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Christian Thielemann Leaves the Munich Philharmonic

Because the Munich city council and Christian Thielemann could not agree on a clause in a proposed new contract, the head of Munich’s culture department Hans-Georg Küppers has announced that Christian Thielemann will not be the Munich Philharmonic’s Music Director after his current contract runs out in 2011. (In a strangely condescending aside, the city council added that this did not preclude Thielemann from appearing with the Munich Philharmonic as a guest conductor.) The contentious clause related to the boost the role of General Director Paul Müller (allegedly) at the expense of the Music Director. In the Süddeutschen Zeitung, Thielemann said today: “It can’t go on that I have say over 30 concerts and the Intendant over 60. That would negate my position as chief conductor.” (Thielemann apparently wanted to retain his last word on guest conductors and their repertoire.)

Thielemann, in Munich since 2004 and by many accounts the best thing that has happened to “the city’s orchestra” (the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is under the auspices of the Bavarian Broadcasting Service, the Bavarian State Opera under that of the State of Bavaria) since Sergiu Celibidache (who died in 1996), was never not controversial, ever single minded in his pursuit of power and quality, but he was also a guarantor of musical excellence. The fickle orchestra may not have loved Thielemann, but they played exceedingly well under him and rarely as well with other conductors. Replacing Thielemann with a conductor who can coax the orchestra to similar levels of excellence will be the most difficult task of the city council, yet.

The continuation of Munich Philharmonic’s Bruckner tradition will almost inevitably suffer; Thielemann’s style and love for Bruckner was a perfect match for the Celibidache-Brucknerized Philharmonic. Fortunately some of that will be preserved on a complete Bruckner Symphony cycle (to be) recorded by Unitel in Baden-Baden. The other great historic tradition of the Munich Philharmonic—Gustav Mahler—can only improve, meanwhile. Mahler is a composer Thielemann eschews; finding that Mahler tends to coagulate his orchestra’s blood. Even if there is more Mahler planned for the next two seasons, that composer had gotten short shrift, given that the Munich Philharmonic is one of the four orchestras—next to Amsterdam, New York, and Vienna—with a great historical Mahler tradition.

With his departure, speculations about his successor and Thielemann’s future are officially opened. The natural, perhaps ideal, fit for Thielemann would be Dresden where the job at the Staatskapelle will free up in 2012 because Fabio Luisi will then move to the Zurich Opera. The Staatskapelle is, like the Munich Philharmonic, one of the very few orchestras left with a ‘typical German’ sound and additionally offers opera duties Thielemann could rarely indulge in with the Philharmonic. The Staatskapelle is known for its great Richard Strauss tradition and in desperate need of someone to re-instill the immediately identifiable, sumptuous, romantic character the orchestra has lost amid a hectic performance schedule and a conductor who was never up to the challenge. Munich’s loss would be Dresden’s gain.(Incidentally the new GD at the Dresden Opera also comes from Munich.) The only successor for the Munich Philharmonic I can think of off as not being a step down (and perhaps even up) would be Daniele Gatti whose reputation would match the aspirations of the orchestra and most recent appearance with the orchestra was simply incomparable.

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