Maninger, argued that he sold better at Salzburg and other high places than any other candidate. He was the man to restore Karajan-era prosperity. The older Philharmoniker assented wistfully.

Faced with the inexorability of his election, alternative candidates melted away. Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nézet-Séguin swiftly extended their contracts in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Daniel Barenboim and Mariss Jansons, two well-liked seniorities, withdrew days before the election.

That left one man standing. Andris Nelsons, a Latvian 20 years Thielemann’s junior, is a wunderkind who conducted his first Ring aged 26 and recently upgraded from Birmingham to become music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Technically brilliant, convivial over a few beers, the first conductor ever to take paternity leave when his daughter was born, Nelsons has an open countenance, irresistible charisma and a 21st-century cosmopolitanism that befits Berlin’s multicultural self-image.

At ten in the morning of Monday, 11 May, 123 musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic trooped into a church in the south-west suburb of Dahlem and surrendered their phones at the door. What happened inside is secret (sort of), but after Thielemann’s bloc failed to clinch it on the first ballot, support swung one way and the other throughout the day until, after 11 and a half hours, the players emerged exhausted and defeated. They had failed to resolve a discordance.

Chairman Riegelbauer put a brave face on things, saying they still had a year to decide. But battle lines have been drawn and trenches dug. It is hard to see how enough players can be swayed from Thielemann to Nelsons or vice versa in order for the orchestra to bury its differences and rally around a new music director.

That leaves three options, none of them easy. The players could call in a compromise chief, a favourite being the Italian Riccardo Chailly, 62, music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and La Scala, Milan. But no one likes to be seen as second or third best in any contest and a man of Chailly’s accomplishments and pride may not want to run his head into a Berlin Wall.

The second option is for one side to surrender. Since Thielemann’s supporters show no sign of weakening that would mean a scuttling of the Nelsons fleet, followed by an exodus of fine players and a narrowing of the orchestra’s offer, which would not be good for overseas trade.

The third solution, which I emblazoned in Bild-Zeitung, is a joint music directorship in which Thielemann plays the three Bs and the home market while Nelsons looks to the future and the rest of the world. Two music directors? That’s never been tried in Berlin, although Amsterdam and Stockholm have managed it. Riegelbauer, choking on his breakfast Bild, shouted it down as being against the rules, but the Philharmoniker is now in uncharted waters, unable to play off the same score or see a safe haven. Scary times demand extraordinary measures. Two batons may be better than one. The idea has obvious appeal to Chancellor Merkel, who always seeks a grand coalition.

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  • post_x_it

    The Vienna Phil get by very nicely without one.

    • Verbatim

      And they glow in the dark! I’ve heard them at the Musikverein – lots!

  • peter feltham

    Thielemann would,I think,be a retrograde step for this excellent orchestra.I also think many good players will leave rather than rather than take an artistic direction of a pre Darwinian nature.

    • Verbatim

      You know all about this, do you? What, you’re a player in the BPO? Your cousin is? You know nothing about this.

      • peter feltham

        To quote your own words, ” You know all about this,do you “.

        • Verbatim


          I only saw Thielemannn at the Wiener Musikverein on Thursday night and he came back to the stage about 15 times to their rapturous applause – long after the orchestra had left. The Viennese people understood the significance of their validation very well and so does Thielemann and so do I.

          Please feel free to come back and tell me I was wrong if somebody other than Thielemann gets the Berliner gig.

  • The Masked Marvel

    Neslons is terrific, but is still maturing. Thielmann is at the height of his powers and would be a good fit, if someone can convince him to do two concerts of more modern music per season. But if the Berliners were even considering the floppy-haired Venezuelan, it’s a sign of poor judgment.

    • Mark Bedish

      Anyone fortunate enough to watch the BPO with Nelsons in Mahler 5 recently (I have DCH subscription) would back this guy, though not sure how good he is on contemporary music (the first half of the concert was H K Gruber Trumpet Concerto from 1999). Despite Rattle giving us more contemporary music, I sill find the BPO doing a bit too much of the same 19C stuff, though I am impressed with their brief forays into earlier music, like Handel and Rameau.

      • The Masked Marvel

        Nelsons is young enough that he can do lots of great work around the world and take over when Thielmann leaves in a few years. Other conductors can fill out the season with modern works, so one wouldn’t be bothered too much if he does only a couple of works. Good point about early music. The fruits of Rattle’s work with the OAE.

      • Verbatim

        Yes, though Rattle has been widely criticized by some for his role with the orchestra. And an orchestra which gets to choose the boss wuld also have some say in the repertoire – and I’ll bet they do just that!

    • Verbatim

      The idea of hugely important world-ranked conductors hanging by the phone waiting for the Berliners to call is just too preposterous to dignify with any further comment.

      • The Masked Marvel

        You’re overstating the case somewhat.

        • Verbatim

          I disagree. Some have already excluded themselves!!

          You have a right to disagree with me, but I think you’ll find Nelsons is just too young and inexperienced to take on the BPO. I’ve seen both he and Thielemann on the podium and Nelsons has the energy but I don’t think the authority.

          • The Masked Marvel

            I think we’re talking at cross purposes. I, too, said that Nelsons was still maturing, i.e. it’s not his time. I didn’t mean to imply that he (or anyone else) would be sitting by the phone until Thielmann stepped down. You were overstating my position on those grounds. Although, surely it will be in the back of his mind for the next few years.

          • Verbatim

            OK. Understood.

  • συκοφάντης

    “Because, for Germans, this is existential. In Germany, culture defines nation. In Britain, it defines nothing…”

    That is a statement of such profound stupidity I stopped reading after that.

    • Richard

      Britain’s main contribution is in pop music. For serious musical culture, you head for Germany and Austria. When one or other conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic was late for a concert, owing to his aeroplane being delayed, a call was put out on the radio for people to keep off the streets to let him make it on time. And do you know what? People did! Now when would you ever imagine that happening in the UK? It never would!

      • Verbatim

        This isn’t true. Many fine international artists like Alfred Brendel and Stephen Kovacevich have deliberately made London their home because of its vibrant culture. Lebrecht is an idiot.

        • Richard

          There is vibrant culture, but it isn’t “High Culture” anymore. That isn’t politically acceptable. Like Tony Benn drinking tea only from a pottery mug to show his solidarity with the working-class, we aren’t officially allowed to enjoy non-plebeian pursuits. I do – I don’t much care about that sort of nonsense – but imagine if Prince Charles went to performances of Wagner (he is a great fan) or Verdi (you may recall there were many comments when he took Diana to hear the “Requiem”). He would be bypassed in favour of William, whose tastes are perhaps less rarefied.

          As much as Britain has such culture, it is tolerated, rather than celebrated. Everything in Britain is politicised, from which school you go to, to what music you listen to, to how you dress. Things only have significance to most to the extent to which they express political position.

          • peter feltham

            You are right,and it’s good to see that I am not the only person who saw through Benn’s earthenware mug hypocrisy.

          • Richard

            Hypocrisy was his (and most of the Left’s) stock-in-trade. Remember when he tried to get taxes as high as possible? Then, when he died, it turned out he had pursued tax-avoidance schemes to give his children as much as possible and pay as little tax as possible! With the Left it is always do as I say, never do as I do.

          • Verbatim

            Well, only a little over a week ago in Vienna I met a visiting American musicologist. She is a professor at a university conservatory in Virigina and I’d say she’s in her mid 30’s. She said the same thing about the USA which you’re saying about Britain with regard to ‘anti-intellectualism’ and ‘high culture’.

            My point would be that there has only ever been an audience for ‘high culture’ (whatever that specifically is) by a minority and there only ever will be. Don’t look to politicians and aristocrats to show the way. People like Tony Benn, from your description of his actions, only shows me he didn’t have a scintilla of class or sophistication – but that doesn’t mean there are not many in the UK who also don’t. I re-iterate; fine, world-class pianists have chosen to live in London and their states reasons are that it’s a huge, music-loving, vibrant ‘culture’ – better than in the USA!!!. I’ve heard both Kovacevich and Brendel say just that, more than once.

            Even going to Vienna now, with it’s shrinking middle class, you’ll find more interested in the Eurovision than European art music. Fortunately, this demographic doesn’t get to choose the program for the Musikverein!!!! And I don’t have to compete with them for seats. But to suggest, because of this, that somehow they care less about art music and culture and that it is in decline just doesn’t add up. It’s still the beating heart of European classical music – for me personally. And the average audience age, from my looking around at very many concerts, is about 48 years in Vienna!!!

          • Mark Bedish

            Yes, 48+ is an inspired if ultimately depressing average of concertgoers age. At a recent Wigmore Hall event, this was a similar observation, but when I was in France last year, the local churchgoers to concerts (even if they were amateur) was a much healthier mid 30s!

          • Verbatim

            That’s interesting!! Perhaps those younger than 48 just don’t have the cash to attend Musikverein concerts – it’s just so difficult to get good tickets. I know all about it!! And the cost of same.

    • Verbatim

      I agree. Lebrecht is such an old class warrior. He referred, in an article about the Wiener Philharmoniker, as having Viennese Dowagers in the audience. If that isn’t a class insult I don’t know what is. And he speaks about “Berlin’s multicultural self-image”. In 2010 Angela Merkel declared “multiculturalism is a failure in Germany”. (Look the heading up on Google). So, Lebrecht is also not in possession of the facts. Unless Berlin is no longer a part of Germany.

  • Terence Hale

    “What really happened in the Berlin Philharmonic election”. Culture in Germany has a high social order. Try to get a ticket to the Bayreuth Festival to do such one would have to kill a few dragons. The problems with the Berlin Philharmonic election was that they were offended that Sir Simon Rattle walked away who made an orchestra out of a brass band. They try to replace an equal.

    • Richard

      “Sir Simon Rattle walked away who made an orchestra out of a brass band.” Ignorant, much?

      • Verbatim

        I’ll say!!!!!!!!!!

  • trace9

    Berlin Biharmonik?

  • Owen_Morgan

    How toxic is Lebrecht? Let’s see: there is the coded, gratuitous and totally irrelevant suggestion that Thielemann may be homosexual (has Lebrecht ever criticized his hero, Leonard Bernstein, on those grounds?). Thielemann, apparently, is no fan of music from after the time of Richard Strauss. Well, so what? Nor am I. The trouble is that the nazi-fixated Lebrecht can’t visualise Strauss in apolitical terms.

    “He likes saying that Germans have nothing to apologize for, a coded phrase that places him on the outer fringe of the democratic right.”

    Germans who weren’t even born in 1945 don’t have anything for which to apologize and it’s about time cretins like Lebrecht recognised that.

    Thielemann’s worst crime, according to Lebrecht, is that he favours Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. According to Lebrecht, you can’t get more German than than that, except that Beethoven and Brahms spent most of their working lives in Vienna and Bruckner was an Austrian all his life. Lebrecht, elsewhere, is a pretty tiresome fan of Mahler, a great, but still over-rated composer (Symphonies 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, great music, but how utterly atrocious are the rest, especially the dreadful 8?). Has Lebrecht ever noticed where Mahler lived?

    • Verbatim

      Who’d have thought a German conductor would have preferred German music? Such an unusual idea!!!!! Everything you’ve said, Owen, is absolutely spot on here. Well done.

      Who cares if Christian is gay; I don’t at all. But Lebrecht obviously does. What; he got a knock-back?

    • Verbatim

      A “tiresome fan” of Mahler? ‘Windy’ people like ‘Windy’ symphonists. Verbose and prolix versus long-winded and grandiloquent. No contest!!

      But for me, less is more.

  • Antonius

    I am amused to read that so many people believe that Nelsons is sitting breathlessly by the phone waiting for Berlin to call. Were he to accept an offer, it would certainly poison the remaining 4 years of his tenure with the Boston Symphony. The orchestra is the richest in the States and is currently playing for Nelsons with a brilliance and concentration that has not been heard from them since the days of Koussevitsky. He has taken the city by storm and the players seem to love him. Furthermore, his wife will be a featured star with the Metropolitan in the coming years and Boston is just a step away from New York.
    So, perhaps Lebrecht (who confidently predicted that Chailly would be James Levine’s successor) and Berlin should start thinking about other candidates.

    • 1739camilli

      Agreed! The comments that Nelsons or anyone else would jump at the chance to leave the BSO for the BPO grow tiresome. On hearing both orchestras @ Carnegie Hall this season, I found the BSO to be not the least bit inferior. Their Mahler 6th with Nelsons conducting was terrific.

  • Ole C G Olesen

    A FUCKING JEW , NORMAN LEBRECHT admits that the HALF – JEW CAMERON .. has no CULTURE ( he only knows how to put his Dick in a Pig ) and that Brittain contrary to Germany has NO CULTURE .. But the Critique OMITS … that this is Due to JEWISH CONTROL of ENGLAND since Cromwell …amongst other SUBVERSIONS also from Writers and Critiques himself . But the critique.. is LONGING back to the Good Old Days of a WEIMAR BERLIN , the JEWISH CONTROLLED WORLD CAPITAL of PERVERSION .. In such an Athmosphere the JEW .. thrives … and ISRAEL is too small .. even if they do their best at the moment to live up to their former GLORY BERLIN ! … NO they need GERMAN FLESH to feel good !

    Here a small PEEP .. in a JEWISH BERLIN :