Rattle and Barenboim in a battle for Berlin

A prestigious musical job is up for grabs this week, with two of the world's top conductors in the running to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. Imre Karacs reports
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the world's greatest orchestras is looking for a new boss. No, don't all rush at once. Unsolicited CVs will go directly to the waste bin, unread. The Berlin Philharmonic assumes, with just the tiniest hint of conceit, that every living conductor is an applicant.

The financial package on offer is not the best, but the prestige is probably unsurpassable. The winner of a secretive election process that culminates on Wednesday will be treading in the footsteps of this century's giants: Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. The smart money is riding on a youngish man from a country once described here as das Land ohne Musik (The Land Without Music): Britain.

After the preliminaries, the tousle-haired Simon Rattle, the man who put Brum on the musical map during his tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is running neck and neck with Daniel Barenboim, current artistic director of the Staatsoper in Berlin and widower of the late cellist Jacqueline du Pre, from whom he was estranged due to her illness, multiple sclerosis. Not that the two men would know much about the contest. There have been no formal hustings, no campaigning allowed, and even the contenders are probably unfamiliar with the rules of this race.

"A lot of people compare this election to the papal conclave," says Dieter Riegelbauer, who plays the double bass for the Berlin Philharmonic and is a member of the orchestra's presidium. "That's probably right in the sense that in the world of music this position is as important as the Pope."

The cardinals in this case are the 128 members of the orchestra. They have all come through their own trials of fire, having been endorsed by a two-thirds majority of their colleagues after a two-year probation. Every member is allowed to nominate a conductor of his or her fancy. After a series of discussions, secret ballots are held in order to whittle down the list to just a few names.

How many will appear on the ballot paper on Wednesday is a secret, as is the exact mechanism of voting. All Mr Riegelbauer would say is that it is "not a simple knockout system". Another source reveals that there are several rounds, until a ballot produces a winner supported by more than half the electorate. Postal ballots are allowed.

With some of the planet's biggest egos in the running, discretion is essential. "If you were to throw names in the ring, it would cause a lot of embarrassment," explains Helge Grunewald, the orchestra's spokesman. This way, the conductors who do not get picked can pretend for the rest of their lives that they had never given the Berlin Philharmonic a thought. But on Wednesday afternoon, when the result is announced directly to the winner, they will all be sitting by the telephone, just in case. "Anybody who says he is not interested in this job is a liar," Mr Riegelbauer says.

At the risk of ruining a few reputations, the Independent on Sunday can reveal the names of the distinguished cast who were considered, but have fallen by the wayside in the preliminaries: Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel, Christian Thielemann, Ingo Metzmacher and Esa- Pekka Salonen. Even they are not entirely without hope, though. Any name can be revived if no clear winner emerges on Wednesday.

The hotly tipped favourite is Simon Rattle, who charmed musicians and audience alike on his past outings as guest conductor. His age, 44, is to his advantage. Abbado, the first to be elected under this system nine years ago, disappointed the city when he announced he would be retiring in 2002. He will then be 69 years old. Berlin expects its conductors to cling on to the baton until death, as Karajan and Furtwangler did. A younger man, it is thought, might display greater staying power.

Barenboim will be 59 when Abbado vacates the premises. He has home advantage in this contest, and scores as highly as Rattle in artistic merit. But Germany, its new capital and its venerable orchestra are in the mood for clean breaks with the past and a generation change. The Zeitgeist is working for the Englishman.