Two of the world's leading conductors have taken new jobs in the past two days.
On Wednesday, only one day after the resignation of Seiji Ozawa from his long and troubled tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a post in Vienna, Sir Simon Rattle was announced as the new music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, effective in 2002.
Rattle, 44, was reportedly in the running for the Berlin post as far back as 1989 but is said to have turned it down because he felt "too young" for such an enormous responsibility. At that time, the position went to Claudio Abbado, who let it be known last year that 2001-02 would be his last season.
This time, Rattle was up against Daniel Barenboim, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. According to Agence France-Presse, Rattle was selected by "a large majority" of the 113 musicians in the orchestra entitled to vote. Rattle then phoned the self-governing ensemble and said his appointment "was a great honor for which he was very grateful," according to orchestra chairman Rudolf Watzel.
The Berlin Philharmonic's celebrated history includes partnerships with such legendary conductors as Hans von Bulow (1887-95), Arthur Nikisch (1895-1922), Wilhelm Furtwangler (1922-45, 1947-55), Sergiu Celibidache (1945-47) and Herbert von Karajan (1955-89).
Karajan was estranged from the orchestra in his final years. But during his long prime (the late 1950s through the mid-1980s) the Berlin Philharmonic was widely considered the most perfect ensemble in the world.
More recently, the Philharmonic's performances have often seemed rudderless and diffuse--perhaps a natural reaction to Karajan's long and autocratic reign. The Berlin Philharmonic remains one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, although few professional musicians would now rank it with the great ensembles of Cleveland and Vienna.
Rattle is widely considered an orchestra builder. He took Great Britain's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and raised it from a middling provincial group to an ensemble known throughout the world and generally admired. A few touch-ups in Berlin will be welcome.
Ozawa abruptly resigned on Monday to become music director of the Vienna State Opera. In a press conference yesterday morning in Vienna, he called his new appointment "the last directorship of my life."
More than a few observers had thought this statement would have proved true of Ozawa's leadership in Boston; by the time he steps down in August 2002, he will have been the BSO's music director for 29 years--the longest-tenured leader in any of America's top 10 orchestras.
But Boston has been in something of a slump for more than a decade. In 1989, Christoph von Dohnanyi, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, walked out of a BSO engagement, complaining of lax playing and discipline. Last year, composer and critic Gregory Sandow attended several BSO concerts and came up with a withering appraisal. "Rarely have I heard such coarse, unmotivated playing from such a celebrated group," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. To many other critics, the BSO has been something of a puzzle, likely to play a perfectly satisfactory concert one week and a perfectly appalling one the next.
Ozawa came to Boston as a fresh and exciting new presence in 1973. He is a conductor of enormous technical facility--few, if any, living musicians can so effectively manage such huge, complicated scores as Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" and the Symphony No. 8 ("Symphony of a Thousand") by Mahler. It may well be that these abilities will serve Ozawa well in Vienna, where coordination between the stage and the orchestra pit is of paramount importance. In the meantime, there is work to be done in Boston.
CAPTION: A majority of the Berlin Philharmonic's musicians voted for Sir Simon Rattle as their next conductor. Rattle, regarded as an orchestra builder, assumes the post in 2002.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) SEIJI OZAWA
CAPTION: Seiji Ozawa will leave Boston after 29 years for the Vienna State Opera.