A poignant musical emigration

By James Inverne, January 28, 2013
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The news this week that Valery Gergiev, arguably the most powerful conductor in the classical-music world, is to leave the London Symphony Orchestra, has sent shock-waves through the British capital's chattering classes.

When Gergiev came to London, replacing the beloved Sir Colin Davis, there were mixed feelings. It was felt that Gergiev's repertoire was narrow - Russian music plus a few others, and it is true he hasn't ventured too far beyond his fach. There were also serious doubts as to how much time he would be able to give to London, what with his other responsibilities in Russia and the US and, er, the world (Gergiev is on a permanent world tour, it often seems, but then that is how he built the Mariinsky into one of the world's acknowledged great companies).

On the other hand, the prestige - what your Jewish grandmother would call the yichus - of having Gergiev in London was undeniable. The man is a force of nature, up there with the Abbados and Haitinks as one of those musicians whose shimmering fingers seem, on occasion, touched by God. As other orchestras went for young stars or merely really, really fine musicians, hey, the LSO got Gergiev. So the fact that he is moving on to the Munich Philharmonic, a splendid orchestra not generally viewed as being on the same plane as the LSO, will be scrutinised for deeper meaning. Does he want the soon-to-be-vacant Berlin Philharmonic podium after Simon Rattle leaves - hence the strategic move to Germany? Is it about pay?

Of the former, I don't know and about the latter, I don't care. But this move further strengthens a nagging feeling I've had for a year or two. Is the UK losing to Germany its status as the world centre for classical music?

Berlin sounded like Tel Aviv’s Mann auditorium

It might seem odd to claim this title for our country in the first place, given our meagre number of orchestras compared to the Germans. But we arguably have more great orchestras than Germany; the classical recording industry has traditionally been based here; the most influential music press is here; and a staggering number of leading musicians live here.

But it does feel like that is changing. Sony Classics moved its HQ from Kensington to Berlin. Even the British label, Decca, temporarily relocated its centre of operations to its sister label DG in Hamburg (DG has also now moved to Berlin). More and more musicians seem to live there rather than here. Now Gergiev is decamping.

Perhaps this impression is the greater because I have been stunned by the number of Israeli musicians who live and work there and rave about it. Please don't get me wrong - I don't boycott Germany as some do because of the Holocaust (new generations and all that). But it is still curious that so many Israelis actually make Germany, specifically Berlin, their home. Recently, I was backstage after a Berlin Philharmonic concert conducted by the fast-rising conductor Omer Meir Wellber and, from the amount of Ivrit being spoken, it felt more like the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv!

So what is it that draws Israeli musicians to this city with its troubled past for Jews? Many talk of a strong sense of community, of a "small town" feel where what you do feels like it counts. Sounds like the descriptions we read of the shtetls of old. It even sounds like pre-war Berlin, where Jewish artists lived close together, studied together, explored truth through art together.

Is there a yearning towards something, one of so many things, that was lost in the war? Our shared cultural quest - one that has nothing to do with religion but is who we are as a people - is a badge of honour in our history. In many ways, the Berlin of old exemplified it. It was our classroom, our lecture theatre, our artistic ensemble. Until, suddenly, it wasn't. Germany's artistic Jewish community is thriving.

Maybe, just maybe, the fact that the same can be said more generally for the country's music scene is not entirely disconnected.

Last updated: 10:45am, January 28 2013