BOSTON — To his utter amazement, Sir Simon Rattle is the longest-serving music director of any European orchestra. The handsome, charming, and charismatic conductor literally grew up with England's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) since becoming its music director at age 25. He has also transformed a once-provincial orchestra into a world-class ensemble with a seven-part television series and more than 50 recordings to its credit. The orchestra's recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (EMI) was just released last month.
Rattle's remarkable tenure with the orchestra, however, is about to come to a close. Yesterday, he and his orchestra finished their last tour together in Los Angeles, and his final concert as music director will be in Birmingham on Aug. 31. He then makes himself a free agent.
"Conductors and orchestras normally last about the same time as prime ministers do, or two-term presidents," he says. "Eight, nine years seems to be the natural cycle. I've had two. It's a wonder we're still speaking to each other. I hate to wait until the point where routine sets in. It's really a matter of deciding together that maybe this is a good time to give the orchestra some new vitamins. I'm very aware that they reflect my faults as well as my virtues, as orchestras will."
Rattle's self-effacing explanation belies the fact that he is one of the most highly sought conductors on the international scene today. Less known for his technical proficiency than his musical insight, he is probing and innovative with a palpable passion for music. Equally at home with symphonic fare or opera, he is on the short-list of influential and intellectually accomplished conductors possessing true star quality.
Sparkling wit and an unpretentious manner (he eschews the customary "Maestro" for a simple "Simon") also make him one of the most popular conductors among players as well as audiences.
"I'm trying to imagine a more joyful profession, and I can't think of one," he proclaims earnestly. "It's like being a midwife without the seasoning of tragedy. It's the most extraordinary feeling to be telling those stories, releasing those emotions."
In the past few years, Rattle has been courted by a number of orchestras seeking new leadership, most notably the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rattle remains adamant, however, that he will be a free agent for the next eight to 10 years before considering a relatively long-term relationship with an orchestra again.
Rattle claims a strong motivating factor has been the desire for the flexibility to spend more time with his sons, Sacha, 14, and Eliot, 8, who live in San Francisco with Rattle's first wife, soprano Elise Ross. (Rattle and second wife, Candace Allen, live in London.) "It's a real lifestyle decision," he says. "It's a matter of deciding what I could do with the next period of my life."
The change will also give him more musical flexibility. "I'm really looking forward in 1999 to having three months to do nothing but French Baroque opera with a period orchestra (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) and to spend the months necessary to really learn and conduct 'Tristan.' If you do a very hands-on music directorship, it's exhausting," he says.
Rattle's directorship of the CBSO has been nothing if not hands on. Unlike most major orchestras, who get their conductor for three months or less each year, the CBSO was graced with Rattle's dynamic influence for about six months a year. He avoided the typical jet-set career track in favor of nurturing one specific musical community. In the process, he has helped revitalize the industrial town of Birmingham, putting the orchestra firmly at its cultural and educational hub. The city built the orchestra a new 2,100-seat hall in 1990, which is regularly packed for concerts.
'What I hope is that we've created an ongoing laboratory for what orchestras can be," Rattle says. "The repertoire extended constantly back to Monteverdi and forward to an enormous amount of contemporary music, and we tried to create musically an orchestra where each piece would be played in a different style and an audience expecting that kind of adventure."
In coming years, Rattle will spend two months each year with the group, seeing out his groundbreaking 10-year "Toward the Millennium" project exploring seminal works from each decade of the century. In addition, he'll spend roughly a month with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and regularly work with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. Other guest bookings extend through 2003.
So even without the directorship, Rattle will have his hands quite full. And asked where he sees himself in 10 years, he shrugs and laughs delightedly. "Isn't it wonderful not to be sure?"