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Will they, won’t they? Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons failed to clinch election (photo: Guy Evans, via Flickr)

If elections were predictable there would be no point in having them. Think back to Winston Churchill’s gloom in July 1945 on being dumped by the nation he had saved, to Harry Truman’s gleam at confounding the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, to the Michael Portillo deflation, the Ed Balls drop, the Bush Florida recount, those defining instants of democracy in motion. Shock therapy is what keeps politics alive and voters interested. Without it, we’d be electorally lobotomised.

Days after the UK general election, we were once more on the edge of our seats watching the doors of a Lutheran church on the outskirts of Berlin, awaiting the nailing of a proclamation. It was a Monday morning, May 11, and 123 permanent players of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were being counted into the building and relieved of their mobile phones. It was a 99.6 per cent turnout; only one eligible voter missing. At 10am, the doors were locked.

What happened inside over the next eleven and a half hours may never be fully recounted since the Berliners are a circumspect breed, but when the doors were finally unlocked late that night, the musicians trooped out into uncharted territory, unsure of their future direction.

Until then, it had been a day of frayed nerves. In past elections, the players’ debate was tightly focused and a result was reached soon after lunch. The result was faxed around the world in mid-afternoon and appeared on the following day’s front pages. On both occasions, the vote went against the odds.

In 1990, the New York agent Ronald Wilford nearly fell off his chair on being told that his diffident client Claudio Abbado had defeated the bristling frontrunner, Lorin Maazel. In 1999, I was sent a brace of champagne by an EMI boss after telling him that Simon Rattle had pipped Daniel Barenboim to the post. In the days of record prosperity, chance used to be a fine thing.

But in 2015 the world is online and impatient for news. Journalists hopped from foot to foot outside the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, complaining that there were no loos. An announcement was scheduled for 2pm, as usual. That deadline passed. A bulletin was promised for 5:30.

Der Spiegel flashed a joke page online, declaring victory for the German candidate, Christian Thielemann, 56. It went viral. So did a fake tweet in favour of the Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, 36, purporting to come from the horn player Sarah Willis and unsuspectingly reposted by Gramophone magazine. Both rumours were refuted by orchestra officials, awaiting a puff of white smoke from within the pristine chapel.

By teatime, there had been six ballots with no majority outcome. Thielemann’s supporters, mostly German players of the older generation, had been unable to win enough votes from younger, more globally-minded musicians who were fighting for Nelsons. Thielemann’s detractors argued that he was too right-wing for cosmopolitan Berlin; his supporters responded that Nelsons, though gifted, was an unknown commodity, newly installed at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and possibly not available in time for Rattle’s departure, in mid-2018. Both sides were at such partisan fever pitch that the possibility of a compromise candidate — Leipzig’s Riccardo Chailly — was barely considered.

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