Written by Matthew Parsons
The Berlin Philharmonic's longtime chief conductor Simon Rattle is taking his orchestra on the road this month. They're playing two dates at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on Nov. 15 and 16. So Michael Enright, the host of CBC Radio One's The Sunday Edition, took the opportunity to call Rattle at his home in New York and talk classical. (Listen to the full interview here.)
It's a wide-ranging conversation that touches on music from Beethoven to Hans Werner Henze, but here are seven highlights that we thought were particularly noteworthy.
1. Rattle considers himself an "adapter plug"
Rattle uses an electricity metaphor to explain what a conductor actually does. (He misses an opportunity to make use of the double meaning of the word "conductor," but it's a minor complaint.) In this metaphor, the electricity itself is the composer's score and the orchestra is the thing being powered. The conductor/adapter plug's job is to make sure that one finds its way to the other in a way that will actually make something happen.
2. He is not a fan of Putin and he is not a fan of Trump
Enright asks Rattle how demanding a conductor has to be of his players, and cites famously difficult, authoritarian conductors like Herbert von Karajan. Rattle's response? "I think mostly the day of the ridiculous autocrats is over. I mean, our first concert on the American tour is the day after the American election, so let's hope that I'm not speaking rubbish by that time." He continues, "Despite the fact that Putin exists, the time of autocrats seems to be mostly over, and let's hope it doesn't come back. I think the world has changed."
On a related note, this performance that Rattle did with soprano Barbara Hannigan reveals that he's also not a fan of Nigel Farage.
3. The Berlin Phil performed a concert entirely for refugees
In March, Rattle teamed up with fellow conductors Ivan Fischer and Daniel Barenboim and two other orchestras to play a free concert for recently arrived refugees in Berlin. Rattle told Enright, "we're all very proud to be in a country that can say 'let's do the difficult thing rather than the politically expedient thing.'"
4. Rattle considers his first time hearing Mahler 2 live his 'St. Paul on the road to Damascus moment'
Rattle was 11 at the time, and he says that was the moment when he knew he wanted to be a conductor. "I can still remember the sensation. I mean, to this day I can remember where I was sitting in the concert hall and how I was experiencing it. And it felt like the music was tatooed on me in an unforgettable way. It's a virus that you get. And the wonderful thing is that it's an incurable virus."
5. He once threw his back out during Beethoven 9
"I don't think there's any conductor who hasn't had back problems of one type." To Rattle, playing music is a sport. "And many of us who get into trouble have to go to sports doctors. Sports physios. Because they realize we get different types of stress injuries." It took an intervention from an orchestra musician to stop Rattle from hurting himself during the Ninth. Rattle recalls them saying, "Look, Simon. Here are the four places where you hurt yourself. If we promise to play as loud as we possibly can, would you please stop doing that? Because it's hurting us too!"
6. He only gets asked about the future of classical music when he comes to North America
Enright poses Rattle the classic question of whether the world's orchestras are on life support. Rattle hasn't the slightest amount of time for the notion. "It's only on this side of the pond that I get asked that question. And that's very interesting. That's something that I can't culturally answer. But, from the United Kingdom further east, the orchestras are alive and kicking and reinventing themselves, and the audiences are very vibrant, and extremely there."
7. He staunchly disagrees with Glenn Gould about live performance
Canada's most acclaimed pianist famously gave up live performances to concentrate exclusively on making records. He called audiences "snarling animals," and proclaimed the LP as the true future of music. "Yeah, but that was his own particular pathology," says Rattle. "Although music is available on all our fantastic devices, like human relationships, it should be live."