Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Christian Thielemann: can he be stopped?

(Yeah, this is what happens when I'm bedridden for three days)

(Wilhelm Furtwangler. Often said to be the greatest conductor of all-time. When interrogated by the allies about why he stayed in Germany during WWII, he claimed he stayed to save the purity of German art from Nazi corruption.)

It is one of the strangest yet most predictable occurrences in classical music that its movements coalesce so quickly and firmly around a decisive figure. Classical music probably lends itself to authoritarianism more easily than any other art form in the history of the world. Between its ability to be about anything people say it is, its centuries of tradition to maintain in the face of an evolving world; its jargon filled lexicon that only an elite can master after a decade's initiation, the inability of most musicians to contradict the word of the composer or conductor; and the sheer melodramatic bombast of the music, it is a genre that practically cries out for demagogues to exploit a gullible mass of people.

(...never gets old)

So it should be no secret as to why classical music reached the apogee of its significance to world culture in what is often called "The Long Nineteenth Century" - which Eric Hobsbawm dated from 1789 to 1914 and the reasons should be obvious. An artform that so readily gives itself over to propaganda is perfect for use in the age of imperialism, nationalism and great power politics.

But the nineteenth century had an equally democratic side to it as well, and so does classical music. Composers are as dependent on performers as performers are composers. And performers are completely dependent upon one another for the mastery of their own responsibilities. At its best, the classical world can be a model of democracy and cooperation - each person relying upon one another for responsibilities only that person is capable of fulfilling. At its worst, it is not like that at all.

(He's Otto Klemperer. The rest of us don't get away with that.)

The phrase 'all happy ______ are happy in the same way, all unhappy _____ are unhappy in different ways' comes from the beginning of Anna Karenina and the missing subject is 'marriage.' But it can apply to so many things, and quite so to the partnerships between conductors and orchestras. Particularly as the partnership between a conductor and an orchestra is so often likened to a marriage.

Conductors are people too (though that's often forgotten), and they come in every type. There are no end of Lorin Maazels and Riccardo Mutis whose natural talents are diluted by their disproportionate egos - making them think that the ability to exploit orchestras for their money and prestige and giving little in return is what's owed to them. But there are also plenty of Chirstoph von Dohnanyis and Charles Mackerasses who always think first about what they can give to music rather than what music can give them.

But then there are the genuine rarities. Musicians who have achieved such a peak of influence that like their peers at the top of other professions, their decisions affect everyone in the world in ways we'll never know. Imagine for a moment if Leonard Bernstein, a lifelong asthma sufferer, was conscripted for WWII and killed in action? How many thousands of musicians would have never been inspired to go into music? How many millions of music-lovers would have never been convinced to love it? And for that matter, imagine if Lenny had quit smoking and lived on into the age of the internet?

(We need him now more than ever)

The influence of these few historic conductors is so easily discernable that one can probably count those who have indisputably made it to that level in the twentieth century on your fingertips and one can easily identify what their contributions were that made them so influential: Nikisch (baton technique), Mahler (quality control), Toscanini (score fidelity), Mengelberg (orchestra building), Furtwangler (canonizing the German -dominant- repertoire), Karajan (popularization through recording), Solti (internationalization of Opera) Bernstein (popularization through television), Boulez (retraining for contemporary music) and Harnoncourt (retraining for early music). This is hardly a list of my personal favorites, it's merely a list of the conductors whom without which classical music would be very different from what we now know it to be.

(Simon Rattle)

Almost ten years into the twenty-first century, it's already clear that two figures of comparable magnitude have revealed themselves. Whether in Birmingham or Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle has set a standard of diversifying orchestral repertoire that every other conductor tries to emulate. Whether the music is Pierre Boulez or John Adams, Bach or Rameau, Rattle conducts every piece he believes in with equal commitment. Musical cliques that have formed over hundreds of years seem to be evaporating merely from his efforts. And just as Toscanini had his antipode in Furtwangler and Karajan had one in Bernstein, Rattle has his polar opposite in Valery Gergiev. Unlike Rattle's high-minded internationalism, Gergiev is unashamedly provincial in his repertoire and performance style. Just as Furtwangler gave searing performances that crowned German music as the dominant musical force of the 19th century, Gergiev is currently giving performances of maximal impact for Russian music establishing it as the dominant musical canon of the 20th.

(Valery Gergiev)

But in a profession as unnecessarily venerated as conducting, there's always room for three superstars. And this week, for better or worse, we probably got our third. Christian Thielemann has been touted for the last twenty years (not least by himself) as the 'second Karajan' or 'second Furtwangler.' Now fifty, he still looks like a much too serious adolescent. Formerly an assistant of both Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim, he seems to have learned how to make music from the latter and how to make a career from the former.

(Christian Thielemann)

When Thielemann first appeared in the early 90's, there was a collective frission in German music circles. Thielemann's concerts are like taking a trip back in time to the old world when music was played with 100 players regardless of the style and the sound was always polished to the point of sheen. The tempos were always slow, but with enough flexibility that excitement can always be milked. His jerky, nearly unreadable stick technique is also a throwback to the days of 19th century Germany. Like one of his idols, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Thielemann seems to have a outright fear of precise attacks which is displayed in the awkward manner in which he uses a baton. The only troubling thought about the excitement was that there was no other approach in Thielemann's concerts. There wasn't just a lack of Stravinsky or Bartok, there was a lack of Dvorak and Rachmaninoff too.

In 1997, Thielemann became director of the Deutschoper in Berlin. He inherited a large-scale mess which he helped to grow positively filthy. The city of Berlin, strapped as ever for euros, entertained a proposal to combine their two major opera houses. The director of the other house happened to be one of Thielemann's mentors, the Israeli Daniel Barenboim. The history of Barenboim's house, the Berlin Staatsoper and its accompanying orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, goes back to 1570. Barenboim called the move for what it was, 'cultural vandalism,' and threatened immediate resignation. Whereas Thielemann let it be known that he would be all too happy to see the houses merged with himself at the helm. Matters became still worse when the leader of the Christian Democrats in Berlin, Klaus Landowski, said that the solution should be obvious. One of these conductors was 'A second Karajan,' the other is 'that Jew Barenboim.' Thielemann himself was quoted as privately saying that he was looking forward 'to the end of this Jewish mess.' While Thielemann issued a denial, he never publicly dissociated himself from Landowski's remarks. It was Barenboim's courageous stand on behalf of his opera house that saved Berlin's cultural life and Thielemann departed from Berlin out of favor, another major career apparently derailed.

He then moved to the orchestra made most famous for its time under the legendary Romanian conductor, Sergiu Celibidache, the Munich Philharmonic. By common consensus, the MPO is not the best orchestra in Munich (and often not the second-best). Word quickly broke that Thielemann was not shy in airing his displeasure at the quality of the players. But Thielemann's breaking point was not over the quality of players, it was over the issue of guest conductors. After five years, Thielemann announced his resignation because he felt that it was his perogative and his alone to name the guest conductors of the orchestra. This alone is not necessarily objectionable, but Thielemann made no secret that he regarded any conductor whose style of musicmaking conflicted with his own as a hindrance to the sound which he tries to cultivate. In Christian Thielemann's world, the diversity of modern musicmaking is a threat.

(Wagner's grandson Wolfgang giving his org some much needed PR)

One might imagine it ineviable that a conductor with such an attitude might find a natural home for himself in the Bayreuth Festspiel - a summer retreat to a Bavarian hamlet where Wagner erected a theater to showcase exclusively his own work. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is a still storied German landmark, remembered for its monumental effect on Hitler, who made it his spiritual home (Wagner's widowed daughter-in-law Winnifred was arguably his closest friend). To this day, the Bayreuth Festival is controlled by the Wagner family, whose never ending quarrels and intrigues have entertained Germany for over a hundred years. When Wagner's 90 year old grandson Wolfgang was finally able to convince the Bayreuth trustees to allow his 20-something daughter Katherina to take over, it was primarily because Thielemann agreed to mentor her musically. Thielemann is now the unofficial music director of Bayreuth, and granted a degree of control over the festival no conductor was allowed even in the days when an invitation from Bayreuth was considered the most prestigious conducting job in Germany (and therefore the world).

And just this week, Thielemann was appointed music director of the world's oldest orchestra. The Staatskapelle Dresden was founded in 1548. It was not only described by Richard Strauss as the world's greatest orchestra, it was also described by Beethoven as the world's greatest orchestra. Going back through its history, its music directors have included such luminaries as Bernard Haitink, Herbert Blomstedt, Kurt Sanderling, Rudolf Kempe, Karl Bohm, Fritz Busch, Fritz Reiner, Wagner (!), Weber (!!), Hasse (!!!), and Heinrich Schutz (!!!!). It has given the world premieres of untold dozens of works music-lovers still love today. But the greatest peak of its history was probably on Christmas Day 1845 when a young composer named Richard Wagner conducted what amounted to a second premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony that established it to the world as the masterpiece we still know.

(The Staatskapelle Dresden under its current conductor, the underrated Fabio Luisi. Playing Richard Strauss's hymn to nature, Mahler and vulgarity. The Alpine Symphony is the greatest work ever written when played by a great orchestra and the worst when played by a good one.)

The Staatskapelle Dresden is more than an orchestra, it is a symbol to the World of the gift German culture gives. The Allies may have bombed Germany's most beautiful city past recognition, but so long as the Staatskapelle Dresden remains the city retains its most important link to its history. Erich Honecker realized this as well as anyone, and during the Communist years a steady parade of great western conductors were allowed behind the iron curtain to conduct in Dresden so that the orchestra could maintain its greatness even under dictatorship.

But what does it say about the inheritor of Germany's oldest musical institution that he was willing to risk the survival of the second-oldest to get a better job? What does it say that when anti-semitism crept into a disagreement with his mentor, he never issued a blanket denunciation of it?

There's no way of being certain. But there is no mistakening what Thielemann represents to the music world. If Rattle is the way forward, and Gergiev the summation of a tradition soon to be lost, then Thielemann is perhaps the resurrection of a tradition that if possible might best be left dormant. He is not only a throwback to the traditions of Furtwangler in his style, but also in his entire outlook. He rose to prominence as much for what he doesn't do as for what he does. There are plenty of conductors who conduct German music in a "German style" and do much else besides. Christoph Eschenbach often conducts just as well in much the same manner, and plays the piano besides. Eschenbach indulges in the cardinal sin of musical curiosity and performs many pieces risk-averse conductors wouldn't dare to touch. Daniel Barenboim gave the German tradition back to Germany as perhaps only an Israeli could. But he also does everything Eschenbach does and still finds time to sound notes for peace in his country of origin. A list like this can go on for ages.

The rise of a Christian Thielemann to a position past the Barenboims and Eschenbachs of the world can only happen with a sinister movement at his back. He is the darling of every classical music lover who cannot accept that the world moved on a hundred years ago. To everyone who would like to press the reset button on music since roughly 1883, Christian Thielemann is their long-awaited messiah. He speaks to their longing to return to a time when German Classical Music was the uncontested lingua franca of the music world. He speaks to their eagerness to ignore the developments of a century of popular culture. He speaks to their belief that music with a different sound than Beethoven's cannot be great. And most egregiously, he speaks to their belief that musical truth can only be handed down from gatekeeper to gatekeeper. He represents a bygone era hundreds of subjects must bend to feudal whims. Around him seems to have coalesced the idea that classical music can be resurrected as the world's dominant artform in the place where it reached its zenith. Perhaps it can be, but without a globe's worth of musical cross pollination to evolve it into better music, who would want to live there?


  1. As I have pursued music in my life (composition, Horn performance, as well as piano performance (piano is my secondary instrument, horn is my primary instrument), and other areas of music (I have my undergraduate degree-still considering where to go, etc. for my grad degree(s), I care very deeply about conductors-what they value, what their character is like, what traditions and cultural attributes they help to foster/keep going, their abilities and competency (of course), their support of new music, the need for education regarding classical music (esp. for young artists as well as the general public), and their awareness of who their audience is, and what their audience wants to hear (as well as what their core repertoire should be (conductor's preferences, orchestra member's preferences), and why).

    This all being said, I have a VERY, VERY deep love of Germany and German culture. I do not believe Christian Thielemann is anti-Semitic... I DO believe, however, that he is definitely, definitely fond of the great German masters and their music. I think he is a good choice, and, in all honesty, Germany needs to remember its roots-going back to the late 1800's in a sense, really isn't a bad idea at all, in most respects. Bring on the conservatives, make Germany modern in the case of economics and technology, but lets keep the culture distinctly "German" in Germany, rather than make it some international crossroads for Europe or the world at large. The only thing I am uncertain about, regarding Thielemann, is how open he is to new music. I am talking about ANY music written at the present, or near present, not just the crazy music/modern/dissonant stuff. At any rate, I think he is a great conductor.

  2. I don't think there's any doubt Thielemann is very gifted, and I think its by no means a closed book about Thielemann's feelings on Jews. But the idea that a culture can return to the past is impossible. Whatever would happen, it would be very different. There is a case of Hungry trying to do exactly that, and the result has been an increase in anti-semitism and racist violence, a new glorification of their fascist dictator Admiral Horthy from the early 20th century, and a suppression of free expression. Much of late 19th century German culture was in itself based on the idea that it could return to its allegedly more glorious past in the Middle Ages and I think there should be little doubt of how that turned out for them... Of course Germany should be allowed to be Germany, but any country is larger and much more complicated than any particular vision of it from a single period. Germany, like any country, including the US, cant be beholden to visions of a glorious past, it has to deal with the realities of the moment and respond accordingly.

  3. I suppose it was inevitable that with two conductors up for the same Berlin opera job one would point out that he is a German! As it happens I have a cellist friend who has told me that he is a relative of Admiral Horthy. At the weekend I acquired my first Thielemann cd - his version of the Brahms B flat concerto with Pollini. I got it home only to find I had both Brahms concerti with Pollini and Abbado but was then relieved to read a review to the effect that Thielemann brings something to his performance absent in the Abbado!!