Learning from the pros

Fifty Years of the Karajan Academy

(Photo: Peter Adamik)

“I’m completely bowled over!” Herbert von Karajan was no fan of big words, but his response was positively euphoric when he learnt that an orchestral academy was to receive official funding at the Berliner Philharmoniker. Half a century later, this institution, which now bears Karajan’s name, has turned out to be one of the great international success stories. Many Happy Returns!

In a television interview that he gave in 1972 Herbert von Karajan described the foundation of the Orchestral Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on 25 June 1972 as “a moment of great happiness and good fortune”. In its day this Orchestral Academy was unique, but this summer we are able to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of an institution which, now named after its founder, proved a hugely influential trail-blazer, especially in the German-speaking world. It is now one of the orchestra’s most fundamental identifying features.

Celebrate the birthday with the Karajan Academy and Kirill Petrenko


At the time that the Academy was founded, the work that Karajan and his orchestra were undertaking together had undoubtedly reached a new high. From this perspective, the foundation of the Orchestral Academy more or less halfway through Karajan’s tenure as the orchestra’s principal conductor may be seen as one of the late, central and lasting innovations of the era that bears his name. But it also pointed in the direction of a future when the orchestra no longer had Karajan as its artistic director. As Karajan explained in the aforementioned interview, “Anyone who is in charge of a community and who genuinely cares about that community is bound to ask himself ‘What will happen when I’m no longer here?’” There is no doubt that Karajan’s successors benefited even more than he did from the success of his new institution.

Opportunity for exceptional talent

Even during the 1960s Karajan was already exercised by the problem of how to foster a new generation of musicians. The trades union responsible for German orchestral musicians likewise complained at this time that it often took years to find adequate players for important positions in leading ensembles. The reputation of the orchestra was in stark contrast at this time with the unattractive location of Berlin as a city cut off from the rest of the Federal Republic of Germany. Since 1961 the Berlin Wall had placed the orchestra at a marked disadvantage, more especially when the once plentiful supply of East German players who applied to join the orchestra had begun to dry up. The Academy’s statutes explicitly proclaimed its aim of “promoting and increasing Berlin’s appeal and attractiveness as a city that is a centre of music”.

 

Support from the business world

The Academy is now funded out of the public purse, but it initially owed its existence in the main to the commitment of a number of private benefactors and businesses. Suffice it to mention only a few of the leading actors from the early days of the Academy:  Walter Casper, a member of the board of directors of Metallgesellschaft AG and Jürgen Ponto, the spokesman for the board of directors of the Dresdner Bank. The project was revealed to a wider public at the Dresdner Bank’s centenary celebrations in Berlin in September 1972. The institution’s private sponsors continue to this day to be known as “Mäzene” from the Latin Maecenas.

Always a matter for the boss

It has been with whole-hearted enthusiasm that Karajan’s successors as principal conductor have taken over as the Academy’s music directors. Claudio Abbado had always been keen to promote the careers of young musicians and in 2002 he bequeathed the assets of his own foundation to the Foundation for the Promotion of the Karajan Academy that had been established two years earlier. Within this framework a Claudio Abbado Composition Prize has been awarded at irregular intervals since 2006.

Herbert von Karajan
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Under Sir Simon Rattle the Academy performed unusual works such as Hans Zender’s adaptation of Winterreise and Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, while Kirill Petrenko’s first project was an acclaimed fully-staged production of Puccini’s opera Suor Angelica.

Former scholarship holder, now member of the Berliner Philharmoniker

The success of the Karajan Academy is clear from an impressive array of statistics: between its foundation and Karajan’s death in 1989, a total of only ten scholarship-holders (nine men and one woman) were accepted into his orchestra, whereas the number of players who can now look back on a period of training in the Academy is currently forty-three – more than a third of the orchestra’s 121 members. Over the last fifty years, it may or may not be a coincidence that the same number of players – fifty – have graduated from the Academy to the main orchestra. Out of the almost eight hundred scholarship-holders who have attended the Academy during this time a high percentage of them now hold positions in other leading orchestras.

In February 2020, the Karajan Academy performed Giacomo Puccini's opera “Suor Angelica” under the baton of Kirill Petrenko.
(Photo: Michael Trippel)

The present anniversary also provides us with an opportunity to pay tribute to Karajan as what we might now call a “diversity manager”: in 1972 the orchestra was very “German” and exclusively male but thanks to the Academy it is now incomparably more international, with a higher proportion of women. Approximately half of the current scholarship-holders are women, while musicians from a total of eighteen different nations are currently enrolled on its courses.  Word has now got out that it makes a lot of sense to have an institution that is directly connected with the orchestra and one, moreover, where the demanding art of orchestral playing is taught and learnt to the highest standards. In Berlin alone there are now no fewer than seven orchestral academies. Since May 2017 the original institution that Karajan set up in 1972 is now officially known as the Karajan Academy, a term that had long been current within the organization itself. This change of name reflects the fact that the Academy is one of the central elements in the vast artistic and institutional legacy that Herbert von Karajan bequeathed to posterity.

This text is the abridged version of an article by Benedikt von Bernstorff for the magazine Phil (May/June 2022).

 

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