Sir Simon Rattle: interview

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It takes a rather special conductor to drag Time Out’s classical editor Jonathan Lennie away from his wife on their wedding night. Luckily, Borat-loving Sir Simon Rattle is just that

  • Sir Simon Rattle: interview

    Simon Rattle, shot exclusively for Time Out in Aix-en-Provence, July 2 2008

  • See this week's Proms

    Read Time Out's interview with Nigel Kennedy


    Three of us – Simon Rattle, myself and the photographer – are squeezed into a tiny lift. A joke is made about the scene in ‘Borat’ where the hapless reporter thinks the lift is his hotel room. Why don’t we do the shoot right here in homage? ‘Yes, Borat is hilarious,’ laughs the Maestro. I didn’t have Sir Simon down as a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, but it soon becomes clear that the man seen by many as our greatest conductor has as strong an appetite for comedy as he does for reinventing the classical music repertoire.


    Rattle shot to fame in 1980 when, at just 25 years old, he became principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). He then took it from provincial mediocrity to international acclaim, emerging as a formidable and articulate defender of classical music education in Britain. When the post of principal conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic came up in 2002, Rattle beat off challenges from Daniel Barenboim, among others, to take charge of what is reputedly the best orchestra in the world. It is hard to think of a British musician held in higher esteem internationally: in him, we have a dignified ambassador who has mastered an astonishing range of classical music.

    We escape the lift to chat in the ornate gardens of a hotel, through which Simon – he can’t be doing with honorifics such as ‘Sir Simon’ or ‘Maestro’ – saunters in a green T-shirt, slacks and moccasins. It’s surprising that he looks so well, as he has had a hectic weekend. His 35-year-old partner, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená, has just given birth to a baby boy, Milos (the couple also have a two-year-old son, Jonas). Like Angelina Jolie, Kozená has chosen to have her baby in Aix-en-Provence, in her case due to Rattle’s commitments with the Berlin Philharmonic at the festival. However, at 53 the twice-divorced conductor is older than Brad Pitt by nearly a decade, and coping with both the birth and his concert schedule has taken its toll.

    ‘It was very funny,’ he recalls. ‘We arrived at 11.30 in the morning and then at 4 o’clock we left the hospital together; we just went in opposite directions. An hour and a half later I was on the podium conducting “Siegfried”.’ Given that this four-hour epic is the penultimate opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, it is no wonder he looks exhausted. ‘At the beginning of the last act, I remember thinking that I had never been so tired,’ he says. Well, as long he was still conducting the same opera at the end as the one he began… He looks comically appalled: ‘I think that is the general idea.’

    The new baby hasn’t just inconvenienced his parents. When the date came through as the only one Rattle could manage, I realised I was going to have to fly out to Aix on my wedding night, taking my bride and the Time Out photographer with me. Rattle is much amused by this ‘honeymoon à trois’. When the photoshoot involves him sitting on a hotel bed, his eyes gleam suggestively. ‘OK,’ he laughs, ‘enough of the wedding-night jokes.’

    We have met to discuss the BBC Proms. Rattle will be one of this year’s highlights, putting the Berlin Philharmonic through its paces at the Royal Albert Hall on September 2-3. The selection of Wagner, Brahms and Shostakovich comes as no surprise. But Olivier Messiaen’s mighty ‘Turangalîla Symphony’ – a jerky, exotic work incorporating the rhythms of gamelans and an odd electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot – is certainly unexpected. Rattle famously made it a repertoire piece for the CBSO. But has the Berlin brigade been able to master it? ‘We have never done it,’ he declares. Still, the symphony has great significance for him. ‘I was lucky growing up in Liverpool because I heard this piece. I badgered my parents to take me. I can remember as an 11-year-old kid this piece changing my life – I mean, blowing me away to an extraordinary degree.’

    Almost everyone who has performed at the BBC Proms finds it a unique experience. ‘There isn’t another audience like that,’ Rattle agrees. ‘Everybody feels that there is a very special kind of identification. Whatever you’re playing, you see everybody is down there playing it with you… it is one of the most knowledgeable audiences in the world.’

    Beyond the Proms, Rattle is refreshingly optimistic about the state of classical music in Britain, despite falling record sales and the fact that formerly classical-only institutions, such as the Royal Festival Hall, now stage other forms of popular music. ‘The concerts are full,’ he affirms, ‘there are lots of kids playing and there is a wider variety of people getting more and more interested.’

    He is also confident about our new crop of composers, and he made the point in his first concert with the Berlin Phil by choosing to perform ‘Asyla’ by London-born Thomas Adès. ‘I think he is one of our great composers. Like Ollie Knussen, Julian Anderson, George Benjamin and Mark-Anthony Turnage.’ He has become quite animated. ‘I’m going to stick my neck out – I think Britain has the strongest collection of young composers of any country of the moment, and the next generation is coming up. I’m finding scores from teenage composers that are mind-boggling.’

    What is it about British composers that gives them this edge? ‘Britain is such a multicultural nation now that our composers are unfazed by the idea of taking things from every possible culture and putting them together. This idea that it is eclectic – “eclectic” is really a swearword in Germany: it means that you’ve got no spine. Whereas in England, the idea that you take from everything is fantastic; it’s something to aspire to.’

    Much has been made in the press about the conductor’s apparently fractious relationship with his orchestra, but Rattle firmly refers to his band as ‘we’: there is no them and us, despite rumours that in April the democratic, self-managed orchestra was about to vote against his being offered a further ten-year tenure beyond 2012. This was said to have resulted from Rattle taking the Berlin Phil beyond its recognised role as guardian of the central-European tradition of Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven and Wagner. Despite his energetic attempts to expand the orchestra’s range, Rattle doesn’t believe in autocracy – unlike his predecessor but one, Herbert von Karajan, who ruled with a rod of iron for 35 years. ‘This generation – teenage to late-twenties – is a fantastic generation,’ he declares. ‘I don’t think they take any shit from anyone.’ And, ultimately, the vote went in his favour.

    So now he has the option of another ten years at the helm, will he take it? ‘Who knows?’ he says, although I suspect that he does. ‘I am very happy living and working there. Many people say it’s the greatest orchestra in the world; and as somebody said to me, “If you’ve been given the chance to play for Real Madrid, you’re going to”.’

    So, sadly for us, it seems he won’t be directing a British orchestra in the near future. But we shouldn’t give up hope: ‘Conductors start getting good when everybody else retires. I start getting competent in my sixties – that’s a long way away.’

    Unlike us, Germans have a strong tradition of playing in amateur ensembles, so it’s fair to assume they make for better audiences. But Rattle refuses to write off his countrymen. ‘It’s a different thing. If I look at politicians in England, there is often the feeling of “should we admit we are interested in this kind of music; what is it going to do to our polling figures?” Whereas every politician in Germany would pretend that they were interested – at least as interested as Angela Merkel is in football. I think the English are an unbelievably musical nation and always have been.’

    Living in Berlin has helped him appreciate the plight of the outsider. ‘I know what it is to struggle with the language,’ he says, ‘Some [of my mistakes] I think they just keep and treasure because they make them laugh. [I’m the same with] my cellist who still says ‘monthies’ instead of ‘months’. I try to find a way to make him say the word ‘monthies’, and I think they do the same to me.’

    Von Karajan used to record 25 albums a year, sold 200 million and provided a huge income for the Berlin Phil. Does downloading mean those numbers have gone forever? ‘Everyone has to find a way to reinvent themselves,’ Rattle reflects. A champion of the live experience is 27-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, star of last year’s Proms, who, in a recent TV programme, was shown necking a glass of beer before going on stage. Rattle looks delighted. ‘That sounds like Gustavo,’ he laughs. ‘Yes, that’s to deal with the hangover from the night before. He will be one of the greatest conductors of all time, presuming he doesn’t kill himself on the way. Well, he’s the right age to party and he really knows how to do it.’ And Rattle, does he down a sneaky pint before a concert? ‘It tends to be cappuccino,’ he smiles. ‘Nothing illegal – well, not in most states anyway.’

    So who is the next Simon Rattle? The maestro swiftly plumps for both Dudamel and the 24-year-old British conductor of the Glyndebourne on Tour orchestra. ‘I think Robin Ticciati is hugely gifted and a very warm person, which you hear in the music. Those two of that generation have been the most inspiring so far, but I bet there is a whole bunch coming up, which I think is brilliant.’

    The interview’s over. As we make our way back inside, an elderly French couple having coffee stand up to applaud him on last night’s ‘Siegfried’. Rattle, beaming, bows and thanks them in French. But in the lobby, his wicked gleam reappears. ‘As Basil Fawlty says: “Another satisfied customer”.’ He grins mischievously: ‘ “We should have them stuffed”.’

    Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic at the BBC Proms Sept 2-3.

    See this week's Proms

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