Rattle brings modern touch to tradition-bound Berlin

In September, Simon Rattle will get the keys to the finest music-making machine in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic.

The British conductor has a stellar reputation built on 18 acclaimed years leading the City of Birmingham (England) Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). Now, music lovers the world over are eager to find out what he can do on the podium of one of the world's great orchestras.

American audiences will have an opportunity to hear what makes the recently knighted Sir Simon so special in concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra March 14-16 at the new Kimmel Center and March 19 at New York's Carnegie Hall.

For others eager to hear his work, there are new recordings with the Berlin orchestra (Mahler's Tenth and Beethoven's Fifth, both on EMI Classics) and a newly augmented biography, "Simon Rattle: From Birmingham to Berlin," by Nicholas Kenyon (Faber & Faber).

Is all this Rattle rattle justified?

"Clearly, [Berlin] is one of two or three greatest orchestras in the world," Mr. Kenyon says, explaining the importance of Sir Simon's new post. "Berlin has a central repertory of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner." With Rattle, he says, they will face someone whose repertory ranges from relatively unknown 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau to 20th-century composers Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein.

The "prestige attached to the music directorship [at Berlin] is off the scale," agrees London-based American conductor David Charles Abell, who has led Rattle's CBSO and is invited back for next year. Rattle was chosen by the musicians themselves, Mr. Abell says, "which completes his beatification in the music world!"

Another American living in London, Marin Alsop, who has just been named music director of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, was ranked No. 2 (just after Rattle) in a recent Independent newspaper list of Britain's finest conductors.

Ms. Alsop is struck by the way Rattle's going to Berlin "shows a new, fresh openness from one of the most conservative and traditional orchestra organizations in the world.

"Perhaps it will send a signal that the times are indeed changing and that the symphonic music business needs to get with the times in order to maintain some relevance. It signals a dramatic shift in the mythology and mystery surrounding the role of the conductor - from an unapproachable, distantly enigmatic, eccentric figure to a proactive, hands-on, engaging human being that musicians and the public can relate to!"

Rattle "might so easily have been working in America," author Kenyon points out. At various times in recent years, he almost accepted the music directorships at Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston. Of these, Boston was the closest to being a done deal. But the Boston Symphony dithered and delayed before finally announcing that Seiji Ozawa would be leaving. By then, Rattle had signed with Berlin.

Will his path ever lead to an American conducting post, or will Rattle conduct in Berlin for life, like Herbert von Karajan?

He will go "where he feels most comfortable making music," Abell says. "During his years in Birmingham, he declined many invitations to more prestigious posts. He is very loyal to his musicians, and if he feels that the level of communication and musicianship in Berlin is to his liking, he is likely to stay put."

But longtime Rattle-watcher Kenyon - the first edition of his biography of the conductor appeared in 1987 - suggests that Sir Simon's March visit to Philadelphia shows that work with other orchestras still interests him.

All the experts agree that it isn't Rattle's relative youth per se (he's in his mid-40s), but his interpretive insights into an unusual repertory that make him worthy of attention. Abell praises his "brilliance" at communicating "the joys of 20th-century music to an audience. And it is safe to assume he will do the same with the growing 21st-century repertory. He seems to have a strong link with the works of Mahler and Sibelius. There are few other conductors who can claim the same level of stylistic credibility in earlier periods as well, going back to the 17th century.

"Yet Rattle's performances are never dry or scholarly," Abel adds. "One is always aware of a keen interpretative will driving the music on."

When it comes to the bread-and-butter works of Romantic music, opinions on Rattle are split.

One Beethoven expert, teacher and critic Harris Goldsmith, says he found Rattle's recent recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony "too light on its feet; it tends to be a little fussy, and the new edition he uses tends to put Beethoven back into the 18th century."

But more modern works always have been the core of Rattle's musicmaking, Kenyon notes. He has "worked backward to Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart, rather than the reverse, which is the way of most German orchestras. It will be very interesting in Berlin, as he feels he has a lot to learn from the players."

The Berlin position may at first turn out to be highly visible on-the-job training.

But concertgoers will surely get their money's worth from the imaginative Rattle, who is praised by Alsop for his "enthusiastic ability to verbalize the 'story' of a particular piece and composer.

"The thing that I admire most about Simon is his personal integrity and sense of responsibility to his own instincts," she says. "He is true to himself...."

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