Breaking a taboo on the way to a new custom?

The Kritische Orchester® gathers for the 20th time in 2024 for the international workshop for interactive conducting. The history of a project that is still innovative today. By Lisa Valdivia

It was a taboo breaker when the first Critical Orchestra® was organised in 2002: Orchestra musicians came together for the first time to give young conducting talents feedback during rehearsals - a situation that is not part of everyday working life between orchestra and conductor per se; not even today, when the Critical Orchestra® is coming together for the 20th time. However, a new expectation of the leadership style of conductors has now become established: The relationship between the conductor and his or her instrument, the orchestra, should be characterised by mutual respect and trust. Assertiveness based primarily on hierarchical pressure is generally viewed critically. And so, more than 20 years after its first meeting, the Critical Orchestra® is increasingly hitting the nerve of the times and is a valuable contribution to the development of this type of working atmosphere. 

The idea came from Klaus Harnisch, who developed it in the course of his work for the support programme of the Directorate for Theatre and Orchestra at the Ministry of Culture of the GDR and, from 1990, for the Conducting Forum (then: Conducting Forum) of the German Music Council. It was intended to be a supplement to conventional lessons by a conductor and more of a workshop in which conductors and orchestras met as equals.

With the rector of the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin at the time, Prof Christhard Gössling, the idea was supported and the project was included in the school's programme for the first time in the winter semester of 2001/2002. Further support was found in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (now the Konzerthausorchester Berlin), the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, which took over the patronage of the project in 2006. In the early days of the Critical Orchestra®, Prof. Christian Ehwald acted as a conducting mentor to the young talents and is now taking up this honorary position again for the 20th anniversary. Other renowned conductors such as Lothar Zagrosek and Simone Young acted in this position with the desired restraint in the background to conduct piano rehearsals and be available as contact persons for the participants.

Christhard Gössling, then principal trombonist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, initially took over as artistic director. Prof Lothar Strauß, 1st concertmaster of the Staatskapelle Berlin, has held this position since 2014, i.e. for 10 years. The principle has always been that the Kritisches Orchester® works and decides artistically autonomously. This aspect was further expanded with Prof. Lothar Strauß in that the selection of course participants has since been made by members of the Critical Orchestra® via video applications instead of by an external committee during auditions. In addition, the event has been given a competitive character through a three-stage structure: the orchestra decides from round to round which conductor should progress to the next round and thus receive more rehearsal time with him or her.

Until 2015, project coordinator Klaus Harnisch, together with the many volunteer musicians, made this conducting workshop at the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin a much sought-after event. In 2016, its realisation was handed over to the Forum Dirigieren in cooperation with the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin. Then as now, the project also poses major challenges for the management, as there is no existing ensemble and its director on staff. The orchestra's full complement of volunteer professional musicians can therefore be described as the most demanding task to be mastered for this project.

However, considering the great international interest in the Critical Orchestra® in professional circles, it seems to be worth all the effort: While there were 70 applications to take part in this workshop as a conductor in 2016, a record 190 applications were received in 2022. A certain coronavirus effect can probably still be assumed here, as the project could not take place in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. However, 130 conductors also applied in 2023, and in the anniversary year, the participants were selected from 103 valid applications from 31 countries.
As journalist Dr Marco Frei critically analyses in the 2nd issue of Accelerando (the magazine of the Forum Dirigieren), it is questionable whether "the" new leadership style among conductors really exists. The leadership styles are as different as the personalities, but a general tendency nevertheless becomes clear in his research: conductors and orchestral musicians are increasingly striving for constructive cooperation and thus make enforcement methods appear antiquated due to power imbalances. The Critical Orchestra® makes an enormous contribution to this development, for which we cannot thank the volunteer musicians enough! 

The Critical Orchestra® is funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media and unisono Deutsche Musik- und Orchestervereinigung e.V. (German Music and Orchestra Association).

More information about the Critical Orchestra can be found in the anniversary magazine for the 20th Critical Orchestra - Conducting Forum (in German only!)

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