Author: Shirley Apthorp
ca. 6 minutes

Sir Simon Rattle | Picture: Monika Rittershaus

After 16 years as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle is now leaving the orchestra. In our conversation, he looks back on a time that made him a Berliner and gave the Philharmoniker a new role in the community.

It all began in November 1987. At that time, a young man with wild curls stood helpless in front of the main entrance to the Berlin Philharmonie, heavily laden with a huge suitcase in which were the orchestral parts for Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. He was excited and nervous, Rattle says, and so he decided not to say a word until the first break in the rehearsal and just to make music with the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

The result was overwhelming: “I had never had an experience like that before. It was really like finding a voice. I was just some strange, very very hairy young guy. And I have to say the orchestra were incredibly generous. And quite sweet and fun.” The consequences of this debut of the then 32-year-old are well known: Simon Rattle was initially a welcome guest on the podium of the orchestra – and on 1 September 2002 its chief conductor. When he ends his tenure after 16 years, he will again conduct Mahler’s Sixth in one of his farewell concerts, thus “coming full circle”.

“A selfish decision”

His predecessor Claudio Abbado was the first chief conductor in the history of the orchestra who left this post alive. And now Rattle is the first chief conductor to leave it alive and well. “I’m not convinced that you can keep your health intact after a certain amount of time here. It really was, in a way, also a selfish decision of saying: whatever it is, it’s so hard, and so stressful, that you’d better be careful.” But for the Liverpool-born Rattle, thinking of himself and his family means living in Berlin, although he will be working in England in the future.

Since last September, he has been music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. London is an exciting city, he says, but not a good place for families. In Berlin, on the other hand, he feels a “permanent foreigner”; perhaps a Berliner, but certainly not German. After all he met his Czech wife Magdalena Kožená here on the neutral ground of a culture in which neither grew up. So Berlin has become their shared home, and their children are Berliners. The decision to stay here was made unanimously at a family meeting.

As is fitting, Rattle ends his tenure in Berlin with a concert in the Waldbühne at the end of June. "The first thought was – you CAN’T do the end of a season here and not do Waldbühne. This is our audience, this is the city! I still don’t know what my very last notes with the orchestra will be. Because much as I love Berliner Luft, I cannot have that as the last note. I’m just deciding – I mean, it could be both – whether I should do Brexit irony and do Pomp and Circumstance, or whether I should just do universal irony and do Liberty Bell, which is course ‘And now for something completely different,’ the theme from Monty Python.”

“It is still a mystery”

Becoming a Berliner was a gradual process for Rattle. He learned the language in an ad hoc manner, grasping for meaning long before he mastered any sense of grammar or structure. “You shouldn’t think for one moment that what you’re speaking is actually German.” In the meantime Rattles German has of course got better. And how has the orchestra changed in the 16 years of his tenure? “I remember when I recorded Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder in 2002, I said to the orchestra, 'Everything about this piece is perfect for you and your tradition and the way you play – except for the waiting!' Of course an enormous amount about them is the same. But the speed of actual response to motions and to each other is faster. That I can see.”

But this orchestra is unlike any orchestra he has ever worked with. “The way in which everyone plays together and responds to each other – it’s not like an orchestra. It’s like an absolutely gigantic string quartet, with all the arguments and verbal violence and frustrations of a string quartet. And to really learn something – they take about as long as a string quartet. But then when it’s learned, then it is really there.” The orchestra has changed over the years. “And the development happens over years – not only over three concerts. There is some kind of secret of how it works, but God knows, nobody knows how. All I’m saying is, it’s still a mystery.” Each chief conductor has brought a different yet characteristic sound to the orchestra. “Absolutely,” says Rattle. “And Karajan was a huge shift from Furtwängler. He said to me, during these talks we had, ‘You have no idea how difficult it was for the first five years to get the orchestra to change anything!’ Which was fascinating to remember — that also he found that. It just does take those years. Because it really does work. The times when it works at its very best are astonishing.”

Reaching that point, however, is not easy. “This orchestra gives itself a difficult road to get there. But once you’ve gone over the road, and you’ve taken all the thorns out of your feet, it can really be worth it. It’s not only difficult for conductors. It’s difficult for them as well.” Does the orchestra somehow needs an element of struggle? “Yes. I think this orchestra was born in struggle, and will always be in that state. I mean, I think that’s written on the box.”

“We can be there”

Almost ten years ago, Rattle said in an interview about the Berliner Philharmoniker that this orchestra burns. He still admits to that today. “Absolutely. Put your hands too close… you just have to be a little bit careful of where the sparks are. But it's very interesting. You don’t have to beg them for passion. You have to beg them for all kinds of other things... but that is something extraordinary. This feeling of the collective. Look, they are the Mastersingers. They are this guild. And we have to never forget that we are not part of that guild. That is really true. We can be there. We can assist. But they are the guild. And that's very unusual. And of course all great orchestras have a kind of self-will, a feeling of what they are. But this is very special.”

In addition to a shorter reaction time, Rattle has also given the orchestra a wider repertoire and a greater awareness of its role in the community. "When I came, and over the years, there was a huge feeling that they wanted to explore more repertoire, they wanted not to be uncomfortable in all kinds of areas, says Rattle. “Part of the job was really to build this, and to make it function in all those ways.”

 Whether the orchestra was thinking of expanding its community outreach when deciding on Rattle is unknown; in any case, the education projects during his tenure have changed the view of many musicians on their role in the city. “It is something that they were curious about, and interested in, and willing to do. And of course there’s a quite sizeable core of people in the orchestra for whom that is also very important. The world has changed an enormous amount. And they are in an incredibly privileged position, whether they realise it or not. I think they are now more part of the beating heart of the city.”