Discover more from The Mill
The BBC lured a star conductor to Manchester. So why didn’t it work out?
Omer Wellber was “quite a coup” for the BBC Philharmonic - but he left last year with much less fanfare
By Mollie Simpson
Omer Meir Wellber was greeted like a conquering hero. Simon Webb, the BBC Philharmonic's director, pronounced him "one of the most sought after young conductors of his generation." The press agreed. “Wellber is arguably the most inspired musical appointment the BBC has made for years,” swooned the classical critic Richard Morrison in the pages of The Times, calling it “quite a coup”. Then 36 years old, the Israeli was appointed as the new chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in 2018. He was going to breathe new life into an orchestra that plays a vital role for the BBC from its base in Salford.
How could anyone live up to hype like that? But initially, Wellber did. In his debut as chief conductor, a performance of the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, critics noted the chemistry Wellber had with the orchestra. “Poise and emotion were held in faultless balance here,” the Guardian’s Tim Ashley wrote, predicting “a most exciting partnership between the BBC and its new conductor.” And Wellber was even making an impression outside the music press. One Guardian football writer compared one of Wellber’s outings at Bridgewater Hall (“His involvement is total: the performance his to command”) with the then-Manchester United manager José Mourinho.
But in August last year, the BBC posted a very short statement on Twitter announcing Wellber’s departure. “After making music and memories together for the past four years,” the star conductor had left Salford. There was no press coverage, and the statement received only four retweets.
It felt like a strange denouement — like a book that had been given the wrong ending. Some classical music watchers read between the lines: something had gone wrong between Omer Meir Wellber and the BBC Philharmonic. Others — including one who contacted The Mill at the time — knew it had.
‘A small flirt’
Despite his relative youth, Wellber was already a name in classical music when he arrived in Greater Manchester, having won praise for his work with the London Philharmonic and the Dresden opera. He was known for his commanding presence on the podium and his novel interpretations of classic works. On arrival, the Israeli said he was impressed by the “cultural vibe” of Manchester and promised to put his imprint on things. “At a time when most good orchestras sound the same — clean, transparent, efficient — my aim with the BBC Philharmonic will be to put a personal touch to the repertoire and sound.”
The Philharmonic, based in MediaCity, is considered one of the highest quality orchestras outside of London. It has around 80 players, 20 administrative staff and just one chief conductor. You might not have seen the orchestra play but you’ve undoubtedly heard it — either in its regular concerts on Radio 3 or when it is accompanying major BBC TV shows like Children In Need.
Major orchestras tend to appoint chief conductors who have done plenty of concerts already as a guest conductor, and therefore know the players well. The relationship between classical musicians and their leader is a mercurial and much-studied thing, contingent on countless variables and critical to creative success. Chemistry, in other words, is crucial. But Wellber had first worked with the BBC Philharmonic just months before his appointment in October 2018. Was it love at first sight, he was asked by The Times?
“We had a small flirt and it went well,” he replied.
The relationship got off to a promising start. “Omer wanted to throw out the rulebook and create something relevant and exciting for the musicians in the room,” says Ellis Coopey, a singer who performed with the Philharmonic at the Proms in 2019 and one of a dozen sources I spoke to for this piece, including players, staff members and people who have watched Wellber closely. “Working with him, and it really was with him not only under his leadership, was exciting.”
Sometimes Wellber would come into rehearsals with a maverick idea for how to adapt and perform a piece, but then he would work closely with his musicians to make it happen. It felt positive. An orchestra player remembers the maestro’s arrival as extremely special. “When he came in, I felt like we bonded,” they told me. “It worked, and that’s what I always remember with him, that he could really bring out good qualities.”
“He was very collaborative and he wanted to hear from the musicians,” agrees Coopey. “There are particular personalities with conductors across history who are tyrants and they want it at all costs and they will push members of the orchestra out if they challenge it. That wasn’t the case with him.”
“He’s an incredibly talented conductor, and he did make the orchestra play absolutely brilliantly,” says an administrator who was present in some rehearsals and concerts. “There’s no two ways about it. Musically, he made the orchestra sound really good and they did some really good concerts together.”
‘Something angry about him’
Early on in his tenure, in the summer of 2019, Wellber took his orchestra to the Proms, leading them in an unorthodox interpretation of Haydn’s The Creation. Some people watching in the Royal Albert Hall had the impression he’d taken the orchestra out of its comfort zone. “It didn’t come off as well as I expected it to,” Jessica Duchen, a classical music critic, told me. “It was obvious that this was someone who was very determined to do the piece this way,” says Peter Quantrill, another critic who was also in the crowd that night. “I got the feeling of someone who is not perhaps as used to negotiation and compromise as other leaders.”
That was an astute observation, and according to the people we’ve spoken to, it was starting to cause tensions between Wellber and the BBC Philharmonic, including the management. “Very quickly, things started to unravel,” says one source. It seems that as time went on, the romance between conductor and orchestra became more strained. “It’s like any human relationship, slowly you get to know them and all the ways they’re imperfect,” says someone who is close to the orchestra, reaching for a metaphor from the world of online dating. “You’re there like: ‘I thought you were a certified hottie on Tinder, and actually you snore really loudly’”.
A harsher side to Wellber is said to have emerged — someone who was happy to say “quite personal things” to players when they weren’t matching his standards. On one occasion, Wellber is alleged to have picked on an orchestra player, saying that their playing “sounded like a child”. (When The Mill contacted Wellber, he did not respond to the claims in this story or agree to an interview). A musician who worked with him in London says the Israeli had a short fuse. “I think musically, there was something angry about him.”
The relationship between the management of the orchestra and their star conductor became more difficult as well. According to a member of the administrative team at the Philharmonic, there would be days when the mood around Wellber was tense and uncomfortable. What was he like to work with, I asked the source? “You know the stereotype of the really male maestro, like big domineering, massive ego?” he asked in reply. I do.
The world of conducting has often been dominated by these egos. In the feature film Tár, showing in cinemas now, Cate Blanchett plays a female conductor called Lydia Tár as a “ruthlessly ambitious, amoral narcissist,” as one writer put it. “Major character flaws include deceit, habitual philandering with junior acolytes, and an unrepentant taste for revenge.” After watching the film, a celebrated female conductor complained about its portrayal of a woman with these traits, pointing out in the Sunday Times that “There are so many men — actual, documented men — this film could have been based on.”
There’s no suggestion from any of our sources that Wellber behaved anything like Blanchett’s character — that he was narcissistic or philandering, nor that he had an unrepentant taste for revenge. But the people I’ve spoken to do nevertheless place him firmly within the tradition of the “old school maestros”, an approach to conducting that tends to be associated with the legendary Daniel Barenboim, for whom Wellber worked as an assistant for two years in Berlin (another protégé of Barenboim’s, the dashing Domingo Hindoyan, recently took over the Liverpool Philharmonic).
It’s also an approach that has become less tolerated by a new generation of musicians who aspire to work within a more progressive culture. “There’s a movement in classical music towards collaborative approaches,” Jeffrey Brown, the editor of the classical music magazine VAN, told me. “And there’s a winding down of that era of these great maestro, dictatorial figures, and people saying ‘We want to be treated like the highly skilled experts that we are.’”
The missing maestro
What really put the relationship on the rocks was the growing sense among the players and the management of the BBC Philharmonic that Wellber’s heart wasn’t really in it. Conductors tend to be globe-trotting characters, often holding down one main role in addition to secondary and guest roles in other cities. For example, Sir Mark Elder, the longtime music director of Manchester’s premiere orchestra The Hallé, is only contracted to be in the city for set periods in the calendar. According to the press reports when he took the job, Wellber was planning to be in Manchester for 10 or 11 weeks a year.
But during the pandemic, we’ve been told it became difficult to pin him down. Wellber allegedly pulled out of several concerts, often at short notice and citing ill health. The mood among the players deteriorated. Then, in December 2020, a French opera magazine announced that Wellber had accepted a new job as the music director of the Vienna Volksoper, starting 2022. He was unclear about whether he would continue in his role at the Philharmonic while also working in Vienna.
Quite when Wellber and the BBC decided to part ways is hard to pin down. One source says it was “clear that Wellber was on his way out,” before last year’s Proms, and that it was agreed the concerts in London would be his swansong. “Instead, he dropped out of the concerts last-minute, leaving lots of people in the shit,” the source says.
The BBC didn’t respond to our request for an interview, and when we asked them about the details in this story, a spokesperson sent the same short statement they posted online last year: “After making music and memories together for the past four years, the BBC Philharmonic said goodbye to its previous Chief Conductor, Omer Meir Wellber in Summer 2022. The BBC Philharmonic wished him well for his opening season at the Volksoper Wien and thanked him for the final two concerts together at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany. The BBC Philharmonic appointed John Storgårds as its new Chief Conductor in November 2022.”
It’s a low-wattage statement by anyone’s standards and it barely attempts to mask how disappointing Wellber’s spell in Greater Manchester ended up being. The BBC had bet big on a star conductor and it hadn’t paid off.
“Omer is a really strange yet quite revealing case,” one classical music watcher told me when we discussed Wellber’s tenure last week. “I can understand the motivation to hire him — to take the BBC Philharmonic to new heights, inject a bit of dynamism into their public-facing concerts, and turn around an orchestra who had been treading water for a bit. The opposite happened — the truth was, Omer was hardly there, when he was, it sounded stressful and uninspiring.”
The timing is unfortunate. The BBC is preparing deep budget cuts after having its funding frozen by the government, and those savings will include “adapting the funding model” for its orchestras, meaning some will have to look for alternative sources of income. “The people who really suffer from this are the orchestra though, and that's the most important thing about the story,” says the same source. “The Philharmonic do so much legwork for the BBC, as their go-to orchestra for all sorts of stuff and are really fighting hard to make their case for survival for when the inevitable round of BBC cuts come. With Radio 3 now moving more of its output to Salford, maybe there's more of a feeling of relief, but for someone like Wellber to come in, annoy everyone, and send the whole thing backwards is hugely frustrating for all parties.”
One of the players I spoke to agrees. “It created this not very stable feeling,” they told me.
On Thursday night, I was at Philharmonic Studios in MediaCity for a performance of soundscapes by the modern composer Anna Clyne. The evening was conducted not by a superstar maestro but by students from the Royal Northern College of Music. It was an appreciative crowd but not a large one. “I was astonished by how few people are here,” said one concertgoer, who recently moved to Manchester from Berlin, where he was spoiled by having “some of the best orchestras in the world”.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why the BBC couldn’t keep its big signing motivated. “It’s hard for Manchester to compete with Europe,” says a musician in Manchester. “Salaries are a bit too low, and the audiences aren’t there yet.”
The new chief conductor, John Storgårds, has been guest conducting with the Philharmonic for the last decade and is generally considered to be a safe pair of hands. “He’s got no sense of his own importance,” says Andrew Mellor, a classical music critic. “He’s all about the music.” Quantrill agrees, and adds: “It seems to be a harmonious and stable relationship.”
“It was destabilising that Omer left,” the orchestra player says, and they sound genuinely disheartened. “I felt quite sad, but at the same time it wasn’t my job to deal with it somehow. He was the chief conductor and it was a big deal but at the same time I can’t get too emotionally drained or too happy about it because then you can’t really do your job.”