Berlin's 'clarinet war' turns pianissimo

The Germans have dubbed it Klarinettenkrieg (clarinet war). It pits the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (generally considered the finest in the world) against its conductor, Herbert Von Karajan - a man many consider to be the world's finest living conductor.

It threatens the self-governing structure that makes the Berlin Philharmonic the envy of orchestras the world over.

And it raises such profound questions - about artistic autocracy vs. self-determination, about the source of artistic greatness, and about the future of one of Europe's most prestigious cultural institutions - that the mayor of Berlin, the city's Senate, and the international press have all entered the battlefield.

The latest salvos include the firing of a general manager, the resignation of a young female clarinetist, and the unprecedented 11th-hour substitution by Mr. Von Karajan of a rival orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic) for a concert June 11 in Salzburg, Austria.

''It must be the first time in history,'' says violinist Helmut Stern, the assistant concertmaster, ''that a conductor has gone so far as to fire his own orchestra.''

That orchestra, says Lorin Maazel, who has guest-conducted and recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic for over a quarter-century, is ''synonymous with the top.''

''What puts them there,'' he said in a backstage interview after a recent recording session, ''is that they have had only four conductors in their long history - all legends: (Hans Von Bulow, Artur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Von Karajan).'' Mr. Maazel describes the Philharmonic as ''the most tenacious, self-policing, selfnurturing orchestra in the world.''

The dispute dates from December 1982, when Von Karajan, in a move directly threatening that ''self-nurturing'' tradition, chose Sabine Meyer, then in her early 20s, to fill a two-year vacancy in the solo clarinetist chair.

The orchestra, which for more than a century has voted on whom it shall accept for membership, did not want her - feeling that, while she was a fine soloist, her tone did not integrate well with the orchestra.

An enraged Von Karajan, who had conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for 28 years, threatened to cancel the orchestra's lucrative recording, film, and television contracts until a compromise was made. The orchestra finally agreed to a one-year trial.

And so the dispute died down - although conductor and orchestra were reportedly not on speaking terms.

But May and June produced three new developments:

* Sabine Meyer said she was leaving, thus avoiding the showdown that might have occurred had orchestra members still, after her trial period, not accepted her.

* The Berlin Senate, against the will of Von Karajan, fired orchestra manager Peter Girth on June 12. In the words of Senate spokesman Winfried Fest, there had been ''a complete breakdown in the relationship of personal trust'' between Mr. Girth and the orchestra. At first, Girth had sided with Von Karajan and signed Miss Meyer without first putting the matter to a vote.

Antagonism surrounding the resignation and firing sparked Von Karajan's action to fly the Vienna Philharmonic musicians, at his own expense, to Salzburg for one concert to replace his own musicians.

* In an open letter to the newspapers, Von Karajan made several demands: complete power over audition procedures, full authority on hiring and firing managers, and final say on hiring and firing orchestra members.

Mr. Von Karajan's legendary status here makes the demands particularly thorny in an election year. Christian Democrats, like Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, are concerned that a dismissal of the conductor by the city might play into the hands of the Social Democrats vying for seats in City Hall. Von Karajan, an honorary citizen of Berlin for life, is also the conductor in chief of the symphony for life - a contract terminable only in extreme circumstances. He is credited with building the orchestra into Germany's most revered cultural institution.

But giving in to the demands, say musicians and observers alike, would irreparably damage the orchestra's fraternal sensibilities - said to be the strongest reason for its unequaled success.

The Berlin Senate has sent Mr. Von Karajan a moderately toned rejection of his demands - though details are being withheld from the press. The Senate, too, is still holding out for some sort of reconciliation short of legal action. But orchestra members say they can't imagine playing for Von Karajan again.

''This is the first time in history,'' says bearded percussionist Gernot Schultz, that the ''majority didn't rule. It affects the conscience and self-perception of all of us.''

''In other orchestras, the chief conductor decides who plays,'' he adds. ''But here everyone decides, and thus everyone feels more responsible for the product. . . .''

At this point, Mr. Girth and Mr. Von Karajan are keeping away from press and public, although Von Karajan agreed to confer with Mayor Diepgen. The musicians remain unified, and public opinion seems to have swung behind them. They even canceled a lucrative audiovisual contract to show that income is no issue.

The ball is now in the conductor's court, although the Berlin's season ended July 1 and most don't expect Von Karajan to act until the new season begins Aug. 24. One compromise might be to make Von Karajan sometime guest conductor - though most observers think he would never settle for that.

Mr. Stern, who has played in orchestras in Chicago, St. Louis, Rochester, N.Y., and Israel, says the Berlin Philharmonic was formed by musicians revolting against autocratic rule - and has survived many dictators since then, even the Nazis.

''We have really enjoyed sort of a self-determination in this orchestra - artistic determination - to a much greater extent than American orchestras or any other orchestras enjoy,'' he explains. ''And those orchestras were looking upon our structure as an example for what could be achieved.

''So we are fighting, not just for our own survival here as a big orchestra; we're fighting for the whole profession. Otherwise this could throw us back 200 years.''

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