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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Only heroes could save Berlin and the Bolshoi

By Norman Lebrecht / June 20, 2001

A BAD week for big players. In Moscow, the Bolshoi lost its boss, again. In Berlin, there were warnings that Sir Simon Rattle would not take up his post as music director of the Philharmonic if the bankrupt city did not meet his financial and legal conditions. Both ensembles are edging towards an abyss.

The only surprise in the Bolshoi's beheading was its swiftness. Gennady Rozhdestvensky had been director for less than a year, installed by President Putin with a mission to restore rigour and morale. He was 70 years old and had never run a theatre before. A scholarly and amiable orchestral conductor, Rozhdestvensky was not the man to impose his will on the unwilling. Indiscipline, intrigue and an absence of loyalty combined to sap his strength.

The snapping point was his internally obstructed attempt to restore the original version of Prokofiev's The Gambler. Assailed by venomous reviews, Rozhdestvensky promptly resigned, relieved, his friends say, to return to the tranquil concert rostrum. His departure has cost the Bolshoi a projected international tour, along with any prospect of resurgence.

Once the pride of Soviet art, the Bolshoi never came to terms with the loss of empire. Where the Kirov, under Valery Gergiev, rediscovered its roots in St Petersburg traditions, the Bolshoi drifted along as the flagship of a vanished fleet. What it needs is a home-bred artist who will galvanise the crew and head for an attainable destination. No such hero has yet been sighted.

In Berlin, the orchestral situation worsens by the day. Rattle, on being elected music director two years ago, made two reasonable requests - that the city should increase its subsidy and give up political control of the orchestra. The amount of the increase was paltry: 3 million Deutschmarks (a little over £1 million). The restructuring was trickier and required special legislation.

The Philharmonic, founded autonomously in 1882, was nationalised by the Nazis and has been run ever since as a public utility. To augment their salaries, the musicians set up a separate business to promote recording and commercial activities. Conflicts between these public and private priorities embittered the directorship of Claudio Abbado and rendered the orchestra effectively ungovernable.

Rattle resolved to merge the two wings in an independent foundation, funded by the city but restored to self-rule. He was also eager to restore musicians' incomes, ravaged by the collapse of classical recording. Until these conditions are met, he has refused to sign a contract that is due to commence in September 2002.

Then the city went spectacularly bust and the conservative-socialist coalition fell. Rattle and the BPO's tough-nut general manager, Franz-Xaver Ohnesorg, found themselves having to reopen talks from scratch with an interim leftish administration, with fresh elections due in the autumn. Ohnesorg is privately assuring supporters that a deal is in the bag with the interim mayor, Klaus Wowereit, an avid first-nighter.

But the game is now beyond the control of men of good will. Come October, the city will have a new austerity government in which the former East German communists, the PDS, are certain to play a key role. Their leader, Gregor Gysi, is topping the polls for mayor. In or out of government, the communists will have their say about the Berlin Philharmonic.

From the day the Wall went up in 1961, the Berlin Philharmonic was utilised as a Cold War symbol of western supremacism. Since the day it came down in 1989, the Philharmonic has done little to advance the cause of unification. None of its members is from East Berlin. With a dozen vacancies in its ranks, the orchestra has yet to recruit a single citizen of the former German Democratic Republic. Its terms of entry are admittedly stringent and auditions are anonymous, but every candidate serves a probationary two years before facing an orchestral vote. No "Ossie" applicant has overcome this hurdle.

This omission does not play well with East Berliners. While their orchestras face further cuts and possible extinction, their politicians cannot approve higher subsidies for the sectorised Berlin Philharmonic. Ohnesorg, whose high-handedness cost him the helm at Carnegie Hall, has made few friends in Berlin. Rattle, over the coming months, will either have to drop his well-intentioned conditions, or quit the best job in the musical world.

It should never have come to this. Both the Bolshoi and Berlin should have learnt from the unravelling of Covent Garden that, in modern times, it is not enough for an elite ensemble to have traditions and vision. It needs to nurture its roots in a fast-changing society, to be conscious of its responsibilities to those who do not share its privileges. Rattle knows this law better than any conductor alive. He may need to relearn it, in German.

19 June 2001: [International] Conductor quits with lament for Bolshoi
6 June 2001: 'We stand for excellence' [interview with Tony Hall]
16 June 2001: [International] Rattle may turn down Berlin Philharmonic
16 May 2001: The Kirov cure [interview with Valery Gergiev]
17 April 2001: Can the Bolshoi rediscover its soul?

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999