Analysis: Much ado about Rattle

- 29 January 2013

News of Sir Simon Rattle’s intention to retire as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2018 has released a flood of speculation about the reasons behind his decision and the name of his successor. The rumour mill was fuelled by reports of growing strains in the relationship between conductor and orchestra.

Moving on: Sir Simon Rattle
Photo: © Simon Fowler

Norman Lebrecht, writing in his Slipped Disc blog, identified ‘a growing rift between Rattle and a large number of players who felt the orchestra was going backwards, artistically and commercially, under his leadership’. News organisations from Santiago to Sydney rushed to cover the story of Rattle’s departure and compile shortlists of those in line to replace him. Fancied runners in the Berliner Philharmoniker sweepstakes include Christian Thielemann, Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Andris Nelsons and the two Petrenkos, Kirill and Vasily.

Rattle served long notice of his farewell at a meeting of the orchestra on 10 January. ‘I will have been with the orchestra for 16 years [in 2018],’ he observed in a press release issued by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker, the self-governing orchestra’s management foundation. ‘Before this I was chief conductor in Birmingham for 18 years. In 2018 I will be nearly 64 years old. As a Liverpool boy, it is impossible not to think of the Beatles’ question, “Will you still need me, when I’m 64?”, and I am sure that then it will be time for somebody else to take on the magnificent challenge that is the Berliner Philharmoniker.’

The conductor went on to express his ‘love’ for the orchestra and noted that his decision to quit was not an easy one. While Rattle’s plans for life beyond the Berliner Philharmoniker remain unclear, it is understood that he has not ruled out returning to the UK. Valery Gergiev’s departure from the London Symphony Orchestra in 2015, officially confirmed on 22 January, presents a possible vacancy on home territory. It seems likely, however, that Rattle’s aversion to London’s concert halls will rule out a move to the capital.

Elisabeth Hilsdorf, head of press for the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker, dismissed stories of revolt and anti-Rattle sentiment within the ranks of the BPO. ‘We are a very open house, so there are always people backstage at the orchestra and we have all these rumours,’ she observed. ‘I am used to getting calls from German journalists from time to time, but at least they call me before they write something. It wouldn’t harm Mr Lebrecht to give me a short ring before he writes that there are [principal player] contracts being renewed. The [BPO] players have tenure; there is nothing like a renewal of contract. Nobody is reading [Slipped Disc] in Germany besides some gossip journalists, the British community and the poor heads of PR who have to read it because of the calls we receive from English journalists. I talked to our board members from the orchestra and three out of four didn’t know that this blog existed.’

In the running? Christian Thielemann, Vasily Petrenko, Daniel Barenboim and Kirill Petrenko
Photos (l-r): © Mat Hennek/DG; © Mark McNulty; © Ricardo Dávila

Ms Hillsdorf accepted that there were tensions between some Berliner Philharmoniker musicians and the orchestra’s chief conductor. She suggested that disagreements and differences of opinion were to be expected among a group of elite performers. ‘There are 128 relationships between Simon and the orchestra. This is normal in a [self-governing] orchestra. People are fine with it and I think Simon was fine with it also. It is just time to move on for everybody.’

One cause of Rattle’s decision appears to have arisen from the resistance of certain players to his promotion of contemporary work and exploration of unfamiliar repertoire. They belonged to the 10% of Berliner Philharmoniker musicians who voted against renewing Rattle’s contract in April 2008. A source close to Rattle, who asked to remain anonymous, told CM that the conductor’s consensual approach and unwillingness to act like a dictator in rehearsal often clashed with the egocentric attitudes of a vocal minority of BPO musicians.

“The BPO now has time to look at young conductors, those who will be in their prime over the next two to three decades” ‒ Gerald Mertens

‘They are would-be soloists, like wild stallions really. [Rattle] forced that vote [on his contract] because he wanted to know where his children would be going to school and so on. He’s the only conductor I know of where it’s not about me and my career; it’s about building something in a community and context that he finds appropriate. I don’t suppose the sponsors or the audience will be happy about [his decision to leave Berlin]. But there are people in the orchestra who have problems with new music … and I think Simon [also] has problems with the way [some players] behave towards each other in rehearsal.’

Gerald Mertens, chief executive of the Deutsche Orchestervereinigung (DOV), the union of German orchestras, believes that present relations between Rattle and his Berliner Philharmoniker colleagues are strong. ‘I think many of the issues between Simon and the players were resolved [in 2008],’ he commented. ‘Simon will have been with the orchestra for 16 years when he leaves &#8210 that’s an amazing achievement. Whoever comes in will need a vision for the next 15 years. How many orchestras are in a position to look forward with confidence to the 2030s? [The BPO] now has time to look at young conductors, those who will be in their prime over the next two to three decades.’

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