Ferguson and Moyes: A Lesson for the Berlin Phil

Andrew MellorFri 10th May 2013
Ferguson and Moyes: A Lesson for the Berlin PhilTake note Berlin Phil: Manchester United has replaced Sir Alex Ferguson with a successor who understands solidity and tradition

Have some big shoes to fill? We can all learn from Manchester United’s intelligent succession procedure – orchestras included

You have to admire Manchester United’s speed and efficiency. Even before the rumour mill had reached a respectable RPM, the club had shut it down, confirming that Sir Alex Ferguson would stand down after the last match of its current, league-winning season. Barely 24 hours later his replacement had been confirmed as Everton’s David Moyes. All done and dusted, with minimal speculation and politics to upset the club’s delicate talent-laden applecart.

Things have been rather different over at the Manchester United of the orchestral world, the Berlin Philharmonic. When Scouser Sir Simon Rattle announced in January that he’d be stepping down as the Philharmonic’s gaffer, he was effectively giving us five years’ notice. That probably means we have at least two years in which to chew over who might replace Rattle at the helm of the biggest brand in live classical music; two years in which countless maestros’ reputations can be mindlessly inflated or unjustly trashed by know-it-all commentators.

The truth, of course, is that Man Utd have been on the hunt for Ferguson’s successor for a while. But they’ve been doing it quietly, and they’ve been using the best recruitment consultant possible: Ferguson himself. Speaking exclusively to Gramophone – that’s right folks – economist, journalist and Evertonian blogger Anthony Evans suggests Ferguson had identified Moyes as the right man ‘to continue [his] legacy’ as long ago as 1998.

Now Moyes, who for the last 11 years has worked with steady, determined success at a financially small premier league club without a plethora of world-class players, is set to take over at the biggest footballing corporation of all. It’s a little like the Berlin Philharmonic appointing Jonathan Nott, chief conductor of the perfectly respectable but not-so-famous Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, to the top job.

And if Nott were to get Rattle’s job – an Englishman following an Englishman in Berlin, like a Scot following a Scot in Manchester – it would be a decision made off the back of human and cultural intelligence, not big-name glitz or marketing potential. That’s not to suggest Nott is in the frame (he isn’t) or even that there are good enough reasons why he should be. It’s simply highlighting the parallel: Moyes was appointed because Ferguson recognised he had the right vision and values (not necessarily ‘qualities’) to direct a team of world-class individuals whose specifically-coloured quality rests – paradoxically given those individuals’ length of service – on longevity and a degree of patience. Whoever steps into Rattle’s shoes has precisely the same job to do. 

What Moyes has done at Everton, countless conductors are doing at similarly-placed orchestras without superlative international reputations and with comparable financial constraints. ‘Moyes excelled within those constraints’ says Evans. ‘He used what money he did have to tie key players to long term contracts.’ You can bet that Nott had a job keeping his best players in Bamberg, too, which has in the past fed quality players to Germany’s bigger, more famous orchestras. Right now, it has retained and developed high quality in most departments. Both Moyes and Nott could be said to have instilled admirable work ethics, discipline and commitment in their playing staff. 

The point is that marshalling a lesser orchestra or football side, the boss tends to really learn how to make their team play. If they can do that, the results are far more entertaining and uplifting: the struggle to the end of that huge Mahler symphony that pushes everyone to give 110 per cent; the team’s stunning comeback that sees them deliver a seemingly impossible scoreline in a seemingly impossible timeframe.

Those experiences build character, in both the playing group and in its leader. Some conductors have worked with the finest orchestras for so long, it’s become far too easy. At best their concerts seem baseless and flashy, at worst they’re simply dull. Ferguson and Rattle work with world-class players day-in day-out, but neither seems ever to have forgotten that old Bill Shankly spirit – the edict that should be pinned to every manager/maestro’s dressing room wall: make your forces, as individuals and as one, play better than they ever thought they could.

I’m no Barney Ronay, but I’d bet good money Ferguson’s successful pursuit of Moyes will prove a far more significant final triumph than his winning of the league this season. Evans describes him as ‘the obvious choice’, and to football insiders he probably was. The rest of us might have expected the world’s biggest club to opt for an itinerant, a careerist, a celebrity – a José Mourinho or a Fabio Capello.

Predictably enough, Rattle’s vacancy was immediately linked with a number of the most famous conductors alive – among them Gustavo Dudamel, a genius who arguably has precisely the wrong temperament to successfully build on the creative qualities of the Berlin Philharmonic (you can judge for yourself in glorious high-definition on the DVD of his most recent concert with the orchestra in Vienna). It’s just the sort of thinking that Manchester United have avoided.

Orchestras already know that human chemistry is vital for appointing the right conductor, but the Berlin Philharmonic need to ensure Rattle’s successor can bring excitement to the ensemble while understanding that, as at Old Trafford, solidity and tradition are vital. They need a man or woman who will go the traditionally long Berlin Phil distance – put in a decent 16-year shift like Rattle will have done and like Moyes possibly will. They might even want to invite Rattle – and perhaps his predecessor Claudio Abbado – to nominate potential candidates. But most of all, they should have the boldness to appoint someone based on artistic conviction and human strength, irrespective of background: no matter which orchestra they currently conduct and no matter where they stand in world rankings.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is a Gramophone reviewer and freelance journalist - he writes widely on opera, classical music and Nordic culture for magazines, newspapers, orchestras and opera companies in the UK and in Denmark, Finland and Norway

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