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German maestro to take baton from Barenboim at Berlin opera

AFP — Berlin said Wednesday that German maestro Christian Thielemann would succeed world-renowned conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim as general musical director of its State Opera following his resignation due to ill health.

Barenboim, 80, announced in January that he was stepping down after three decades at the fabled institution, one of Europe’s most prestigious classical music venues, following a diagnosis with a “serious neurological condition.”

Berlin’s top culture official Joe Chialo said Thielemann, who has frequently stepped in to conduct the opera’s Staatskapelle house orchestra, would succeed Barenboim from September 2024.

Chialo told reporters the choice of Thielemann was the “wish of the orchestra,” calling him the “perfect successor” to Barenboim representing “the highest musical excellence.”

Thielemann, 64, said he would respect the “canon” of musical greats in his initial five-year term while taking a page from cities like New York in offering cheaper, shorter matinee performances to lure younger audiences.

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But he said the operas themselves were more relevant than ever.

“The issues they deal with are the issues of life,” he said, including family dramas and the #MeToo movement against sexual violence. “But it’s up to us to sell it to people.”

Asked whether his style would differ from the notoriously hard-charging Barenboim, Thielemann described himself as “someone who likes to listen.”

The venue on the Unter den Linden boulevard is one of three opera houses in the German capital.

Thielemann, a Berlin native and one of the classical musical world’s most in-demand stars, is known for his passion for the music of Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss and, in particular, Richard Wagner.

His production last year of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Staatsoper “was unanimously described as phenomenal,” the daily Berliner Zeitung said.

His outings at the venerable Bayreuth Festival of Wagner operas have also been well received.

Thielemann is still under contract as chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden until next year and is seen as having elevated it to one of the top orchestras in the German-speaking world.

He previously served as general music director of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper but resigned in 2004 over a funding dispute with the city.

Thielemann had often been shortlisted to lead the Berlin Philharmonic — founded in 1882 and seen by many as the best orchestra in the world — but lost out to competitors.

Barenboim’s surprise resignation in January touched off fierce speculation about his replacement, with Thielemann considered a favorite.

However his packed schedule of engagements for years to come on stages in Vienna, Salzburg and Milan led observers to wonder whether he was interested in the job.

Barenboim has described Thielemann, who began working with him as a 19-year-old assistant at the Deutsche Oper, as a close friend and colleague although they have also cultivated a fierce artistic rivalry.

Chialo read a letter from Barenboim praising Thielemann’s “extraordinary musical talent” that was apparent even as a teenager. “He has developed since then into one of the most outstanding conductors of our time.”

Barenboim was born in Argentina to Jewish parents. He has been acclaimed for a stellar career which saw him begin performing internationally as a pianist from the age of 10. He moved to Israel as a teen and later became a leading conductor.

He earned further renown when he co-created a foundation and orchestra to promote co-operation among young musicians from Israel and Arab nations.

He also founded the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which trains gifted musicians mainly from the Middle East and North Africa for a professional career.

Despite his ill health, he has taken the stage regularly this year, including at a sold-out performance in August at Berlin’s open-air Waldbuehne of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra bringing together Israeli and Arab musicians.

The conductor said in January that his more than 30 years at the Staatsoper had been “musically and personally inspiring in every way.”