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Simon Rattle Gets on His Knees, Has Pillow Fights on Asia Tour

Simon Rattle
Conductor Simon Rattle. The Briton has worked with orchestras across the world. Photographer: Monika Rittershaus/Berlin Philharmonic via Bloomberg

I’m on my knees in front of Simon Rattle, a position made somewhat less bizarre by the fact that the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic also is kneeling.

This is the most comfortable way to position ourselves for a face-to-face conversation in the back rows of a 747. The Deutsche Lufthansa AG jumbo jet has become an oversized private carrier for the 17 days of the philharmonic’s longest-ever tour, a sponsorship agreement with the German airline that also includes the orchestra’s personal Lufthansa crew.

The tour, which kicked off in Abu Dhabi with a Nov. 9 concert in the Emirates Palace Hotel -- also a first -- took the orchestra to Perth and Sydney, and winds up with concerts last night and tonight in Singapore.

The standing ovation at the Sydney Opera House was something to behold. Some 2,500 people were on their feet, howling approval, just moments after the final bars of Mahler’s First Symphony. The ovations marked the end of the Berlin Philharmonic’s first-ever tour of Australia with Rattle.

“It must have been a full moon,” says Rattle, 55. “I must say we have a reputation for being quite a wild orchestra, and I think we met our match in that audience. It’s either thrilling or really scary, I’m not sure which. You don’t expect a reception like that because I’m not a football player. But the warmth is touching.”

Hierarchical Seating

The logistics of touring a 128-member symphony orchestra, its entourage and instruments are intriguing. Orchestral tradition dictates that aircraft seating is arranged according to age and length of service. Senior orchestral members sit in first class, while younger players and non-members stretch out across rows of empty seats in economy.

Rattle, relaxed in pullover and trousers, is a frequent visitor to the economy section throughout the 8-hour flight to Singapore, often stopping to joke with his musicians, who celebrate their landing in each new city with a traditional pillow fight.

“I’m skeptical about touring, both in terms of the environment and in terms of the cost of it,” Rattle says. “I’m sure within my lifetime the matter will be decided for us, because we won’t be able to tour those kinds of distances any more. We’ll be carbon capped, and so we should be.

‘‘You have to be skeptical in that way, but not about the effect it has on people. For those of us who believe that music is different in every part of the world and that music should be live, it’s something else. I remember how overwhelmed I was hearing the Vienna Philharmonic live for the first time -- in Boston, of all places -- in my late 20s. It changed my perception of sound and of what’s possible. I hope there are people for whom some of this would have had the same impact.

‘New Story’

‘‘There’s something to be said for rarity value. They have wonderful orchestras in Australia, but they knew that they were hearing something very different. This is a new story for those people.”

Rattle and the philharmonic have received rapturous welcomes everywhere they have performed on the tour, which is funded by a combination of government subsidy, sponsorship and ticket sales.

“It’s a similar feeling that we had in Taiwan, 2,000 people in the hall and almost 40,000 people outside, listening on screens in the rain,” Rattle says. “Then welcoming us, and you suddenly feel it’s from people’s hearts.

Audience Investment

‘‘You feel it before you’ve started. When we came onto the stage in Australia, the orchestra and I looked at each other and we thought, this had better be good! The warmth does buoy you up. There’s a feeling of such investment in it, and that’s special. I don’t think audiences always realize how much they make a performance, and what a contract it is between listeners.

‘‘We’ve all taken a lot away from that,” Rattle says. “You can see people trying to come to terms with it. Look at this plane, look at the privilege. Underneath it all, people feel, do we really deserve this? You have to find a way to deal with it. But it makes your heart a bit bigger, I would say.”

The euphoria of the tour provides a healing climate for a relationship between orchestra and chief conductor that has sometimes been tense. Rattle describes the Berlin Philharmonic as “an orchestra which burns.”

“There is something about the fierce depth with which they play which is unique,” he says. “You put your hands too close to it and they can be scorched.”

Speculation about orchestral dissatisfaction with Rattle was silenced in October last year, when the conductor’s contract was extended through 2018. The self-governed Berlin Philharmonic makes its decisions by majority vote.

‘Pure Music’

“This group at its best can be really pure music,” says Rattle. “And you forget that there are individuals. It’s like watching incredible shoals of fish in the Maldives just move together. There’s an organic feeling in how the orchestra wants to play, and it’s like a type of breathing. It simply takes a long time to learn.”

A return visit to Australia for the orchestra might be on the cards for 2016, but Rattle says he doesn’t want to wait that long for his next trip Down Under. Next time, he says, he’ll bring his wife, singer Magdalena Kozena, and their two children. Though he doesn’t usually accept guest-conducting work, he would seriously consider making an exception to the rule to work with an Australian orchestra.

“Magdalena couldn’t believe that I spent all that time in Australia and didn’t see a single kangaroo or a koala,” he says. “Somehow I missed the chance. But I did have one of the greatest meals I’ve had in my life at a Sydney restaurant called Quay, and I did see lots of birds and water dragons. So next time, with the kids, we obviously have to go and explore.”


(Shirley Apthorp is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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