BREAKING: Vftp 538’s the Berlin Philharmonic. We know for sure that the next Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic will be:….

Next week the Berlin Philharmonic picks a new Chief Conductor.

There’s always bound to be curiosity about who is going to get the best job in any field of interest to the general public (there seems to be much curiosity this week over who will run the United Kingdom next week), so it’s encouraging that there is so much debate and discussion across the media and the blogosphere about who will succeed Simon Rattle in Berlin. It goes to show that classical music is still a “field of interest to the general public.” Phew!

I’ve followed the debate online with great interest, but not blogged about the issue yet because of my fairly strict rules against commenting on the work of living colleagues. How could I possibly weigh into this raging debate without burning bridges or, worse yet, mixing metaphors? How could tell people who I think will, or should, get the job without being caught offering an opinion on the work of my colleagues? A statistical and scientific approach was called for! I’ve modelled my approach on that of legendary political blogger, poll-tracker and election caller, Nate Silver, whose blog, 538, famously called the last US Presidential election to within something 2 votes.

I’ve gone through the Digital Concert Hall archive, searching for the orchestra’s next Chief Conductor. I figure whoever it is will already be in there. Statistical analysis will tell us who it is.

I’ve ruled out anyone who only appears once- the musicians there are too shrewd and professional to risk the future of the orchestra on someone they’ve barely worked with.

Format: Conductor (number of gigs in the Digital Concert Hall)

  • Antonini, Giovanni (1)
  • Balogh, Sándor (1)
  • Boder, Michael (1)
  • Boreyko, Andrey (1)
  • Bělohlávek, Jiří (1)
  • Chung, Myung-Whun (1)
  • Dodds, Stanley (1)
  • Elder, Mark (1)
  • Fikentscher, Saskia (1)
  • Fisch, Asher (1)
  • Forck, Bernhard (1)
  • Froschauer, Helmuth (1)
  • Gatti, Daniele (1)
  • Goebel, Reinhard (1)
  • Griffiths, Howard (1)
  • Gritton, Robin (1)
  • Gruber, HK (1)
  • Hagen-Groll, Walter (1)
  • Heras-Casado, Pablo (1)
  • Holliger, Heinz (1)
  • Honeck, Manfred (1)
  • Horne, Albert (1)
  • Järvi, Kristjan (1)
  • Järvi, Paavo (1
  • Jensen, Eivind Gullberg (1)
  • Jurowski, Vladimir (1)
  • Kitajenko, Dmitrij (1)
  • Koopman, Ton (1)
  • Kusiel-Moroz, Krzysztof (1)
  • Langrée, Louis (1)
  • Leenaars, Gijs (1)
  • Löbner, Tobias (1)
  • Luisotti, Nicola (1)
  • Muti, Riccardo (1)
  • Oramo, Sakari (1
  • Metzmacher, Ingo (1)
  • Netopil, Tomáš (1)
  • Perahia, Murray (1)
  • Pinnock, Trevor (1)
  • Putninš, Kaspars (1)
  • Robertson, David (1)
  • Sado, Yutaka (1)
  • Schiff, András (1)
  • Schubert, Steffen (1)
  • Shelley, Alexander (1)
  • Skrowaczewski, Stanisław (1)
  • Tanaka, Masahiko (1)
  • Urbański, Krzysztof (1)
  • Valcuha, Juraj (1)
  • Ward, Duncan (1)
  • Wit, Antoni (1)
  • Wojnarowski, Henryk (1)
  • Zweden, Jaap van (1)

I’ve also ruled out anyone who seems really to be at a point in life where age, health or circumstance militates against them taking on a new job- this excludes many of their most regular conductors, including:

  • Haitink, Bernard (7)
  • Mehta, Zubin (7)
  • Barenboim, Daniel (6)
  • Blomstedt, Herbert (6)
  • Eötvös, Peter (3)
  • Järvi, Neeme (3)
  • Zinman, David (3)
  • Harnoncourt, Nikolaus (2)
  • Boulez, Pierre (2)
  • Ozawa, Seiji (2)

Of these, Barenboim has been mentioned by many as a possible candidate but has, apparently, ruled  himself out. Could he rule himself in if asked nicely? Nobody seems to be mentioning Zubin Mehta- perhaps because he’s never been a darling of the critics, but the numbers don’t lie- clearly the musicians rate him as one of their most important partners. He’s not young but seems in robust good health.

That leaves (in descending order of most gigs)

  • Nelsons, Andris (9)
  • Thielemann, Christian (9)
  • Bychkov, Semyon (6)
  • Dudamel, Gustavo (6)
  • Alan Gilbert (5)
  • Jirka, Kai-Uwe (4)
  • Sokhiev, Tugan (4)
  • Harding, Daniel (4)
  • Chailly, Riccardo (3)
  • Fischer, Iván (3)
  • Nézet-Séguin, Yannick (3)
  • Haïm, Emmanuelle (3)
  • Runnicles, Donald (3)
  • Gergiev, Valery (2)
  • Gläser, Michael (2)
  • Petrenko, Kirill (2)
  • Steffens, Karl-Heinz (2)
  • Zeh, Walter (2)
  • Jansons, Mariss (2)

Which of these busy and accomplished maestri will get the job? I I think it all boils down to who has done the most and the best concerts with the orchestra. This slightly argues against the candidacies of some of the most highly and publicly touted conductors – especially Ivan Fischer, Riccardo Chailly and Yannick Nezet-Seguin all at 3 gigs each. Of course, the “number of best gigs” measure could be prone to error caused by scheduling conflicts, so for all the conductors at the three gigs level, we’ve applied the “are they happy where they are test.” After all, in sport, coaches rarely leave a winning team just to move to a more prestigious team unless they’re certain they can be even more successful there. It’s exceedingly rare for someone to win a championship at one team then repeat the success at another one. Phil Jackson made it look comparatively easy going from Chicago to Los Angeles, but the great Pat Riley took 18 years and two changes of team to replicate his success in Los Angeles with the Miami Heat. Fischer, Chailly and Nezet-Seguin seem to be comfortably ensconced at orchestras of near-comparative stature where they are perceived as hugely successful and seem to be able to do what they like. Why would they leave?

Starting then from the top- Nelsons and Thielemann would seem the clear front runners for the job at 9 gigs each. Nelsons has only just started at the Boston Symphony and is frightfully young.  He hasn’t unequivocally ruled himself out (actually, he pretty much has), but there is much speculation that the job is his for the taking in four or five years of seasoning in Boston after a “care-taker” tenure of an older colleague.

What then of Thielemann? He’s old enough yet young enough, he works with them a lot and he passes the “is pretty much the opposite of the last guy to hold the job” test. It’s not for me to say (and everyone else has said it already), but there is a pretty broad consensus around the industry that he excels in the music of three composers- Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Wagner. His Brahms is more than credible and there’s a fantastic Schoenberg Pelleas and Melisande in the Digital Concert Hall. Is that enough? Even within the German canon, his Beethoven and Schumann are VERY controversial, he doesn’t conduct Mahler (the third-most-popular composer in the Digital Concert Hall after Beethoven and Brahms), and outside German repertoire, he’s even more controversial. It’s well worth watching his Tchaikovsky Six in the Digital Concert Hall to see why. I’ll stop there.

If the numbers tell us these are the orchestra’s two favorite conductors, does the orchestra have to choose one or the other? I suspect so. Does Nelsons need or want more time in Boston before taking on the world’s toughest conducting job? Many think so. Thielemann is in the prime of his career and has a near-perfect gig in Dresden which also includes opera. He would be nuts to come to Berlin for any sort of time-limited role. If he goes to Berlin, he’s planning to stay for life.  Also, Thielemann loses points based on the “happy where they are measure.” Between the two, the statistics tell us that Nelsons gets the job, but in 2023. But a lot can happen in five or six years- today’s sure thing is tomorrow’s empty promise, and trust me: EVERY conductor knows that from experience.

Gustavo Dudamel has also clearly ruled himself out this time, so that leaves two statistically likely candidates at six and five gigs respectively- Alan Gilbert and Semyon Bychkov. Neither seem to by high in the bookmakers’ estimation, but there are clear statistical arguments to be made that either could win the job.

Gilbert breezes past the “happy where they are” test. He’s just announced his departure from the New York Philharmonic, so he’s neither happy nor anywhere. In sporting terms, that makes him a big time free agent, a veteran player ready to slot in to an elite team. Gilbert presents an informal media image, but his repertoire and musical culture seem more hardcore Central European than laid-back American, and his work in the Digital Concert Hall seems to embody a near-ideal balance between the canon and major Central European works of the 20th c. Bartok, Nielsen, Lutoslawski, Janacek and Martinu sit alongside Dvorak and Mendelssohn in the archive. His age would seem to argue that he wouldn’t want to only stick around for 5 years or so to make room for Nelsons, but does his mysterious departure from New York indicate maybe he’s someone who is restless and likes to change scenery? Hard to say. There have been rumours of critical or musician discontent behind his departure from New York, but between their relationship with Gilbert and that with Mehta, one thing is clear- Berliners really don’t care what people in New York think about conductors.

That leaves just Semyon Bychkov, one ahead of Gilbert at 6 gigs. Passes the “happy where they are” test because he’s freelance with only part time/semi-honorary position at the BBC Symphony. He’s at the peak of his musical powers and just that little bit younger and healthier than guys like Barenboim and Jansons. His repertoire and recorded history align well with Berlin’s. Few have pointed it out of late, but his appointment would mark an even stronger reconnection with the Karajan legacy than Thielemann would- his name was the first out of Karajan’s mouth back in the 1980’s when asked about his potential successors. Back then, that endorsement was a near career-killer, taken as proof that the old man was finally skating off the rink. Could it work in Bychkov’s favour now? What of the “most/best” concerts? Well, after Nelsons, Thielemann and the old guard, he’s the next most, and may well have conducted the best concert in the Digital Concert Hall. These things are subjective, but his performance of the Alpine Symphony in 2008 is my favorite performance of anything in the Digital Concert Hall, and I remember his Brahms 2 as being really magnificent as well. Plus, he passes the “has also recorded for the wonderful Avie Records” test.

His is not a name that’s been mentioned often in connection with the world’s top job, but often those that know most about what’s going on say the least. One critic suggested he was too Jewish for Berlin. One would hope in these dark times the musicians of the Philharmonic would see the appointment of their first Jewish Chief Conductor as an opportunity to send an important, positive message to a Europe being quickly covered by the stinking storm clouds of rising anti-Semitism.

So there you have it- if the statistics are right, we can say with confidence that we know for sure that the next Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic will be Semyon Bychkov.

"Me? Seriously? You guys are hiring me? Gooooood"

“Me? Seriously? You guys are hiring me? Niiiiiice”

Or it could be one of the other guys. I don’t really know. But thanks for reading.

 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

7 comments on “BREAKING: Vftp 538’s the Berlin Philharmonic. We know for sure that the next Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic will be:….”

  1. Pablo Saelzer

    Very interesting and informative reading. Thanks for crunching the numbers for us fans of the BPO

  2. Daniel

    Very interesting. I am really hoping they don’t pick Daniel Barenboim, who they passed over the last time around and who already conducts another major orchestra in Berlin. Thielemann seems, to me, to be a slight throwback to the Karajan style, although perhaps I’m seeing that wrong. But his interpretations of works seem to me etched on Mount Olympus, where Karajan certainly heralded from. Dudamel is young and still has more to prove before receiving a job like that. I’d be surprised as hell if Gilbert got the job. Despite the somewhat mixed reviews Rattle has received during his time in the post, I am going to miss him. I think the orchestra has thrived under his baton and there have been some extraordinary performances with him, all available on the Digital Concert Hall.

  3. Karen

    I think Runnicles would make a great surprise choice – with the plus that he already lives in Berlin. I agree with some others in that I haven’t found Thielemann to be notable

  4. Rod

    Not Thielemann, please. The man can’t carry a line. I can’t believe he’s so well-liked.

  5. Andrew R. Barnard

    A fascinating read. Thielemann’s candidacy is quite complicated, since he seems set up for the job in so many ways, yet he lacks the innovation to continue in the forward-looking movement Rattle represented. Bychkov wouldn’t be bad. Jurowski would probably be best, though, now that Jansons is out.

  6. Lisa Hirsch

    Aaaaaaaand as of today, it’s nobody. They could not agree.

    Jurowski would be a great pick for more than one job or anticipating upcoming opening.

  7. T bone

    I’ve been a little surprised by all the rumors about Jurowski being in the mix. Reports are that he’s widely loathed in the LPO. Many of the musicians find him strangely unmusical and lacking in taste, willful and perverse. He’s also perceived as an egomaniac and a control freak. He’s certainly conducted some of the strangest, awkward and irritating concerts I’ve ever heard.

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