Rattle Makes Smooth Transition To Berlin Philharmonic

Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

During the past several weeks, one of the most highly anticipated events in the classical music world of the 21st century has been unfolding in the heart of Europe, as iconoclastic British conductor Sir Simon Rattle has taken charge of his new orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic.

Though that may sound rather portentous given the youth of the new century, the pairing of the charismatic, tousle-haired 47-year-old explorer with the iconic Old World ensemble -- with all of the contradictions and potential that combination implies -- has captured the attention of classical music lovers worldwide. Announced three years ago, the union seemed unlikely, despite a history of successful collaborations: Rattle made numerous guest appearances in Berlin during his extraordinary 18-year tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

In 1999, a year after he left his Birmingham post, Rattle and Berlin made a revelatory recording of Mahler's "Symphony No. 10" for EMI Classics, the label for which Rattle has recorded for more than 25 years. That disc not only became a worldwide best seller, but it also garnered a Gramophone Award and a Grammy Award.

Still, even Rattle had assumed that another candidate would succeed retiring music director Claudio Abbado. Much to everyone's surprise, the orchestra chose Rattle and signed him to an initial 10-year tenure. The relationship was heralded with a magnificent recording of Schoenberg's gargantuan music drama Gurrelieder, which EMI released in June and consummated with a series of season-opening concerts Sept. 7-9.

Because Rattle's appointment was depicted as a union of innovation and tradition, the program for the opening weekend fittingly featured "Asyla" by Thomas Ades, an innovative young British composer Rattle championed in Birmingham, and Mahler's "Symphony No. 5." EMI is commemorating the pairing with a disc of the Mahler symphony recorded during those concerts, which it is rush-releasing. The disc has just been issued in Europe; British newspaper The Guardian has written of it, "There are many outstanding recordings of the Mahler 'Fifth,' but this is one of the finest." It is due Nov. 5 in the U.S.

To the rest of the world, the Berlin Philharmonic may still seem to be the grand old patrician organization that such legendary figures as Wilhelm Furtwangler and especially Herbert von Karajan forged into an ensemble long considered to be the world's finest. But to Rattle, the orchestra's changing demographic presented an unparalleled opportunity to continue forging into the future.

"I had assumed that I was coming into a much more traditional orchestra than I was," he explains. "But with all of their fantastic history and tradition, they came to me saying that they wanted to be a 21st-century orchestra. Though probably none of us actually knew what that was at the time, they believed that maybe together we could find it. In some ways, I've found that part of my job is to remind them, also, of the Furtwangler-Karajan legacy -- what's very important is to integrate this extraordinary tradition, particular idea of sound, and special way of turning a phrase with all these brilliant, young, flexible, curious musicians."

During his first season, Rattle has continued to present repertoire that is far from the core of the middle-European tradition. His third week on the job brought the challenging and controversial, jazz-inflected "Blood on the Floor" by another young British composer, Mark-Anthony Turnage, while the fourth paired Messiaen's "Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine" with Ravel's charming one-act opera, "L'enfant et les Sortileges," the latter a well-established work that Rattle believes the orchestra hadn't previously played.

More than simply overhauling its repertoire, Rattle hopes to effect still more significant change. "One of the things we've realized is that the orchestra can no longer be this great diva on the side of the city, waiting for people to come to it," he says. "It's now right at the heart of this extraordinary mixture of a modern city and the Wild West that is Berlin. A lot of our work now is to evangelize and spread the word in the broadest sense."

Excerpted from the Oct. 26, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.

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