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Simon Rattle | Picture: Simon Fowler

When Claudio Abbado announced his resignation as principal conductor in 1998, he presented the Berliner Philharmoniker with a major challenge, namely to find a personality to get the orchestra ready for the 21st century. With Sir Simon Rattle, then Artistic Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the musicians got themselves a leader who started off with the objective of forming the Philharmoniker into a “quintessentially European orchestra.”

Like his predecessor, the British man had already been associated with the Philharmonic musicians over the course of many years of inspiring collaboration. Since his debut with the Philharmonic in 1987 with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Simon Rattle had conducted the orchestra 58 times. He favours an even more transparent orchestra sound, confronts the musicians with conductors who are considered specialists in historical performance practice, and focuses more strongly on the works of Viennese classicism as well as contemporary composers – including Hans Werner Henze, Thomas Adès, Jörg Widmann, Sofia Gubaidulina and Heiner Goebbels.

Particularly good press was received for his cyclical interpretations of the symphonies of Brahms, Sibelius and Mahler, as well as a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion staged by Peter Sellars – for Rattle “the most important thing we’ve ever done here.”  While he is in office, the orchestra is continuing the rejuvenation of its musicians.

The Education Programme

And that’s not all. Quite in line with the intention to get classical music out of its elitist enclave and to identify new pathways to music for the audience, Rattle established the Berlin Philharmonic’s Education Programme. With this the orchestra wants to reach people who thus far have had little or no access to classical music, particularly children and young people. 

They have had the opportunity to discover their own creative resources in many projects. High points of the education work thus far include the annual dance projects in the arena Berlin in the Treptow district. The presentation of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which the Berliner Philharmoniker and the choreographer Royston Maldoom prepared with young people from Berlin, caused quite a sensation in 2003.

The prize-winning film Rhythm Is It! documents this project’s development process. The Berliner Philharmoniker have received numerous prizes and honours for their education work. In 2007 – the orchestra’s 125th anniversary – the ensemble and Sir Simon Rattle were appointed International UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors.

Students cheering and throwing Simon Rattle into the air
Picture: Monika Rittershaus

The orchestra of the 21st century

Simon Rattle’s era also turns out to be forward-looking in completely different areas. In 2002, the year he assumed the position, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, until then a department of the Berlin Senate, and the Berliner Philharmoniker GbR, charged with exercising media rights, consolidated to become the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation. 

In 2009, the orchestra went online with the Digital Concert Hall, enabling classical music fans all around the world to experience concerts by the Philharmonic over the Internet. This was an innovative project that could only be realised thanks to the support of the Deutsche Bank – as was the case for the Education Programme. 

The concert tours of the Berliner Philharmoniker under the aegis of Rattle have also led to new horizons: they travelled to Abu Dhabi for the first time in 2010; since 2013 the Easter Festival no longer takes place in Salzburg, but rather in Baden-Baden. In January 2013 Sir Simon Rattle announced that he will not extend his contract with the Berlin Philharmonic, which comes to an end in 2018.

In the last years of his tenure, he completed a number of projects that were of significance to him: the semi-staged opera performances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, directed by Peter Sellars, and the new production of Wagner’s Parsifal at the 2018 Baden-Baden Easter Festival; he also initiated the Tapas series, in which he commissioned renowned contemporary composers to compose short pieces.

In his last concert in the Philharmonie, he stepped down as chief conductor with Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the work with which he had once made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.