Berlin orchestra may force Rattle to drop the baton

The Berlin Philharmonic could part company with its conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, over his programme for 2009, which includes a performance of Stockhausen in an airport hangar.

Rattle, 53, who once described his relationship with his players as "turbulent", is in early talks to renew his contract, which runs out in 2012. The 128-strong orchestra is a democratic institution and retains a right of veto over who is chosen as conductor.

Rattle's critics believe his programme has become too experimental and the orchestra, once known for its Brahms, has lost its talent for such work. A source at the BPO said a third of the orchestra were unconvinced by him, another third were said to be "floating voters", and only a third were devoted to his methods.

The BPO said the conductor was only in the early stages of talks with the musicians. Stefan Stahnke, a spokesman for the BPO, said: "There is no firm date yet for the vote. The fact that we are already starting to discuss matters is normal in the classical music business."

But the orchestra admits this is the first time there has been such controversy over the future of one of its conductors. Previous conductors have either chosen to go themselves or died in post. If players vote against keeping Rattle, he would be the first conductor to have been voted out. Yesterday, it was also revealed that Pamela Rosenberg, the director of the orchestra, would not be staying once her contract expires in 2010.

Although Rattle now faces the challenge of winning over an absolute majority of the musicians if he wants to remain (if anyone abstains it will count as a no vote), being ousted by his own players may not, in fact, upset him. Rated as one of the world's four best conductors, he is reportedly being courted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He himself is also said to have expressed an interest in moving to America.

Reports in the German press say that Daniel Barenboim, the head of the Berlin Staatsoper who recently performed the Beethoven sonata cycle in London to huge acclaim, and Christian Thielemann of the Munich Philharmonic could be interested in the Berlin job.

Rattle has described the debate within the orchestra as "a perfectly normal process". His agent added that everyone in the industry was aware of the "degree of autonomy" that the players possessed.

Rattle took up the position in 2002 after 18 years with the Birmingham Philharmonic He is the first Briton to be principal conductor of the BPO.

James Jolly, editor-in-chief of Gramophone magazine, said it would come as a shock if his contract were severed. He said: "There is some fractious feeling there, but it is hugely unlikely they will get rid of him."

He added that tension may have arisen through Rattle's "interpretation" of pieces rather than fromany autocratic style of leadership. "He's very collegial," he said. "It would be a tragedy and reflect incredibly badly on the Berlin Philharmonic if they did it."

But nationality may also be a factor, Mr Jolly said. "The fact that he's English and not Teutonic can't help. I suspect this comes from the old guard harking back to [the orchestra's former conductor of 35 years, Herbert von] Karajan."

Rattle made his conducting debut with the BPO in 1987 and was appointed as successor to Claudio Abbado as principal conductor after Abbado decided not to continue. The orchestra's musicians voted him in in 2002 although, even then, some members were said to prefer Barenboim.

Before joining – and in a move which endeared him to the players – he insisted that the BPO become a foundation. This meant that it took charge of its ownfinances and had greater musical independence, being no longer governed by the Berlin Senate.

Since then, he has championed contemporary music and set up the first education departments. In September, he is due to lead the finale of the Musikfest Berlin 08 at Tempelhof airfield on the outskirts of Berlin. The highlights will be performances in a disused hangar – Hans Scharoun's Philharmonie hall in the city centre isn't big enough – of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen für drei Orchester, and Olivier Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.

Criticism of Rattle's work began after his first season with the BPO. This led him to say in 2005 that his relationship with the musicians could sometimes be "turbulent", but "never destructively" so.

An opus of spats

* The Montreal Symphony Orchestra achieved fame under Charles Dutoit, who became its musical director in 1977. But in 2002 he resigned after an open letter from the Quebec musicians' union on behalf of the MSO's performers accused him of being a tyrant and described the players as "battered spouses".

* Christoph Eschenbach's appointment as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra was controversial, as he had not conducted the orchestra in over four years. So it was no surprise when he quit. One music critic wrote that he "elicited a long list of complaints from musicians: getting lost in the score at concerts; leading disorganised rehearsals; and insisting on a peculiar rushing and slowing of tempos."

* Herbert von Karajan locked horns with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1983, when its musicians refused to accept a clarinettist he had chosen. In response, he cancelled an engagement with the BPO at the Salzburg Festival and instead conducted its arch rival, the Vienna Philharmonic.