Tom Service on talking to Simon Rattle at Hay 25

Tom Service on talking to Simon Rattle at Hay 25

Tom Service, the author of Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras spoke with Simon Rattle about his work with the Berlin Philharmonic on the opening day of Hay 25.

I suppose it was bound to happen: that in talking to Simon Rattle on the first day of the Festival about how he conjures his transcendent concerts with orchestras around the world – and above all, the Berlin Philharmonic, where he has been Chief Conductor since 2002 – he raised just as many questions as either of us could answer in his fascinating, generous, and honest comments. The point of my book, Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras, published by Faber, is to describe in detail what happens in the rehearsal room and in performance in today’s greatest conductor and orchestra partnerships. After talking to Simon, I can see how provisional any answers that anyone comes up with about this most mysterious of musical professions really are; but it also made me realise how important it is to try and get to the bottom of what happens in the relationship between the podium, the players in the orchestra, and the audience during those life-changing concerts.

Rattle and the Berlin Phil’s performances of the last three symphonies by Sibelius make up one of the chapters; the other five journeys come from London, Amsterdam, Budapest, Bamberg, and Lucerne with Valery Gergiev, Mariss Jansons, Ivan Fischer, Jonathan Nott, and Claudio Abbado. In Berlin, as Rattle told us on Thursday, he is faced with a paradoxical situation: the players are the most individually virtuosic and musically strong-willed of any orchestral musicians on the planet, and yet they require somebody up there on the podium to lead them. ‘We need each other’ he said, in response to what some of the players told me when I met them, that the orchestra is ‘greater than any of its conductors’ – including not just Rattle, but Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Abbado. Karajan said that conducting this orchestra was like riding a horse, where it’s not really about controlling what the musicians do, but letting them have their head, surfing the collective musical momentum they create, and knowing when to rein them in. Rattle talked about the tidal currents the Berlin Phil generate in their music-making, and he has said they make a sound which is like a force of nature, a kind of sonic lava – and anyone who’s had the chance to hear them live will know what he means, since there’s no more visceral sound you can hear in the concert hall than the Berliners playing at full tilt, which they do in every second of every concert they give – so his job is to release and regulate what happens.

Alchemy? Transcendence? Well, those things for sure; but it’s also like ‘herding cats’, he said! And with typical modesty, Rattle told us that in the moments when a performance reaches the ‘cosmic level’ – Mariss Jansons’s term for a concert which seems to lift off into a different dimension, and takes you on an irresistible expressive journey – he’s not leading anything at all, simply disappearing into the fabric of the musical experience, becoming part of the quantum connections between the music, the players, and the atmosphere in the audience. The point is, though, the conditions for performances like that to happen, including those of the Sibelius symphonies I heard Rattle give, have to be created, encouraged, and nurtured. And that’s something you really can talk about and write about, and what the book tries to do. Rattle might not want to think of himself as a leader in the old-fashioned sense of telling his musicians what to do, knowing that’s an impossible task with the Berlin Philharmonic, but he’s the essential catalyst without whose spark of inspiration nothing could happen. And that catalytic collaboration was the joy of the Hay experience, too, especially as someone coming to the Festival for the first time: thanks to the audience’s engagement, their questions, and the alchemy of the place, the room was filled with a uniquely, positively, charged Hay atmosphere, and it was an event that felt… well, it was a pretty cosmic experience to part of it!