"A farce", one German journalist wrote. "A bunch of squabblers," tutted another. On the Berlin Philharmonic, ignominy descended: having summoned a global press contingent to election day on May 11, the venerable orchestra could not agree on who should be their new chief conductor.
Eleven hours of debate and repeated rounds of voting had, it seems, failed to produce the "clear majority" required by the Philharmonic's constitution. Cue embarrassment, and the announcement by a board member that they'd try again next year. In the meantime, he added, he was off for "einen Drink" with one or other of the warring factions.
The rumor mill immediately clicked into motion. Front runner Christian Thielemann, it was said, had been offered the job and rejected it. A false tweet claimed Latvian Andris Nelsons had won the ballot. Then, as chaos and ridicule took over, first Nigel the Muppet, then a dog with a stick in its mouth were declared the victors. "Berlin Fail-harmonic" indeed, as one waggish observer put it.
All good fun, of course, and slavered over by those who bridle at the patina of self-importance with which the Philharmoniker, one of Germany's leading cultural institutions, likes to surround itself. Amid the whiff of Schadenfreude in the air, however, does any of this actually matter?
It certainly does for the orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic, not to put too fine a point on it, has certainly seen better days artistically than it is living through at present. Built to a peak of post-war perfection by first Wilhelm Furtwangler, then Herbert von Karajan, it was for half a century or more unquestionably the world's finest orchestra.
When Karajan passed on in 1989, that began changing. First the Italian Claudio Abbado, then the Englishman Simon Rattle held the chief conductorship, neither really stamping a distinctive sonic imprint on the Philharmonic.
Recordings, particularly under Rattle, became increasingly bland and uneventful, and the hugely sumptuous, bass-rich Berlin sound lost body and tonal refulgence. The Philharmonic, in short, began sounding disconcertingly like other orchestras, where once no other orchestra could hope to match its textural sophistication and richness.
That is the situation which now needs addressing. Far from it not mattering who takes over the Berliners when Rattle leaves in 2018 — these are world-class players, the argument runs, even Nigel the Muppet could make them sound impressive — a high-caliber candidate is urgently needed, to reconnect the Philharmonic with the better angels of its musical nature.
His job (theoretically it could be her, but the odds of a woman being picked for the post are vanishingly small) will not be easy. Since Karajan's demise the orchestra has had an exceptionally high influx of new players, and is now multi-national in nature. The new chief conductor will need to re-school the musicians in the warmly expressive playing of the Germanic tradition, and reconnect the orchestra with its staple diet of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner, which it has played indifferently in the Rattle era.
Ironically, the ideal candidate to do this has already been passed over twice by the players. Daniel Barenboim lost out to Abbado and Rattle in the last two elections, and proceeded to make of the Staatskapelle Berlin, traditionally a poor cousin to the Philharmonic, an orchestra which now regularly outstrips its more illustrious crosstown rival in terms of musical articulacy and imagination.
Significantly, Barenboim has ruled himself out of the current contest. A case of twice bitten, thrice shy? Possibly. More likely he is perfectly happy at the Staatskapelle, knows that it is nowadays a better orchestra than the Philharmonic, and wants to stay there.
A superb orchestral builder, Barenboim is also a performer of vast experience and profound musical insight. Is he, at 72, simply too old for the position? Under normal circumstances, possibly. But these are not normal circumstances — the situation, for an institution as prestigious as the Philharmonic, is something closer to an emergency.
Five years of Barenboim, a musician with a deep affinity for the orchestra's historical sound profile and traditions (Furtwangler was his early role model) would cure much of what needs curing. Ten years, and the Berliners would be firmly back on the road to musical greatness.
Will the Berliners themselves see it that way eventually? Who knows. More than one writer has compared the whole election process to a grotesque parody of a papal conclave, with ridiculous layers of secrecy and dissimulation wrapped around it.
But make no mistake about it: for the Berlin Philharmonic itself, this is a life-defining moment. The future of a great orchestra hangs in the balance, and that is why a posse of interested media onlookers will once again descend on the next electoral convocation, mobile devices primed and tweeting fingers at the ready.
Terry Blain was educated in Northern Ireland and Cambridge, England, and writes for a wide range of publications, including BBC Music Magazine and Opera Magazine. In his spare time he is an avid record collector, and walks his dog Buddy.
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