British conductor Simon Rattle has been hailed as one of the best in a new generation of baton wielders in the classical music world. Associated for nearly 20 years with Birmingham, England’s, civic symphony, Rattle has also enjoyed a long and prolific career as a guest conductor with some of the most esteemed philharmonics and orchestras in Europe and North America, and has been honored with dozens of awards, including a Grammy Award in 2001. Time International writer Aisha Labi noted that Rattle “seems at first glance an unlikely icon. He sports impish good looks and a distinctive mane of tousled curls. But it is Rattle’s vitality and catholic approach to the musical canon that have won him international acclaim.”
Unlike many in his field, Rattle did not build his career and reputation working with the standards of classical music—the canon of Beethoven, Wagner, Mozart—but instead sought to introduce classical audiences to a more modern repertoire. In 2001 he even recorded new arrangements of jazz composer Duke Ellington’s best-known songs for his longtime label, EMI. A veteran music writer the British Guardian newspaper, Nicholas Kenyon, termed Rattle “a musician for the twenty-first century, equally at ease with a large symphony orchestra or with an early music group, a contemporary music ensemble or jazz band.”
Rattle was born in 1955 in Liverpool. His father Denis, an import-export company manager, took him to performances of the local youth ensemble, Merseyside Youth Orchestra. His interest in music was apparent early on, and Rattle began studying piano at the age of six. A sister, older by nine years, worked as librarian, and brought home classical records and later, musical scores, to feed his interest. As Rattle’s ability progressed, he began to study with a well-known virtuoso, Douglas Miller, winning a place in a prestigious summer school program for budding musicians near Vienna. At the age of 15 he gathered an orchestra to stage a charity event at Liverpool’s College Hall and conducted it himself; the evening was a rousing success. A year later, he was conducting the Merseyside Youth Orchestra and appearing as a percussionist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Rattle’s formal university training consisted of three years at London’s Royal Academy of Music in the early 1970s. Originally a piano and percussion student, he soon moved to conducting. A 1973 student performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony earned rave reviews and advanced his reputation as an up-and-coming name in British classical music. The following year he took first prize in the John Player International Conductors’ Competition, which brought a fair amount of press attention—and offers to conduct orchestras and philharmonics on both sides of the Atlantic. After one spot with Berlin’s radio orchestra in 1976 that
For the Record…
Born on January 19, 1955, in Liverpool, England; married Elise Ross, 1980; divorced; married Candace Allen; children: (with Ross) Sacha, Eliot. Education: Studied conducting and piano, Royal Academy of Music, England, early 1970s.
Began as percussion player with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, c. 1970; served as assistant conductor with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Bournemouth Sinfonietta, 1974-76; made debut at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1977; assistant conductor with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, 1977-80; associate conductor with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, 1977-80; principal conductor, London Choral Society, 1979-84; principal conductor and artistic adviser for City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 1980-91, and musical director, 1990-98; artistic director for South Bank Summer Music Festival, 1981-83; principal guest conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, 1981-93, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, 1981-84, and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, 1992-; chief conductor and artistic director, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 2002-.
Awards: First prize, John Player International Conductors Competition, 1974; decorated Commander of the British Empire, 1987; Gramophone Record of the Year, 1987, and Best Orchestral Recording, 1988, both for Mahler’s Second Symphony; Opera Award for Porgy and Bess with the London Philharmonic, 1989; Grand Prix in Honorem de I’Académic Charles Cross, 1990; Prix Caecilia, British Phonographic Industry Classical Award, and Edison Award; decorated Knight of the British Empire, 1994; Gramophone Best Orchestral Recording Award for Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1 and Variations and Erwartung, 1995; Officier des arts et lettres (France), 1995; Gramophone Best Opera Recording for Szymanowski King Roger, 2000; Gramophone Best Orchestral Recording and Record of the Year for Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 with the Berlin Philharmonic, 2000; Grammy Award, Best Orchestral Performance for Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, 2001.
Addresses: Office —c/o Askonas Holt Ltd., Lonsdale Chambers, 27 Chancery Ln., London, WC2AIPF, England.
earned poor reviews, Rattle began to choose his engagements more carefully. “If I’d said yes to all those concerts I was offered, I’d now be a bitter percussionist somewhere, because I couldn’t do it and the orchestras would have seen through me,” he told Kenyon in the Guardian.
Instead Rattle worked steadily with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as an assistant conductor and as associate conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In 1980 he was offered the top job with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). It was not considered a career-making post for a young conductor (he was just 25 years old), for at that time it was a lackluster orchestra. Within a few years, however, critics were hailing him as its savior. Rattle turned it into a first-class group that even earned a Grammy Award nomination. New York Times writer James B. Oestreich wrote that the conductor and musical director applied to the CBSO “a single-mindedness and dedication that went out of fashion decades ago, and he is widely credited with having transformed it from a provincial band into, on any given night, one of the finest and most adventurous ensembles in England.”
As Rattle’s renown grew, lucrative offers of permanent contracts came from other orchestras. He steadily declined them, but made guest-conductor appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; he also began working with the Rotterdam Orchestra and the famed Berlin Philharmonic, with which he made his conducting debut in 1987. Meanwhile, the CBSO’s reputation strengthened. Its chief persuaded the city to fund a new home for it, Symphony Hall, and launched a composerinresidence program—a relatively new concept in Britain—that brought Judith Weir, Oliver Knussen, and Thomas Adès to work with it. Rattle fostered the careers of other rising stars in the classical world in other ways: in 1989, he commissioned an opera from a young composer, Mark-Anthony Turnage, based on artist Francis Bacon’s portraits of three popes. The result was Three Screaming Popes, which premiered in 1993.
Rattle also worked with avantgarde French composer Pierre Boulez, one of the greatest living serial musicians, for a series of modern-music concerts with the CBSO. His attempt to bring traditionalist and “new” music together was a renegade strategy when he began in late 1970s, as Guardian writer Fiona Maddocks explained. Back then, “contemporary music was a weird minority interest, remote from the mainstream of ordinary concert life. Rattle, by his youth and universal appeal, made it normal to sit through a tricky world premiere in a mainstream concert and find it exciting,” Maddocks asserted. “Audiences trusted him.”
Rattle’s conducting style is an energetic one. Edward W. Said, music critic for the Nation, compared his podium manner to that of the other leading names of the era: Georg Solti, James Levine, and Claudio Abbado. Said had witnessed a 1993 Rattle performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tangle-wood Festival, and found that he “supplied a remarkable confluence of physical gesture and supple sound that few conductors today can match.” Reviewing a 1994 performance of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Record Guide writer Richard S. Ginell wrote, “[a]s with his own English orchestra in Birmingham, he is particularly good at getting people to play very softly, and he summoned melting sounds out of the strings at the outset and in the wonderfully delicate ‘Dance of the Sylphs.’” New Statesman’s Dermot Clinch described one of Rattle’s displays at the podium, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1999. “Sometimes he bent his knees, puffed his cheeks and mimed a straw-chewing yokel, to encourage a proportionate rustic attitude in his players. That was especially during Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony,” wrote Clinch. “During the pizzicato interlude in Mahler’s Second Symphony, ‘The Resurrection,’ he dropped his hands to his sides and encouraged his band just to pluck ‘n’ swing.”
Rattle has recorded several works each year since the early 1980s, producing a repertoire ranging from Mahler and Strauss to twentieth-century British composer Benjamin Britten. The Birmingham Symphony and pianist Lars Vogt recorded two Beethoven piano concertos in the mid-1990s under Rattle, and American Record Guide reviewer Allen Linkowski praised Rattle’s achievement with both the CBSO and its soloist, terming the recordings “a real collaboration. He brings both scores to life, revealing details more often than not lost in other interpretations.”
Rattle also possesses a keen interest in period instruments. Since 1992 he has conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), which uses baroque instruments like the flugelhorn and harpsichord, at the annual Glyndebourne Festival and in London concerts. In 1999 he conducted the OAE and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a program of Haydn, Beethoven, and a specially commissioned piece by Turnage for both ensembles for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Millennium Concert. A 2001 performance of three Mozart symphonies prompted Guardian writer Erica Jeal to commend both conductor and players. Jeal noted that though each of the three was “standard orchestral repertoire… Rattle can be relied upon to make music of this period sound anything but basic…. As ever, Rattle cut a dynamic figure on the podium, and his attention to detail let nothing slip.”
As Rattle’s international performing and recording reputation grew, he was predicted to succeed Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, should that job opening arise. It was also rumored that the Philadelphia Orchestra was eager to sign him. To the surprise of many, he was chosen to become the next musical director of the esteemed Berlin Philharmonic in 1999. His legendary predecessors were Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan and, of late, Claudio Abbado. Time International’s Labi called the Berlin conducting job “one of the most coveted podiums in the world.” Rattle’s hire also spoke volumes about his reputation. For generations, there had been a deep bias in Europe—especially in Germany—against British music, and Rattle’s hire was a surprise to many. Guardian writer Andrew Clements called it “the highest distinction that any British conductor has ever achieved.”
Rattle was elected by the philharmonic body itself—yet another sign of its unique reputation—over Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Berlin Staatsoper and the Chicago Symphony. The Israeli-Argentine pianist and conductor was viewed as more of a traditionalist, with a repertoire squarely grounded in the canon of nineteenth-century Austro-German composers. Rattle, by contrast, had performed and recorded admirably in a range of styles, from baroque to new music. “Symphony orchestras are still essentially nineteenth-century institutions, playing a predominantly nineteenth-century repertory,” explained Clements in the Guardian. “That the Berlin players finally opted for Rattle over Barenboim, indicates that at least a majority of them realise the need for the Philharmonic to change, to look forward to the new century….” Clements hailed the choice as the marker of a new era for the venerated Berlin Philharmonic, predicting that Rattle would help it lure “a new, younger audience in a city that is consciously and literally rebuilding itself at the centre of Europe.”
Rattle concurred with the idea that Berlin desired a new change in the interview with Oestreich for the New York Times. “It’s been made abundantly clear that they feel they cannot simply dig the same old gold mine, however wonderful,” Rattle stated. As a harbinger of an impressive future collaboration, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic won a Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in 2001 for Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Sensible Sound reviewer Karl W. Nehring commended the recording, stating that Rattle “loves this music, the orchestra plays with precision, and this really is a disc that Mahler lovers ought to hear.”
Rattle was slated to take the Berlin job permanently with its 2002 season, although in 2001 rumors surfaced that disagreements had stalled the contract. At the same time some in Britain wondered why its own cultural institutions had been unable to keep him at home. Kenyon, the Guardian music writer who has authored two biographies of Rattle, speculated that he was somewhat underappreciated in London. One conductor, John Carewe, concurred, and asserted that the Rattle’s departure for Berlin should instead inspire a renewal of the London musical scene, and someday Rattle would return to it to lead. If not, Carewe told the Guardian, “Ten years after he dies, there will be a concert hall built here in memory of Simon Rattle. And a fat lot of use that will be.”
Rattle’s Berlin post would take five months of each year, and he planned to maintain his London residence, which he shares with his American-born wife. He has two sons from his previous marriage who live with their mother, soprano Elise Ross, in San Francisco. He pledged to begin studying the German language in earnest, but would only commit to working with the Vienna Philharmonic as a guest conductor for performances and recording. He admitted to working much less than he did in his thirties in the New York Times interview. “I don’t want to work much more than seven months of the year, just because I don’t think you can stay creative,” he explained to Oestreich just after his forty-fifth birthday. “I need more and more time… to do things that aren’t music, to read and to discover.”
Rachmaninoff: Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: op. 43, Angel, 1984.
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Chandos, 1984.
(With City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; Scenes with Cranes from “Kuolema,” Angel, 1985.
Bartók: Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra; Sonata for two pianos and percussion, EMI, 1987.
Messiaen: Turangalfla-symphonie; Quatuor pour la fin du temps, EMI, 1987.
Sibelius: Symphony no. 4 in A minor; Symphony no. 6 in D minor, EMI, 1988.
Sibelius: Violin concerto; Symphony no. 5, EMI, 1988.
Fruhlingsopfer (1947 revised version), EMI, 1989.
Gershwin: Porgy & Bess Highlights, EMI Classics, 1989.
Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces, EMI, 1989.
Stravinsky: Apollo: (1947 revised version); Le sacre du printemps, Das Fruhlingsopfer (1947 revised version), EMI, 1989.
Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910); Scherzo à la russe: for jazz band, 1944; Four studies: 1952 version; Scherzo a la russe: orchestral version, 1943-44, EMI, 1989.
Britten: Rattle Conducts Britten, EMI Classics, 1991.
Bartók: Violin concerto no. 2 Rhapsodies nos. 1 & 2, EMI, 1994.
Liszt: Eine Faust-Symphonie (A Faust Symphony), EMI, 1994.
Szymanowski: Stabat Mater, Litany to the Virgin Mary; Symphony no. 3, EMI Classics, 1994.
(Kyung-Wha Chung and Birmingham Symphony) Bartok: Violin Concerto, Rhapsodies, EMI, 1995.
(With Lars Vogt and Birmingham Symphony) Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, EMI, 1997.
(With City of Birmingham Orchestra) Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, EMI, 1997.
Brahms: Piano concerto no. 1 Three intermezzi, op. 117, EMI, 1998.
Ades: Asyla, EMI Classics, 1999.
(With City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) Classic Ellington, EMI, 2001.
(With Berliner Philharmoniker) Mahler: Symphony No. 10, EMI Classics, 2001.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition, Gale Research, 1998.
American Record Guide, July-August 1993, p. 96, p. 172; November-December 1993, p. 178, p. 266; March-April 1994, p. 70; May-June 1994, p. 45; September-October 1994, p. 92; January-February 1995, p. 73; July-August 1997, p. 77; January-February 1998, p. 50; May-June 1998, p. 121; March-April 1999, p. 168; November 2000, p. 177; January 2001, p. 123.
Billboard, May 12, 2001, p. 119.
Guardian (U.K.), June 24, 1999; June 27, 1999; June 15, 2001, p. 17; June 16, 2001; November 3, 2001.
Independent (London, England), December 11, 1999, p. 8; November 17, 2000, p. 10; November 20, 2000, p. 12.
Nation, January 17, 1994, p. 65.
National Review, January 22, 1990, p. 58.
New Statesman, January 15, 1993, p. 33; September 4, 1998, p. 43; September 27, 1999, p. 70.
New York Times, January 23, 2000.
Opera News, December 6, 1997, p. 59; November 2001, p. 72.
People, April 8, 1985, p. 128.
Sensible Sound, November 2000, p. 65; January 2001, p. 90; April 2001, p. 76.
Time, February 11, 1985, p. 96.
Time International, July 5, 1999, p. 65.
Times (London, England), December 14, 1999, p. 36; November 21, 2000, p. 22.
Born: Liverpool, England, 19 January 1955
Simon Rattle is the most highly sought-after conductor of his generation. He took the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) from a provincial band with a history of problems and built it into one of the more respected and accomplished orchestras in Britain. His high standing in the orchestral world was confirmed in 1999, when he was appointed music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Rattle was born in Liverpool in 1955 and spent much of his childhood studying music and organizing his family in informal music performances. He appeared as a percussionist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the age of eleven, put together his first professional orchestra at the age of fifteen, and later became conductor of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra. At sixteen he began studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and at nineteen he won the John Player International Conducting Competition. He became the assistant conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony and Sinfonietta and then landed the same jobs with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the BBC Scottish Symphony, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. During this time he guest-conducted the London Sinfonietta, Philharmonia and London Philharmonic.
Rattle's big break came in 1980, when he was appointed principal conductor and artistic advisor to the ailing City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He and the orchestra manager, Ed Smith, embarked on an ambitious program to turn the orchestra around. The charismatic Rattle worked closely with musicians, training the ensemble in music that ranged across the orchestral literature. Programs were carefully balanced between familiar classics and challenging twentieth-century fare, and audiences responded enthusiastically.
As the orchestra's abilities improved, critics took notice, the City of Birmingham responded with increased financial support, and EMI signed the orchestra for a series of highly regarded recordings. As its reputation spread, the orchestra also began touring—through Europe, to North and South America, and Asia. In 1991 the orchestra built a brilliant new concert home.
Rattle became a highly sought-after guest conductor and began working with many of the world's major orchestras. He was appointed principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1981–1994), and principal guest conductor of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He worked regularly with the Boston Symphony
and Philadelphia Orchestra as well as several European ensembles, but his guest conducting was limited because of his commitment to the CBSO.
Throughout the 1990s Rattle was courted by major orchestras interested in signing him up as music director. But he stayed in Birmingham for eighteen years, a remarkable tenure given his expanding career. In Birmingham Rattle had an opportunity to build something, and his star status helped give the orchestra the resources he needed to record and mount ambitious repertoire such as his decade-by-decade survey of music of the twentieth century. He and the orchestra were also frequently on television, notably in a series called Leaving Home, which featured Rattle talking at length about the music of the twentieth century. By the time Rattle left Birmingham as music director in 1998, he had conducted the orchestra in 934 concerts and more than 10,000 hours of rehearsals. He also made more than sixty recordings, picking up numerous awards.
For a few years Rattle enjoyed grazing on a succession of well-regarded projects while speculation mounted about which orchestra might be able to snag him as its music director. Rumors had him heading to Philadelphia or Boston, but in 1999 Rattle accepted the job as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic beginning in 2002.
Rattle is the complete package as a music director. As a musician he has an insatiable curiosity that spans the earliest music (he is an expert conductor of music performed on period instruments) to the thorniest modern compositions. He holds modern masters such as Boulez and Messaien in the kind of high regard usually reserved for Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart.
As a conductor he brings a penetrating mind, a charismatic style, and a personal passion for music. He is comfortable with the colossal repertoire of Mahler and Bruckner but seems equally at home with a Haydn symphony. As an ambassador for his profession, he is one of the best arguments for a musical tradition that can keep on renewing itself. It is no surprise that when Rattle finally took up his new post leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the fall of 2002, he was greeted as a major celebrity in a city rich with culture. Even as he began his new post, there were signs that an orchestra with a long and distinguished tradition would be transformed by its new music director.
Spot Light: Towards the Millennium
The gods of classical music prefer that a piece of music be around for several decades (even centuries) before it is declared a classic. In some circles, music from the first two decades of the twentieth century is still considered shocking. Through the 1990s Simon Rattle embarked on a decade-by-decade survey of the serious music of the twentieth century—Towards the Millennium. Each year's program was Rattle's vote for the most significant music composed in a decade of the century. How do you represent the music of ten years in one program? Given the swirling eddies and simultaneous currents of musical styles that came and went during the century, it is an impossible task. Yet it is just this kind of ambitious personal history that can begin to stitch together a narrative of an era. The last of these concerts, performed in the beginning of 2000, included Hans Werner Henze's A Tempest, Gyorgy Ligeti's Violin Concerto, Simon Holt's Sunrise's Yellow Noise, and Michael Tippett's The Rose Lake. Haven't heard of some of them? Let a few decades go by.
Mahler: Symphony 10, Berliner Philharmoniker (Angel, 2000); Rattle Directs 20th Century Orchestral Masterworks (Capitol, 1994); John Adams Harmonielehre; The Chairman Dances; Tromba lontana; Short Ride in a Fast Machine, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 1994).
N. Kenyon, Simon Rattle: From Birmingham to Berlin (London, 2002).