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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Buying Munich

By Norman Lebrecht / May 14, 2003

The city of Munich has been flashing its cash again. For the second time in a decade it has been out buying the hottest forward line-up in the league.

Last time round, in the mid-1990s, it signed Lorin Maazel for $3 million a year to conduct the Bavarian radio orchestra, James Levine for a million, tax-free, to direct the Munich Philharmonic, and Zubin Mehta for an undisclosed fee to preside at the state opera.

With three such estimable maestros on the masthead, Munich prepared to challenge Berlin for cultural supremacy in a united Germany - just as it did in the 1870s, when Wagner was in his pomp and Bismarck performed the first act of unification. History, however, seldom recapitulates an ancient score.

Maazel and Levine have since departed and Mehta has announced his farewell - all without making a scintilla of impact on the balance of inter-German relations or on Munich's musical status. On the contrary, Berlin now rides higher than ever, with Simon Rattle at the Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim at the state opera, Kent Nagano at the former radio orchestra and Christian Thielemann at the Deutsche Oper.

So the city has got out its cheque book again and raided the opposition's locker room, signing up Thielemann and Nagano in place of Levine and Mehta with the apparent aim of weakening Berlin. Its third recruit is the Latvian Mariss Jansons, for the radio orchestra, whom colleagues privately-rate as the conductors' conductor-With a star-studded line-up on a level playing field, Munich ought surely to win a trophy or two.

But music is not one of those spectator sports whose results can be rigged by wealth. It is a mind-game, often a minefield, in which sprightly left-wingers run rings around the sorry hulks of expensive defensive walls, and dinky British orchestras have a gratifying habit of outmanoeuvring the mighty spenders.

Munich's mistake was to play by a set of rules that has been rendered obsolescent by the collapse of classical recording. Ten years ago, ambitious cities would engage conductors on the strength of their recording contracts, expecting to reap world fame from the flow of silver discs.

Five years ago, as the industry began to founder, music directors were appointed on the reputation of past recordings. Today, when hardly any maestros get past studio security, orchestras are trapped between picking a fossilised relic of distant recorded memory or risking an unknown prospect.

In America, where musical organisations are handcuffed to a conservative audience and a controlling brace of artists' agencies, the decision is foredoomed. Big bands, such as Philadelphia's, appoint men in their sixties with their futures behind them, and then spend a marketing fortune on persuading the media that they have made the right choice.

European orchestras, cushioned by public subsidy, have scarcely been more adventurous, since they are shackled to political vanities. It has fallen by default to Britain, with the lightest burden of tradition, to show the way ahead.

Three British institutions have taken a leap of faith with untested chief conductors in their twenties. Glyndebourne installed Vladimir Jurowski, Welsh National Opera has Tugan Sokhiev, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra engaged Ilan Volkov. Two of these newcomers have already been offered associate positions with London orchestras, a striking secondary endorsement.

The sight of youth on the podium has proved unusual enough to attract media attention without the need for marketing expenditure.

The British experiment has, in effect, disputed the merits of experience and ruthlessly skipped an entire generation. Experience, in an era of decline, is tainted by failure and the interim generation has known nothing else. Birmingham was the first to prove the theory.

In 1999, it passed over a long line of tried-and-tested British sticks after Rattle gave up the job and, on the strength of two electrifying concerts, chose Sakari Oramo, an untravelled Finn of few English words and severe personal reticence.

Oramo, now 37, has been an inspiration. He cuts every bit as big a figure in Brum as Rattle did at the same stage of his career, and he is full of bright ideas. Later this month he will stage a festival called Floof, featuring eight living composers in the nation's biggest showcase of new music. Not for one moment has Birmingham regretted putting its faith in Oramo, but others have been slow to learn.

For Munich, the writing is on the wall. Thielemann and Nagano confounded-local hopes by holding on to their Berlin jobs, giving Bavaria less than half of their attention.

Both are thin-skinned musicians who threaten resignation at the first hint of resistance and tend to lavish finite resources on grandiose projects. Thielemann has warred incessantly with his Deutsche Oper colleagues. Nagano conducted the Halle in Manchester for eight miserable years and left when it was close to broke.

As for the immaculate, unpushy Mariss Jansons, he embraced Munich on the understanding that it would build him a new concert hall, a pledge which in deepening recession shows no prospect of fulfilment. Some weeks later a vacancy arose on the podium of his favourite orchestra, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. Jansons, to Munich's dismay, promptly took a second job an hour's flight away.

Having struggled for a second time to establish a pedigree stable of conductors, Munich has wound up with a half-share in three unblinkered nags of uncertain temperament. Try as it might to bang a drum of renewal, the outcome seems drearily predictable.

Munich's stagnation will be greeted with Schadenfreude in most parts of Germany, and with muffled mirth in British concert halls where there is, amid privations, a sense of galloping momentum. We may not spend much public cash or attention on classical music, but we have cornered the market in conductor futures - and we still get to hear Jansons, Rattle, Haitink and the rest of the thoroughbreds several times a year.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001