Classical: It's a player's right to choose

The Berlin Philharmonic has voted for Simon Rattle as its conductor. But orchestras are odd constituencies, as Ian Pillow knows

The world has been waiting this week with bated breath while the Titans fight tooth and nail for the ultimate prize. Individual talent is not an issue. Nor is the need for financial undercutting. Each contestant can name his own price, safe in the knowledge that supreme reputation will take care of the purse strings. The final victory will be achieved by way of those extra subtleties that separate the great from the near untouchable. I refer not to the impending Wimbledon finals, or even the epic contest between Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle for the reins of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Orchestra of St Cuthburga's in the Meadows, Winterbourne Regis in Dorset (rehearsals every Monday evening, bring your own stand) is looking for a principal conductor. I have been invited to rehearse them, one of a shortlist of three, as an audition for the permanent post. I have therefore been watching the Barenboim vs Rattle contest with keen interest, and assiduously studied their campaigns.

I did feel that Barenboim's high-profile approach would have the edge, so I was accordingly scanning the parish magazine to see which events would present me with the greatest media opportunity. Next Saturday's Oxfam fete would have been a good one. I imagined placing myself strategically, ostentatiously sharing a joke with the vicar, laughing loudly and heartily, and making a heroic attempt at Trap the Rat.

I could even present myself as a community philanthropist. I would send a box of Quality Street to the parish council. I had plans to wow them in the rehearsal. Barenboim, I discovered, rehearses the Berliners in their mother tongue. My own attempt at state-of-the-art Dorset - "Clarionet, you'm playin' too vaarst! Oi be zubdivoidin into vour" - would no doubt please the traditionalists in the orchestra.

I have even featured in a controversial movie. In the video of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra viola section playing my arrangement of "The Ride of the Valkyries" for 10 violas, I had allotted myself the optional cymbal part, as well as directing, and the parting of the cymbal from its strap and its consequent orbit into the midst of the players caused great debate. Was it planned? Was it accidental? Such an issue would surely burn throughout Winterbourne Regis as much as Hilary and Jackie in Berlin.

I must say I was not comfortable with this approach. Somehow I found it all rather insincere, so I was quite relieved when I heard that Rattle had won, even though it has meant a drastic change of strategy. Taking myself off to the Caribbean while the orchestra locked themselves in Corfe Castle for their secret ballot would certainly be on as far as I am concerned. I also feel quietly confident about the "Let my music do my talking for me" stance. My interpretation of "The Ride of the Valkyries" with the Society of Recorder Players (Dorset Branch) and my rendition of "The Ride of the Valkyries" with the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra have passed into local folklore. (It is, after all, de rigueur for a great conductor to have a small repertoire. It lends an air of exclusivity.)

Rattle rehearses the Berliners in a foreign language - English. We orchestral players are so used to phoney foreign accents that this should be no problem: "Ve do, 'ow you say, ze Worn Villiams." In addition, I could go into the village stores, buy something and say to the assistant: "I'm sorry, I haven't got my glasses. Which of these is English?" while pulling out a sundry selection of francs, pfennigs, pesos etc among the 10p pieces. This would be an impressive indication of my international lifestyle.

Actually, I'm not sure that members of the orchestra choosing their principal conductor by democratic vote is a good solution, and I am surprised that such august establishments as the Berlin Philharmonic and St Cuthburga's still operate this method. Orchestral opinion on the merits of a conductor varies so enormously that coming to any sort of decision is extremely difficult. There are so many different factors.

I have been in several ensembles during the choosing of a new maestro and the scenario is always the same. Conductor A coaxes better string playing, B gets better wind playing, C is a poor accompanist but wears nice aftershave, D coaxes good string playing, good wind playing, accompanies well but doesn't wear aftershave and perspires heavily. The strings won't vote for him unless clothes pegs and sou'-westers are regulation dress, the winds will not vote for A, the strings will note vote for B, only the trombones and tuba, who are hardly ever in concertos, will vote for C.

Then along come two excellent contenders. The up-and-coming Polish maestro Stanislav Wietabicz, and the doyen of the English tradition, Albert Postlethwaite. Even then the band is divided. Postlethwaite is the first conductor in history to whizz through The Apostles in time to see Match of the Day, but is an unknown quantity in Shostakovich. Wietabicz conducts a stunning Shostakovich, but can he do Pomp and Circumstance?

There is something to be said for managerial autocracy. Orchestral players are not always reliable arbiters. Even on the rare occasion when opinion has been unanimous, the subsequent relationship has not always been a success. That delicate, elusive chemical balance in the cocktail of talent, audience appeal, marketability and media-friendliness has misfired and left seats bumless even when talent has been an abundant ingredient.

I was once on a panel choosing a new principal conductor. A member of the orchestra's management committee, a town councillor, was putting forth a vehement case for a young conductor: "We must grab him while we can. Mark my words, he is a star of the future. He'll go places." The orchestral members on the panel were less enthusiastic. A nice lad, yes; talented, yes; but a star in the making? Naah.

Shortly afterwards that nice, talented young conductor was appointed principal conductor in a place called Birmingham. Sir Simon, wie heisst ihre Aftershave?

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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