December 2003

Simon Rattle on working together with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Excerpts from interviews with the Tagesspiegel and the San Francisco Chronicle

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Simon Rattle on working together with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Excerpts from interviews with the Tagesspiegel and the San Francisco Chronicle

by Nancy Chapple

Christiane Peitz from Berlin's most respected newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, conducted a very interesting interview with Simon Rattle about his work with the Berlin Philharmonic. The complete text in German can be found at the Tagesspiegel.

A few excerpts (translated into English by Nancy Chapple):

Rattle: ... Making music is not only concerned with singing, but also with the rhythm of language, the natural emphasis on the musical syllables. At the beginning I constantly said: The last note is not the loudest just because it's the last one. No matter how loud you say "Beethoven", you never say Beethovén. At some point they stopped playing the last note loudest just so that I'd stop telling them off. By the way, getting louder on each note like that is a Karajan legacy.
After just this one year, the musicians work together differently. They're much more cooperative; there's more sympathy, less competition. ... It's like in jazz: they communicate, give each other cues; they're in eye contact. The first violinist knows when the basses change harmonies, and at that moment he smiles at the bassist. It's not about pride, about arrogance: We can do this and we'll just keep a straight face. No, it's about joy, even about fun - like in rock music. That's the real adventure.

Tagesspiegel: [And you haven't] yet taken on a position in America as music director?

Rattle: Sometimes it's been very tempting. But I prefer being where the music has its roots. The music comes from Europe.

Tagesspiegel: From old Europe.

Rattle: (laughs) Thanks to Donald Rumsfeld, we're proud of this term. In Europe, classical music is a permanent component of culture. In America, it's a small market segment. Big cities treat themselves to a concert hall like a library or a baseball team: as part of what constitutes a civilised society. That's what you're supposed to do, but it's not an essential part of life. And the audience is a small, straightforward group. Who can afford the expensive tickets anyway! Though some of my American colleagues, like Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles, are endeavoring to reach a younger mixed audience. As music director in America, it would be my job to make it clear to people that it's not all about entertainment, but rather about something essential and existential.

When the Philharmonic played in San Francisco, Joshua Kosman, music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote an interesting article on Rattle's decision in favor of a European orchestra, stressing the basic differences between European and American orchestras (the complete article in English, published on Nov. 23, 2003, can be found at :


"'I couldn't work within the American subscription system,' [Rattle] told David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month. 'They make an enormous effort for me when I'm there to give me enough time to do what I need, but it's too little time.' ...

"The biggest difference at the moment between European and American orchestras does not have to do with repertoire, or funding, or level of execution, or interpretive approaches - though these issues, and many others as well, continue to matter.

"Rather, the crucial distinction is that American audiences still need to be sold - constantly, repeatedly, and with tireless effectiveness - on the very premise of orchestral music. No conductor of an American orchestra, not even in the bastions of old-world Europhilia along the East Coast, can ever entirely take for granted the importance of what he's doing.

"For many music directors, especially the Europeans who still constitute nearly the entire conductorial population of the United States, that uncertainty can rankle. I always felt that Herbert Blomstedt, during his tenure here, was both galled and saddened to be living among people who didn't simply take it for granted - as he and his European audiences did - that regularly revisiting the Bruckner symphonies, say, was an essential part of a meaningful life."