Q&A Special: Conductor Sir Simon Rattle | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Q&A Special: Conductor Sir Simon Rattle
The conductor on his long-running association with period specialists the OAE
Sir Simon Rattle (b. 1955) and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (est. 1986) have been together from the beginning. Founded by period-instrument musicians eager to run their own affairs rather than play obediently for conductor-managers like Christopher Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner, the OAE invited Rattle to conduct a concert performance of Idomeneo in that first year. Of the orchestra’s several other guest conductors, including Iván Fischer and, until his death, Sir Charles Mackerras, none has had a stronger or longer link.
There have since been many highlights in the relationship, some of them forays away from the Age of Enlightenment and deep into the 19th century repertoire. “There is no one else on this planet who is like him,” says Chi-chi Nwanoku, principal double bass and a founding member of the orchestra. “Very few conductors can really make you feel that they’re playing every note with you. His hunger and passion is just pouring out and you just get pulled in.”
There has been only one glitch, when conductor and string section clashed over Rattle’s desire to render Bach’s St John Passion a little less Lutheran and a little more dramatic. In practice it came down to a disagreement over period technique. Despite some musicians’ worry that they had blown it, the relationship was unimpaired. A cycle of Schumann symphonies in late 2008 took past 100 the number of times Sir Simon has stood in front of the OAE on the concert platform, all manic rictus and shaking curls, levitating in that distinct responsive style of his.
In slightly nasal traces of Liverpool still unerased after his 18 years in Birmingham and 11 in Berlin, Sir Simon talks to theartsdesk about his commitment not only to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment but also to the Berlin Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.
JASPER REES: If you close your eyes, how do you know it’s the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment you're conducting?
SIR SIMON RATTLE: Apart from the fact that everything sounds different from every other orchestra, nothing. It’s very different, isn’t it? You have to understand that I conduct an orchestra of teenagers normally. If you’ve seen the Berlin Philharmonic recently, I’m a grizzly old grandfather. This is like an old rock group that’s been together for ages. Last time I was here we were all having a drink together and one of the violins said, “You’ve got to be very careful around 30 menopausal women, you know.”
But one of the wonderful things about this orchestra is this is a lot of people who decided to commit a unilateral declaration of independence from being owned by single conductors. The period-instrument world was very much like the actor-manager theatres tours of the 19th century. Everybody had their particular style. This was a group of people who wanted to do different things. They wanted to seduce people who’d never worked with them. When they first got together they said, “We want to do Mozart with you, and we want to see if we can get Bernard Haitink to conduct.” Of course he came and he said, “I don’t like the instruments and everything sounds like a cadence to me,” so that wasn’t going to work.
How did they seduce you?
Tim Mason, the cellist, was the one I knew. Most of my very good friends went into this world - lots of people I went through the [Royal] Academy with at the same time. I had the experience with David Munrow who is the great missing link. He hanged himself in his 30s. There are great British musicians out there – Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington – but everybody of that generation would say David Munrow was the genius. A lot of us were enormously affected by him. It just took me a little bit longer. For me it was Harnoncourt who made me go back to this. And then when I met Tim... we did a charity concert together for CND, he said, "Simon, everything you’re asking is what we’re wanting to do. For God’s sake, have you thought about making this leap?" That was basically it. So I did their second concert, which was Idomeneo. For all of us it was such a voyage of discovery. It was Peter Hall, not a musician but a person of great instincts, who came and said, "This is the future for Glyndebourne." And who pulled Glyndebourne along.
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