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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Battle for Berlin's Heart

by Norman Lebrecht / April 19, 2000

THE battlefront has finally reached Berlin. After two decades in which London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Rome and even Paris have witnessed hand-to-mouth combat over public subsidies, the role of the state in funding the arts is now being fought out in the would-be capital of European culture.

Berlin has, for the second time in six months, lost its cultural senator. Christa Thoben had been hauled in from the Construction Ministry to run an iron sliderule over boom-town arts budgets. What she found to her horror was a black-hole deficit of between 50 and 70 million Deutschmarks (£16-22 million).

Where the money went is anyone's guess. Berlin supports three opera houses, seven orchestras, 50 theatres, 170 museums and 300 galleries - all this for 3.5 million residents. Under Thoben's predecessor, public money gushed unchecked, mostly into pay rises. Thoben asked the federal government to double its subsidy; it was doubled last year, she was drily informed. Thoben resigned, saying there was nothing more to be done.

A shockwave ripped through the top deck. Daniel Barenboim, who heads the State Opera, was seen wandering up and down Unter den Linden muttering about the end of days. His company needs an extra 10 million marks. Yakov Kreizberg has quit the Komische Oper. At the Deutsche Oper, Kent Nagano pulled out of talks to become music director.

Sir Simon Rattle has kept his cool, but his New York Times jibe at this column for exhibiting Schadenfreude over Berlin's difficulties suggests that he is also having trouble facing up to painful realities. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is being squeezed.

Before the season began, the BPO lost three key players - the concertmaster Kolya Blacher, viola player Wolfram Christ and trombonist Wolfram Arndt. It has since lost two more - the Australian violist Brett Dean and Swiss flautist Emmanuel Pahud.

The defectors are mostly young, ambitious and unwilling to tie the rest of their lives to an antediluvian organisation that requires radical restructuring. No orchestra can afford to lose prominent players without shedding colour and character and few musicians of equal calibre are rushing to audition.

A new Kultursenator was appointed at the weekend. Christoph Stölzl is a former editor of the daily Die Welt and curator of the German historical museum. Stölzl warned that the battle for subsidy will be an "unendingly tough struggle".

Putting a journalist in charge of rampaging expenses might seem a bit like letting an alcoholic run a liquor store. However, what is at issue in Berlin is not primarily money but generational change - and that is where the skills of a well-read editor may score higher than a maestro's airy wave. Berlin, like every western city, is absorbing the quick-fix Internet and reducing its dependency on public culture. It has become multicultural, polyglot and a hub of East-West trade. Its politicians, too, are changing. Contrary to Rattle's rose-tinted assertion, many senators no longer regard culture as a sacred cow and are demanding a tangible pro in return for millions of quid.

Rattle will bring relevant experience from Birmingham, where his orchestra was the city's commercial calling-card and worked closely with schools and underprivileged groups. Adapted to Berlin, such ideas may bring the BPO closer to grassroots. "Simon can put things in place that will not only help the Berlin Phil, but orchestras everywhere," one defector told me this week.

The trouble is that politicians have an Oliver Twist gene which leaves them eternally dissatisfied. It is no longer enough to take art to deprived kids and the disabled. The new precondition for public funding is that art must practise "access" and "education", two of Tony Blair's favourite mantras. Berlin senators know more about Blair than they remember of Karajan. The political grounds for subsidy are shifting, like sands in a storm.

Here in Britain, where the fight for no-strings subsidy was lost when New Labour came to power, there is now a unit in the Department of Culture called Arts for Health - as if music can atone for NHS dilapidation. I have been invited to a state-sponsored conference on Music and Social Inclusion. The principle of art for art's sake is dead and buried. The challenge for Rattle and Barenboim will be to persuade the providers that music brings spiritual benefits, in addition to social harmony. The world's eyes are on the battle for Berlin.


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999