Whether in Liverpool, Amsterdam or Vienna...
What makes a great orchestra? It’s six years since we asked a number of leading critics from around the world to help us rank ensembles and to answer this question [see The world's greatest orchestras]. While musicianship and technical virtuosity are givens, I’d say that much else is down to partnerships. Partnerships between conductors and players, but also between the players themselves (not least in the venerable Vienna Philharmonic, of which more later, for whom no specific music director is appointed). To a lesser but still very important extent, partnerships between musicians and administration – for the former to know they have the support of the latter in the journey they wish to take is crucial (as becomes so evident when it falls apart). And then there is that between musicians and audience. Hearing quite how many people turned up simply to hear the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra announce its new season, let alone to hear the less popular of Shostakovich’s symphonies, is evidence of how just one such partnership – that between Vasily Petrenko and the people of Liverpool – has proved such a success.
Success ebbs and flows as musical partnerships change, blossom or decay – a slow process, and I feel it’s too soon to meaningfully ask the question again that we did back in 2008 and expect our answer to be based on particularly different evidence.
But I ponder all this now partly because the orchestra we praised above all others then, the Royal Concertgebouw, has just announced its new Chief Conductor, Daniele Gatti. Few orchestras embody that notion of partnership quite as well as the Royal Concertgebouw: though it was founded in 1888, Gatti will be only its seventh musical boss. Some people talk of a continuity of sound, a tradition, being passed through generations there – as they do of another of today’s mighty ensembles, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, heirs to the eras of Mendelssohn and Brahms, and currently excelling under Riccardo Chailly. Gatti’s inheritance at the Royal Concertgebouw is a rich one: we wish him and his players well as they embark on a new era, and in particularly difficult times.
Earlier this month the Birgit Nilsson Prize was formally awarded to the Vienna Philharmonic, which will spend the money on opening up its archive as widely as possible (now there’s a decision which speaks of an awareness of history). The prize was established by the singer to honour a musician (or ensemble) who represents the absolute epitome of excellence. The $1m prize pot has attracted some comment – but that’s no bad thing. We live in times when it’s increasingly hard for classical music to get itself discussed in the wider media. If the Birgit Nilsson Prize can earn its winners the same popular prominence as the Nobel Prize does for recipients in the fields of literature or science, then this would be good news.
And is the Vienna Philharmonic still a great orchestra? Everyone has their own way of judging that; but hearing the controlled strength and beauty of sound in pianissimo passages at the prize-winner’s gala concert, I would say so. Either that, or the transformative effects of being a handed a very large cheque really should be bottled.