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Dresden’s Gain is Munich’s Loss: Thielemann Signs With Staatskapelle

Earlier today it became official: Christian Thielemann has announced to sign a contract to be the next Music Director of the Staatskapelle Dresden starting 2012. This does not come entirely unsuspected—the orchestra and conductor have been considered a natural and likely fit since the news of Thielemann’s contract not being renewed in Munich first broke. (As reported here, here, and here.) But the news also comes at a time when there was increasing hope for a compromise in Munich that would finally end the kindergarten-level quarrel over responsibilities.

Great for Dresden

This is a coup for Dresden and the incoming Intendant Ulrike Hessler (who also comes from Munich, where she is currently head of public affairs for the Bavarian State Opera). With Christian Thielemann they have bagged the best German conductor, one who even detractors (of which there are many) will credit with having genial moments. Supporters grant him outright genius-status. Thielemann is perhaps the conductor with the greatest sense for a musical moment, as a former member of the Munich Philharmonic attests him, and with an uncommon sense for flexibility of tempos. In German opera, Thielemann is truly at home; everyone who has heard his Wagner in Bayreuth or Vienna knows it to be unsurpassed. And of course there is scarcely a better place for conducting his favorite opera composers Strauss and Wagner than Dresden with its rich history of performing their works.

It’s a fine match for Thielemann, indeed. The tradition of the orchestra caters to his musical preferences, he gets to conduct as much opera as he could possibly wish for (something he missed in Munich), the quality of the orchestra, even if it needs a little dusting off and molding, is easily superior to that of the Munich Philharmonic and the musical body has a traditional German, varnished sound that Thielemann likes.

Presumably the Dresden Staatskapelle, one of the oldest orchestras in the world, continuously performing for nearly 500 years, knows that Thielemann is a difficult character. And presumably they are aware that after the lukewarm years with Fabio Luisi as music director, he can help them attain once again a reputation and quality that will rival that of the very best orchestras in the world. If the combination of Staatskapelle-Thielemann-Hessler isn’t torpedoed by antagonism, the chance for Dresden to reign supreme in Thielemann’s—limited—repertoire is within close reach.

Loss for Munich

Munich critic Klaus Kalchschmid reacted to the news saying that he was “almost glad the back and forth is finally over. The orchestra will have a hard time finding a conductor of nearly the same quality and reputation who is willing to put up with them, but they have brought this on themselves and they will have to deal with it. The whole affair reflects poorly on everybody involved, but especially the orchestra. And the Munich concert goers are the ones that bear the brunt of that decision.” Politicians may get the blame for letting Thielemann go, but behind the scenes it was the orchestra that, well, orchestrated his departure by attempting to curtail his powers after a signature-ready contract had already been worked out, trying to force him to give up control over guest conductors and their repertoire.

That move was indicative of the discontent among a significant part of the musicians with Thielemann’s unwillingness to tolerate greatness beside him, but it was also indicative of their foolishness in thinking they could put as willful a man as Thielemann ‘in his place’. Even with two years time to find a successor it will be difficult to get a replacement that can achieve the levels of musicianship with this orchestra better known for its exaggerated opinion of its own capabilities than inherent quality. The prestigious CD and DVD contracts with Deutsche Grammophon and Unitel, a projected Ring Cycle and US tour will also go out of the window. Discussions about potential successors will abound; one of the most promising prospects circulated already is the possibility of attaining the services of Daniele Gatti who recently conducted one of the most impressive guest conducted concerts with the Philharmonic in years. Incidentally his contract at the Zurich opera house runs out in 2012, when none other than current Dresden’s music director Fabio Luisi will take over the Swiss opera house.