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Sir Simon Rattle’s blazing trail

FROM THE ARCHIVE. In 2002 (year one in Exberliner terms), the English conductor took over the Berlin Philharmonic, injecting a bit of fire into the our city's acclaimed institution.

Image for Sir Simon Rattle's blazing trail
Photo by Peter Shevlin

Originally published in Issue 9, October 10-23, 2002

Jazz in the Philharmonic? Yes, a jazz ensemble playing with the Philharmonic Orchestra. Mark Anthony Turnage’s piece “Blood on the Floor” was composed after his brother died of an overdose. Even the ringing mobile, (Rattle’s baton drawn across his throat in response), and the cacophony of coughing between each movement couldn’t break the electric current of excitement coursing through the audience.

Something is changing at the Phil. It’s ablaze with the new ideas and energy of the nicknamed “Feuerkopf”. Sir Simon Rattle, famous for his crazy curly Barnet* and his head crackling with ideas has finally taken his place on the Philharmoniker podium with unabashed pleasure. Like an exotic crested bird, arms swirling, tail-coat flapping, body one minute swooping close to the violins, next rising up as though being buoyed by the music, he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, now HIS orchestra and reputed to be one of the world’s best.

His body goes through many transformations to pull the notes, the very soul of the music from the musicians. Bony fingers beckon and beg for it, eyes sparkle in a face grinning then grimacing, chin jutting, his cummerbund twisting in the commotion. The orchestra seems to be glowing, faithfully following his movements like a doting lover. The reputed greatest living conductor and the BPO, are united at last. No wonder the members of the orchestra seem to be chuckling to themselves with delight despite all the hard work and tricky new pieces.

They voted in secret for Rattle in June 1999. Through years of negotiations he insisted on, and managed to get, vital pay increases for them. Salaries had dropped previously by 50%. Rattle refused more lucrative positions so that he could work with them. It’s true that his £500,000 is hardly a pittance, but what is touching Berliners deeply is the fact that Sir Rattle is really settling in. He’s speaking German, and buying a house. He knows that Berlin is on its knees and has started to change the Phil into a self-supporting foundation.

“I can’t see myself going anywhere,” Sir Rattle confidently says. This was the man who stayed with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for 18 years, dragging it up from obscurity to fame.

“These first weeks have been the most astonishing musical experience of my life. I had no idea it could work at such a level and work with so much joy, we’re just all very happy people at the moment. This was always at least a ten year commitment but all of us are thinking in the long-term.”

Berlin needs this man, someone with guts and a vision for the future. At 47 he has a future.

Children are part of his vision. The BPO usually plays to an older, cultured elite.

“So many young people in particular seem unaware of the central and essential role music can play music is not a luxury, but a need, and it should be a vital and essential part of everybody’s life.”

Just to imagine Kreuzberg kids playing with Rattle and his musical virtuosos inside Sharoun’s amazing building, would have been unthinkable a few months ago. But, the Zukunft@Bphil project has already made that happen.

“I never thought I’d see my son performing in the Philharmonic,” squealed an elated mother above the racket of tired but ecstatic children in carnival masks after their version of Ravel’s “L’enfant et Les Sortileges”.

“Children were often told, ‘music is good for you, eat it like you would your vegetables. If you teach a kid football they’re going to kick a ball, if they learn about poetry they write their own poems. Why was it that kids were being told to sit passively and listen to music, surely that’s not the right way!”

Sir Simon didn’t need this kind of encouragement as a child. He came from a musical family. His father had a jazz band, his sister taught him to read a score at five. Perhaps it was his determination not to be sent to a special school that has helped him keep his feet on the ground, and allowed him to see what was missing in other children’s lives. Now young Berliners, whether they’re 10- year-olds or slouching teenagers in “gangsta pants”, are composing music, making films, and costumes and having an impact!

Sir Rattle’s ascent to the top spot would have been perfect, if it wasn’t for his attack on Brit Artists in “Die Zeit”. “This English, very biographically orientated art is bullshit!” “Simon Rattle is a twat and his music is boring….he shouldn’t bother buying a return ticket back from Berlin!” fumed artist Dinos Chapman in response.

Sir Simon announced that Germans have a greater appreciation of the arts and a willingness to provide financial backing. More Brits bristled.

“This (the BPO) is a place where you can and should be able to do absolutely anything.”

Lively programmes, mixes of classics and new works are his trademark. “It’s absolutely not my taste,” a portly Berlinerin with orange hair murmured to her friend after listening to Lindberg. Oh dear, can Berlin live up to his expectations? “They’re a smart audience, I really don’t worry. As one older gentleman said to me, ‘I used to come here twice a week but then I realised I was only hearing the same pieces being played the same way, very beautifully, and now I feel that I’ve another reason to come back again.’ Oh, I wanted to hug him!”

Sir Simon Rattle, who has described himself as an adapter plug between musicians and audience, who looks and acts as though he’s been plugged into the mains, is able to turn on a current that electrifies the audience, and Berlin like no other. Want to try it? Turn off your phone!

*Barnet is “Barnet Fair” cockney rhyming slang for Hair!!

Originally published in Issue 9, October 10-23, 2002