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article imageBerlin Philharmonic Tunes Up for Change

By Andrew McCathie     Jul 1, 2001 in Lifestyle
BERLIN (dpa) - Last year was not the best year for the Berlin Philharmonic. For much of the last 12 months, the world's greatest orchestra appeared adrift.

Already badly shaken by the departure of several key musicians to more lucrative teaching jobs, a deep rift had suddenly emerged between the orchestra's general manager Elmar Weingarten and chief conductor Claudio Abbado. This occurred just as the news surfaced that Abbado himself was seriously ill.

But quite miraculously, the orchestra has in recent months managed to regain its balance and to pull itself away from the upheaval that had rocked it over last year.

Recharged and with a new firmer sense of direction, the Berliners have been turning out some of the greatest performances of their almost 12 year-long partnership with Abbado. To one music critic, he had become Archangel Abbado.

Next year, however, the sense of change could be even more dramatic when the 67-year-old Abbado bows out from what he has described as "the most beautiful job in the world of music" to be replaced by the 46-year-old Sir Simon Rattle.

At the same time, a new financial-management structure is to be introduced which will push the 120-year-old orchestra deeper into what is still relatively unknown territory for German cultural institutions - private sponsorship.

But this could also pave the way for a major shift in power within the Philharmonic and result in a test of the orchestra's much-vaunted democracy which extends to voting in a chief conductor in a system not dissimilar to the selection of a new pope.

The end result of the plans to create a foundation to oversee the running of the orchestra which some observers believe could strengthen the hand of the Intendant (general manager).

This in turn could spark some less-than-creative tensions with the chief conductor and the person occupying the powerful job of chairman of the orchestra members.

But with Abbado's time in Berlin starting to slip by, the focus has already begun to switch to his successor, Simon Rattle - the "musikalischen Feuerkopf" (musical firebrand), as the German press have already dubbed him.

Rattle has also begun to set out how he wants to shape the Philharmonic and to ensure that it continues to meet the challenge from the world's other major orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago and the Cleveland symphony orchestras.

Part of Rattle's game-plan includes also introducing more contemporary, which has in the past not always gone down that well with the some of the staider members of the orchestra's audience.

But considering the orchestra's history it is likely that it will be his performances of the German repertoire which will end up being a prime focus of his time in Berlin. The British conductor is at present attending an intensive German language course.

Equally crucial will be his success in helping to break new barriers in selecting new and commercial recordings for the orchestra. In recent years, conductors of lesser orchestras have found their tenures at the podium coming to an abrupt halt when the CD sales begin to flag.

Coming up with hit CD's is no easy task. After all, the market for recordings of great orchestras of the world is a pretty tough place these days and appears to have reached almost saturation point when it comes to the standard classical repertoire.

But with the shocks of the last 12 months now behind the Berliners, Rattle takes over the orchestra at time when its music- making reputation continues to soar.

What is more, a new Intendant is about to be officially installed and as a big moral booster, one of the orchestra's stars, Emmanuel Pahud, is returning as a principal flautist after abandoning Berlin last year for a teaching job in Geneva.

While the average monthly salary of a member of the Philharmonic comes in at about 10,000 marks (4,545 dollars) and comfortably above what other professional musicians can expect, seven of the orchestra's top musicians have left in the last three years for high- paid teaching posts.

In a bid to hold the orchestra's musical talent, Rattle has made it a condition of finally signing up to the post of chief conductor that an extra 3.33 million marks in public funds be found to give each orchestra member an additional 2,000 marks a month.

But these are bruising times for arts budgets in Germany, even for cultural icons like the Berlin Philharmonic, whose total annual budget is about 48 million marks.

As a worse case scenario the money might not materialise and Rattle might decide not to shift to Berlin. "We are still waiting for clarification on a few things," Rattle said recently.

Certainly several of Germany's biggest corporations such as luxury car maker BMW AG have already indicated their willingness to support some of the orchestra's activities. Germany's biggest bank, Deutsche Bank AG has been underwritting the orchestra's travel for some years.

And as a promise of things to come, a somewhat half-hearted effort has also been recently launched to sell Berlin Philharmonic souvenirs such as T-shirts and baseball caps.

"The orchestra will always rely on public funds," said the Philharmonic's new Indendant, Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, a man with a formidable repuation in the world of music management.

But he felt, marking out the start of a new era for the orchestra it needed to become more entrepenurial. "It needed," Ohnesorg said, "to seek out additional funds."
More about Music, Claudio abbado, Philharmonic, Orchestra
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