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A Mahler Cycle And Uncomfortable Silence: The Munich Philharmonic in 2010/11

The Munich Philharmonic has had a tumultuous year. The ungainly story of how Christian Thielemann was eased out of Munich has been reported on in depth. Including here, here, here, and here. The most recent development has been a—premature?—announcement from the mayor that the transition-successor would be stop-gap conductor Lorin Maazel. A big name intended to keep the subscription audience from fleeing in droves… though probably in vain. Anyone who has heard Maazel’s performances with professional orchestras in the last five, ten years knows that he, despite his unrivalled technical ability, makes such bands run on snooze-control. He will hardly spend three years of his early eighties whipping the Munich Philharmonic into shape against fierce would-be resistance. With that un-tackled subject looming, the season announcement of the orchestra was kicked off with Hans-Georg Küppers (head of Munich’s Department of Culture) jesting with actual pride that this time at least he got the name of the orchestra right.

Yes. He didn’t blunder “Munich Symphony” like last time. But if that’s something to be proud about, coming from the man chiefly in charge of culture in Munich, then that leaves little to the imagination about the sophistication with which matters like a chief conductors’ contract extension are being dealt with at top level. Sure it was a joke, but how does the revealing Russian saying go? “There’s always a bit of a joke [sic] in a joke.” (Still, Küppers does better than his boss, the mayor, who pretends to care about classical music only when he absolutely needs to, and won’t let that keep him from referring to the great choral movement of the Eroica Symphony.) In any case, Munich Symphony or Philharmonic (and in all honesty: it’s not like the international press knows or cares about the difference, either), this was the presentation of the 2010-2011 concert program and jumping out in bright and hearty orange from the well designed black posters hanging behind the speakers were the letters “GM”. The Gustav Mahler popularity train has finally, again, arrived in Munich, too.

It might be surprising that Mahler only makes it big now, with the band that is historically (if not actually) one of the top four Mahler orchestras. (The Munich Philharmonic has premiered more of his symphonies than any other orchestral body.) The predilections of the present MPhil, though, were tellingly revealed when violist Konstantin Sellheim, the youngest member of the powerful musician’s committee and a pleasant chap, suggests the reason why Mahler is so special to the orchestra: “He was the student of Bruckner!” (Awwww… even though kind of inaccurate, that’s puppy-eyed Bruckner devotion if ever there was any.) In any case: Now if the rest of the organization could only catch up and provide archival information as is available from all the other major Mahler orchestras, the Munich Philharmonic might be one step further into the direction of taking its Mahler-legacy seriously.

Intendant Paul Müller—the nominal head of the Munich Philharmonic—sits far off to the left, hunched and mousey, nervously shuffling the papers in front of him. He looks acutely uncomfortable, ill at ease, and when the first subtle barbs fly his way his head turns lobster red, to stay bright and beaming for the rest of the presentation. He reads out standard niceties about the guest conductors of the next season, elaborates on the Mahler cycle, and makes—at last and least—one interesting point: That the management actually did look into the vague possibility of performing Mahler’s Eight Symphony in the International Exhibition Center it premiered, which—reconstructed—now houses the trams and trains of the traffic division of the Deutsches Musuem, the massive technical museum in Munich. (Too bad, albeit understandable, that this theatrical-musical would-be coup didn’t work out.) After that, Müller stops talking for the rest of the event except for one “Yes, like he said”, following a perfectly non-descript dodge by Küppers on the future of the orchestra’s leadership.

Thielemann introduces the works he will perform—Brahms, Strauss, Schumann, Beethoven—the usual suspects. Also Schreker and more Mahler songs in addition to the Eight Symphony. He clearly doesn’t like that part of a seasons’ presentation, which must strike him as an artificial song-and-dance. “You can all read… so I don’t really need to read the list for you, right?” That way the most intriguing Thielemann concerts remain unmentioned: a nearly-all French program (Ravel-Debussy), and two concerts with contemporary fare including Woflgang Rihm and Sofia Gubaidulina. Music he’s very good at—but less well known for than the music that better fits our convenient stereotype of Thielemann.

When there is no initial show of hands at the question & answer time, Küppers seems eager to wrap it up. He is preempted by three hands that hastily shoot up. The questions are for Thielemann and include: “What’s your relationship with Mahler”? “Why do you ask that?” CT shoots back, moodily. “Uh, oh… professional curiosity?” stumbles the journalist half cowed, half defiant. “Well, I have a troubled relationship with Mahler’s music. But then you knew that, which is why you asked, no?” Touché. But what follows changes the mood in the room completely. “Mahler’s music lends itself most to those conductors” Thielemann reflects, “who know how to hold back, who are good at understatement. That doesn’t exactly accommodate my conducting style; I’ve not been terribly successful at that yet. The music of Mahler is already so full of effects, if you are tempted to add anything, you only make it worse. I admire those conductors who achieve that certain noblesse—which is what I desire to achieve, eventually. Not always to enhance something. I’m currently trying to wean myself off that in Strauss, actually…” Thielemann thus continues a solid three minutes on his fallibility as a conductor in Mahler, about trying to break habits and improving—a touching, beautifully honest moment.

At some point he enters a longer monologue about conducting, forming, shaping, educating an orchestra. On the duties a music director has and the responsibilities and powers he must have to achieve his job. He references Sergiu Celibidache and the great benefits the Munich Philharmonic reaped from their highly tumultuous relationship with him. He philosophizes on life in general, and conductor-orchestra relationships in particular, being roller coaster rides and not all wine and roses. There’s some bitterness creeping into his words, but the most pervasive sense is genuine sadness about a project that he leaves behind before having reached all that he wanted to. What he says rings true and it is sad, in a way, that he feels such truisms need to be pronounced. Worse, and sadder still: he’s apparently right in that they do need to be pointed out. “I don’t bear any grudges” Thielemann unconvincingly says, only to correct himself: “Well, of course there are a few people’s actions I do begrudge, but… well, never mind.” Paul Müller’s head reaches heightened shades of quiet red and Mr. Küppers, who listens with thin lips, can’t quite conceal his uncomfortable displeasure when he thanks Thielemann “for this lecture on what the duties of a General Music Director can be”. The time for graciousness is long gone among the top echelon of the Munich Philharmonic and the city’s politicians.

A last question is asked of Konstantin Sellheim, who looked a little lost between the silently warring parties on his left and right: “How dangerous is hubris for an orchestra, and how important self-criticism?” That could have been better phrased. For example: “Do you think the ability for self-critical reflection is a strong suit of this orchestra?” And when the wavering, timid attempt of an answer along the lines of “of course it is important, of course it’s never good to overestimate oneself, but now we need to focus primarily on what happens on stage and make music” followed, it would have been necessary to follow-up thus: “Does your answer suggest that you do not see a very direct, intimate connection between the aptitude for self-criticism and proper in-concert performance?” Oh, the possibilities. Even without that, Thielemann has a bit of fun with the original question as he leans over and suggests to his musician: “I don’t think they are completely satisfied with your answer.” No, probably not. But even so it’s just great, bordering ironic, to hear about the importance of self-criticism directly from a member of the orchestra.

Orchestra Tours

"Why is touring important" someone pipes up naively. "They're expensive and what do they do? Promote Munich? Munich doesn't need any promotion."
Thielemann counters gently: "What's the point of being 'world famous at home'? But you're right in that we need to be in the right, important, places. And there certainly are destinations where I wonder 'did we really need to be here?'. If that's what you meant." "No", is the hapless response, "I didn't mean that, actually". To which CT seems to mumble something along the lines of "...then I overestimated your question."

The Munich Philharmonic will have a tour of South America (Saõ Paulo, Rio, Buenos Aires) in September/October, with Honorary Conductor Zubin Mehta in charge of Bruch, Mahler, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Webern. A stop in Nuremberg with Nikolaj Znaider conducing [sic]. Stuttgart and Dortmund are covered with Thomas Hengelbrock. And Schreker-Mahler-Brahms under Thielemann in Amsterdam and Brussels who also conducts core repertoire in Hamburg, Baden-Baden, Frankfurt, Madrid and finally Vienna. There the Munich tenure ends for CT with Bruckner's Fifth and a French program capped with Ravel's La Valse. "A waltz that breaks apart in the end... was that a programmatic choice?". "Ha!" chuckles Thielemann—it's the first question he actually enjoys, and from a journalist he respects. "But no. It's been programmed well before these, certain events. But I like the idea that it all began with Bruckner's Fifth (his inaugural concert) and ends with Bruckner's Fifth. Who could have known. But not quite, because then there's a waltz and so everything ends on a light, happy note." CT sounds like he is trying to convince himself. The underlying tone is as ambiguous as the 'happy ending' of Richard Strauss' Egyptian Helen.


The first part of the Mahler cycle will include the First (Mehta), Second (Iván Fischer), Fifth (Juraj Valcuha), Seventh (Kent Nagano), Eighth (CT), Ninth (Christoph Eschenbach), the Adagio from the Tenth and songs (all CT). The rest will follow in the second part of the 2011/2012 season.

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