back 40 years of the Orchestra Academy

“Tradition and Future”:
40 Years of the Orchestra Academy

by Juliane Wandel

There are many reasons to celebrate: 25, 50 or 100 years are the classic anniversaries. The Orchestra Academy is taking its 40th anniversary as an opportunity to hoist a celebratory flag, paying tribute to their now elderly founding members who, 40 years ago, while at the peak of their careers in business and banking, gave the necessary financial support to Herbert von Karajanʼs idea of founding an academy. The first generation of students, now approaching retirement age, are returning to the starting point of their careers for the celebrations. Also later generations – there have been over 600 students over the years – will experience the return to the Philharmonie as a step back in time to a turning point in their education.

It began with 3 students, now there are 30. Then as now, students must be less than 25 years of age when they enter the OA; two years of support, not only financial but most importantly in the form of individual and chamber music tuition. They are also integrated into the everyday rehearsal and concert life of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Those were the founding rules, and they continue to apply today. In the OA, young, gifted and highly trained musicians are prepared for the life of a musician by members of the orchestra, ideally as the next generation of Berliner Philharmoniker. Yet, “other significant cultural orchestras” should also benefit from this exclusive training course, says the statute of the OA. Furthermore, “the charisma and appeal of Berlin’s musical life” are also to be promoted.

Tradition and Future

Winds of the Orchestra Academy with flautist Michael Hasel, 2001 (Photo: Cordula Groth)

A pioneering idea

As timelessly applicable as these founding goals are, their message was and is still clearly understood: Even with training at a conservatory behind them, young musicians often do not reach their career goal of working in a “top orchestra”. Or even clearer: The foundation of the OA can also be seen as a response to unsuccessful auditions for the Berliner Philharmoniker. The solo repertoire was often well prepared, but the sound, rhythmic presence and ultimately the unsatisfactory performance of particularly difficult orchestral passages revealed promising candidates to be unsuitable. As a result, not only the professional dreams and living of young musicians were at risk, but also the preservation of the orchestraʼs unique sound and playing traditions. Herbert von Karajan was not willing to accept this. The Berlin Wall presented enough of a difficulty, and any other obstacles had to be cleared out of the way so the best musicians from around the world would come to the Phiharmonie in Berlin.

Karajan was quickly able to convince music-loving directors of large companies of his new training model, and it was created in the form of a non-profit making organisation in 1972. Initially however, some of the Philharmoniker were sceptical. After all, there was and is no tougher admissions procedure than theirs, and even after they have passed the audition, the probationary period for young colleagues lasts a year longer than in other orchestras. As a result, there was and there still is agreement on the rigour of the selection process for prospective Academy students. In audition, all applicants must demonstrate their suitability for playing in a philharmonic orchestra and performing in concerts; a high standard of performance is expected, which will be increased and refined even more in the Academy.

Tradition and Future

With violist Wilfried Strehle

Tradition and Future

Rehearsal with Sir Simon Rattle (Photo: Andreas Knapp)

Strict admission criteria

Competition for a place at the Academy is as tough as the competition for the ever decreasing number of interesting positions on the international orchestral scene. Many young musicians travel here from afar, but only a very few succeed in securing a scholarship which involves obligations to the orchestra, the teachers, their fellow students – and also the sponsors, although their role is only as patrons. But their motivation is a demanding one, as they are participating in the preservation of a musical culture which expects the highest levels of performance, standards which not only require a lot of discipline, but which also bring a lot of pleasure, as much to the musicians themselves as to their concert audiences.

The fact that the founding goal of the OA – to train recruits for the Berliner Philharmoniker – is achieved again and again can be seen in the current 32 members out of the total of 128 Berliner Philharmoniker who are all graduates of the OA. Many of them are now active as Academy teachers. Generally speaking, todayʼs Academy students are regarded as possible colleagues of tomorrow, no matter whether in their own orchestra or another top ensemble.

Tradition and Future

With violinist and conductor Reinhard Goebel (Photo: Nikolaus Brade)

International role model

The concept of the OA was far-sighted and is a success story which serves as an international role model. Its significance is very highly and gratefully rated by its former students. This is demonstrated by the number of acceptances received to the invitation to the 40th anniversary celebrations. Most of the OA alumni would love to play an active musical role in the benefit concert – so many in fact, that the final 200 had to be chosen by lottery. Many others will however be coming along as members of the audience. In their chosen careers, they have all benefited from individual tuition, chamber music as an essential building block for musical excellence, and from playing as part of the orchestra.

There are always new students to experience this programme, and they are still young and are at a stage in their lives when they are not only very receptive but also enthusiastic. Suddenly they are sitting at a desk with their musical heroes, no longer at college, but being conducted by Karajan, Abbado, Rattle, and other renowned guest conductors. The special musical moments and major concerts they are involved in accompany them through their lives as valuable experiences. In due time, the sound and playing style are passed on to the next generation, preserving tradition and shaping the future.

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