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February 1997

The Munich Philharmonic: Looking for Maestro Right

Filling the role of conductor for the Munich Philharmonic

It's like a first date. In the course of an evening, one party, elegant in his tux, tries to show what he's all about. The other party sits demurely, watches, responds and secretly wonders if this could be The One. But this isn't a date. It's an orchestra concert. The Munich Philharmonic is looking for a new chief conductor, and every guest conductor is aware he's at least a potential candidate. Meanwhile, gossip is flying, and the Philharmonic is keeping mum about its preferences. In fact, the orchestra is enjoying being courted after 17 years in an authoritarian marriage. The late Chief Conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who died in August at 84, took the tradition of the conductor as autocratic patriarch to new extremes, demanding of his orchestra total submission and hours of rehearsals (as many as 20 for a single concert). "Celi" needed this much time to communicate his uncompromising attitude toward music, which he saw as a mystical experience prolonged, for audiences, by some of the slowest tempi on record. Not that Celi's tempi are on record: regarding recordings as petrified versions of a living art, he refused to make any. Some people thought Celibidache a genius. Others found his pacing leaden and his mystique, hype. But most of the orchestra and the Munich government were disciples. City administrators leapt to meet his financial demands rather than risk losing a figure so good for Munich's image. Never mind that the openly sexist conductor once demoted a female trombone player because "we need a man for the job," leading the city of Munich into 13 years of litigation on charges of sexism (which it ultimately lost). Filling Celi's shoes won't be easy and at first the orchestra, heady with its new-found freedom, was in no hurry. "There can be no successor to Celibidache," says Wolfgang Stingl, violist and head of the Players' Council. "There's no one like him. He can only have a successor in the sense that someone might have the same musical autonomy and force of personality." But, he adds, "we have something to offer, too: the things we learned under Celibidache. We could play the Bruckner 4th and it would sound more or less the way it did under Celi." Could it be Levine? Whoever takes over the Munich Philharmonic will join Lorin Maazel (Top) and Zubin Mehta (Bottom) to form Munich's very own "Three Conductors." So who needs a conductor? Or, for that matter, an Intendant? Taking the bit in their teeth, the Munich Philharmonic players voted theirs out of office in December, freeing themselves of a figure who had been annoying them for years but also leaving themselves without an administrative head as well as a musical one. And their euphoria didn't last long. A couple of days later, Mayor Ude publicly chastised them, telling the Suddeutsche that he was going to see that the situation was resolved as soon as possible. The Philharmonic does, of course, need a conductor to survive. "To remain in competition, you need a big name," says Elmar Weingarten, the Berlin Philharmonic's Intendant. "I don't want to say that the Munich Philharmonic without Celi has no market value. But it's severely reduced." A "name" is all the more important given that Munich is developing into a conductor's capital. Chief conductor of the city's leading orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, is Lorin Maazel; while over at the opera house, the Bavarian State Orchestra will welcome Zubin Mehta as its General Music Director in 1998. For itself, the Philharmonic is generally seen as a reliable orchestra, but not a first-class one. Still, some conductors do note a marked Celi influence for the good. "It's an extraordinary orchestra," says Simone Young, who conducted her first concert with the Philharmonic in November. "They have an incredible range of color and dynamics, and they seemed to take great delight in having more and more demanded of them. That's the Celi legacy." The sexist aspect of Celi's legacy has evidently not survived. Led by a young woman conductor, and a pregnant one at that, the orchestra "couldn't have been more welcoming." One reason the Munich Philharmonic is getting so much attention right now is that, in its search for a conductor, it touches on an existential question common to all orchestras today: how to uphold a venerable, valuable tradition in the modern world. Young demonstrates an answer to one facet of this question: women are slowly but surely breaking down barriers that have remained in place in Europe long after they ceased to exist in the U.S. Even the Vienna Philharmonic, last bastion of chauvinism, announced last August that it was prepared to start admitting women though it didn't say when. But the woman question is only part of the fundamental problem: how to make the symphony orchestra, basically a 19th-century institution, relevant to a contemporary audience. Today, this question has become acute for everyone in the struggling classical music business, as record sales plummet. The president of one German record company even doubts any label will pay high sums for the tapes of Celi's live radio broadcasts, which his heirs have decided to release commercially. Several orchestras and bands provided the nonstop music. The opening fanfare was played by the brass ensemble of the opera's orchestra. . In this situation, people are waiting to see what kind of conductor the Philharmonic will select. A traditionalist, or someone committed to the 20th-century repertoire? A crowd-pleasing superstar who will squeeze the Philharmonic in between other commitments (like La Scala head Riccardo Muti, whom the press hailed as heir apparent in December); or someone ready to commit to one orchestra alone, as Simon Rattle did in Birmingham, England (Rattle was allegedly offered the Munich gig, and declined)? Or someone who combines steadfastness with star quality, like James Levine, who scored a success with his first Munich appearance this January. "Every concert a blind date?" I asked Mr. Stingl. "No," he smiled. "We rehearse together first." This story first appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe in December 1996, and is reprinted here with their kind permission.

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