Simon Rattle conducts final concert with Berlin Philharmonic

British conductor Simon Rattle (centre) gave his final concert as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Waldbuehne in Berlin on Sunday.
British conductor Simon Rattle (centre) gave his final concert as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Waldbuehne in Berlin on Sunday.PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN • On Saturday, thousands of people braved driving rain to attend a full dress rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic, instead of watching the German team in the World Cup.

But while the country will continue playing for football honours, Simon Rattle was about to bow out.

On Sunday, he conducted his final concert in charge of the orchestra after 16 years that have revamped the image of the prestigious organisation.

He was joined by his Czech-born wife, the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, in a programme at Berlin's wooded outdoor amphitheatre, the Waldbuehne, that included works by George Gershwin, Joseph Cantaloube and Aram Khachaturian.

The British-born maestro, now 63, has already started a new job as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, but will continue to live in Berlin with his family.

The Berlin orchestra was "born in struggle and will always be in that state", he said in an interview published on the Philharmonic's website.

He added that the orchestra was unlike any other he had worked with, more like "an absolutely gigantic string quartet, with all the arguments and verbal violence and frustrations".

Even after all these years, Rattle said it was still a mystery to him how the orchestra worked, but it had ultimately embraced more educational outreach, a wider repertoire and new programming.

Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper said with live streaming and an appeal to students, the orchestra had shed its elite image and opened up to be "more cosmopolitan and diverse".

"The world has changed an enormous amount. And they (the orchestra's musicians) are in an incredibly privileged position, whether they realise it or not. I think they are now more part of the beating heart of the city," he said.

The conductor had thanked "my wonderful orchestra" and "my dear Berlin public" at a performance last Wednesday at the orchestra's concert hall.

Rattle made a big statement in his first season, inviting 250 Berlin schoolchildren from different backgrounds to dance to Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring with the Philharmonic at Berlin's Treptow Arena.

"I had had this weird dream of putting lots of young people who had not danced with an orchestra," he said.

It was tied to his vision of reaching out to communities that had previously had little to do with the orchestra. Such educational initiatives were not common at the time in Germany.

Sarah Willis, a horn player at the Philharmonic, recalled how surprised some players were when Rattle, at his first meeting with the ensemble, outlined his expansive education plans.

"You try telling classical musicians that they have to go and stand in front of a class of 10-year-olds," she said. "It's like asking them to take their clothes off." But it worked and it was the first of several large-scale dance projects.

With 34 performances, Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms was the most played work of Rattle's tenure, followed by Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which was performed 26 times.

During his years as conductor, 53 new musicians joined the orchestra and it performed 40 world premieres.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2018, with the headline 'Simon Rattle conducts final concert with Berlin Philharmonic'. Print Edition | Subscribe