Since its founding 100 years ago, the Philharmonic Orchestra here has scrupulously observed a democratic ritual of allowing its members to vote on whom to induct into its ranks. Although the conductor can veto the musicians' choices, the maestro's own selections have never, until now, been challenged.
Herbert von Karajan, who was appointed conductor-for-life of the Philharmonic in 1955, has always been praised as a paradigm of the ideal body-and-soul partnership in an orchestra between musicians and conductor.
And so he was surprised as well as incensed by his orchestra's stunning rebuke of his prote'ge', 23-year-old solo clarinetist Sabine Meyer.
The bitter clash over the musical virtues of Meyer has shattered the legendary harmony between Von Karajan and his orchestra, transforming what was billed as a glorious centennial year into a sordid season of petty feuds. Now the tempestuous, white-maned maestro has struck back with a vengeful blow to the musicians' pocketbooks.
He curtly informed Philharmonic members, in a letter last month, that "as a result of the existing situation, all orchestra tours, the filming of operas and concerts for television, appearances at the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals and the whole complex of audio-visual productions are hereby suspended."
Von Karajan also announced he would curtail his prodigious extracurricular work for the orchestra and restrict his performances to the minimum required by his contract with the Berlin Senate--six concerts a year with two repetitions.
Confronted by the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in lucrative outside earnings, the musicians appealed to the Berlin Senate to forge a compromise between their hallowed principle of self-rule and the maestro's wounded ego.
After anguished consultations with the orchestra's lawyer, the senator in charge of cultural affairs, Wilhelm Kewenig, proposed that Meyer serve as a substitute clarinetist without a contract, leaving future possibilities open.
The musicians, through their lawyer, expressed relief that the senator's offer provided "a possible way out of the crisis."
But Von Karajan, holed up in his opulent mountain retreat in St. Moritz, Switzerland, stubbornly refused to yield and insisted that granting a contract to Meyer had become tantamount to a vote of confidence in his stewardship.
Last Sunday the Philharmonic's director, Peter Girth, bowed to the maestro's wishes and offered a one-year probationary contract to the young clarinetist. Von Karajan quickly announced that "Girth's decision has my full approval and we shall not move away from this correct and legal course."
On Monday the orchestra lashed out at Girth, telling the Berlin Senate that the director had "grossly ignored their rights" and that "since there is no basis for confidence in Girth we demand that he be fired immediately."
"We are indignant and dismayed that the director took this kind of unilateral action," said Rainer Zepperitz, a member of the orchestra's executive council. "As far as we are concerned, there are no future chances of reestablishing a working relationship with him."
The hapless director was prepared to leave his fate in the hands of the Berlin Senate, which plans to debate the whole affair soon, but warned that his decision "represented the last bridge between Von Karajan and the orchestra."
Meyer, the victim of this Sturm and Drang soap opera, still hopes the atmosphere between maestro and musicians has not become so poisoned that future collaboration becomes impossible.
Despite her successful appearances on a triumphant Philharmonic tour of the United States last autumn, the orchestra decided by a majority vote that the 23-year-old Meyer needed to gain more maturity before becoming a full member.
She is scheduled to begin her one-year trial period Sept. 1 and will remain available as a substitute until then.
"I'm happy I finally have the chance to see if I can adjust to the orchestra during this probationary year," she told the German press agency. "But I'm sorry it took place against the will of the musicians."
"If they are all against me, I don't know if I will be able to stick through this trial period," she said. "But now that Von Karajan has gotten his way after all this trouble, I can't suddenly say I'm not going along."
Meyer, the daughter of a music school proprietor in Crailsheim, was discovered two years ago while playing with the Bavarian radio orchestra. Von Karajan decided the delicate, clear tone that she coaxed from the clarinet would provide a foil to the dynamic thrust of the Philharmonic's style.
At the time, orchestra members shared the view that Meyer was the best of the young clarinet players who had come to parade their talents before the orchestra. Last year Meyer was taken along to play at the Salzburg Festival and on the U.S. tour.
In October, following a performance of Richard Strauss' "Alpine Symphony" at Carnegie Hall in New York, the music critic of The New Yorker, Andrew Porter, was moved to exclaim, "Who was that astounding first clarinet? I can't believe that her name is Karl, Peter, Herbert or Manfred."
Meyer is only the second woman to play with the Philharmonic. The first female member, Swiss violinist Madeleine Carruzzo, was inducted last year and is said to be performing well halfway through her probationary period.
Some commentators have suggested that Meyer's troubles with the orchestra have derived from the evident chauvinism that kept the Philharmonic an all-male bastion during its first 100 years.
But the musicians claim they voted against her because of the judgment passed by the rest of the woodwind section, which praised her virtuousity as a soloist but harbored doubts about her ability to adapt to the ensemble's style.
Von Karajan intends to leave his mountain resort and return to the podium at the end of January. Some musicians have muttered about a possible strike unless they receive some kind of assurance that their voting tradition will be respected.
But the maestro may win the showdown if only because of the huge stakes his musicians would have to sacrifice in lost concert and recording earnings.
Von Karajan has been a tireless promoter of the Philharmonic's impressive recordings, which include the works of Haydn, Mozart and Tchaikovsky; every symphony written by Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner; and seven major operas by Wagner. A special 100th-anniversary collection titled, "100 Masterworks by the Berlin Philharmonic," has sold more than 750,000 copies.
Most of the Philharmonic members would feel pinched if compelled to forgo such royalties and subsist on their orchestra salaries. As one member of the Philharmonic's brass section, Karl-Heinz Dusetesch, put it, the maestro has taught the players "to have a good nose for money as well as musical quality."