Rattle Rattles Some With a Novel Approach | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.09.2006
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Rattle Rattles Some With a Novel Approach

Berlin once welcomed British conductor Sir Simon Rattle enthusiastically as a breath of fresh air. These days, though, the international star is causing discontent in German music circles for his novel approach to music.

Sir Simone Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle says music is for everyone

"Welcome Sir Simon," read some of the hundreds of placards hanging around Berlin four years ago in anticipation of the new British conductor's first concert with the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

At the time, musicians, critics and the public hailed the hiring as step in a new direction for the storied and conservative orchestra, one that would breathe new life into the institution and move it forward.

These days, though, there is increasing discontent in and out of the orchestra, with calls for Rattle to leave. Critics say he is the cause of decline at the institution with his more open and more modern approach to music at the expense of German standards.

Others say this latest cultural controversy is typical of Germany, a country famous for its ability to attract artistic talent from around the world. Germans, the theory goes, want something fresh and new, but once they get it, they'd rather revert back to the evergreens.

"It is good what (Rattle) is doing, because the orchestra needs to move along, not linger in the old traditions," said one Berlin classical musician. "People are just upset because it is a lot of change at one time."

A new direction

It was not seen as just a new direction for music at the orchestra when Rattle was appointed conductor in 2002, but also a new way of doing business in the arts.

Rattle looks into the camera, showing off a headful of gray hair

Rattle is known for his frizzy locks and electric style

Bankrupt Berlin, with its three major orchestras, transformed the public philharmonic into a quasi-private foundation with increased autonomy in artistic and business matters. That was a first in Germany, where the performing arts are mainly financed -- and controlled -- by the state.

It was also anticipated that the 51-year-old Liverpool native, who is credited with revamping Birmingham's orchestra, would shake things up at the Berlin Philharmonic with his youthful style and willingness to eschew 19th century German Romantic standards for more modern and experimental music as well as reach out to the young through school programs.

Rattle, who is nicknamed feuerkopf or fire-head, has shattered the stereotype of the aloof German conductor. Instead, with a mop of curly hair, an energetic style and an ever-present grin, he has won over audiences with his communicative personality and his trademark mantra that "music is for everyone."

"The thrill is gone"

Still, in early summer, what was simmering among music circles hit the public after a well-known German music critic called for Rattle's ouster and said he was the cause of the decline at the Berlin Philharmonic.

"We've grown used to him -- the thrill is gone, has yielded to more pedestrian charms," wrote Manuel Brug, chief music critic of Die Welt newspaper. "We are well-acquainted with his dashing gestures, we've seen through his permanent expression of ecstasy, which has curdled into a mask in the meantime."

Brug also accused Rattle of betraying the German sound.

"In working with this venerable orchestra, he neglects the great German symphonic tradition ... nor does he set out for distant lands," he wrote.

Daniel Barenboim, who lost the position in Berlin to Rattle

Rattle beat out conductor Daniel Barenboim for the job

In the German classical music scene, the philharmonic's trademark, the "German" sound is one that is rich, dark and romantic in its renditions of the standards from Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Wagner and Strauss.

Rattle, on the other hand, is bringing in works from the past 80 years such as Berg and Schönberg. That prompted one reporter at a May press conference to tell Rattle that he is defiling the trademark of the orchestra.

The conductor, who once said that he would not return "time and again to the same old war horses" replied, "I'm sorry if that is the case."

Meanwhile, Rattle's home papers are defending him in articles and editorials.

"The Berlin Philharmonic is in superlative shape," wrote pianist Alfred Brendel in the British newspaper, the Guardian. "While it has fully retained its richness in Romantic symphonies, it has opened itself up to contemporary as well as to 18th-century music in a novel way."

The old and the new

The fight over Rattle is really a fight between tradition and the new, many say. It is has impacted a number of artists in Germany trying to turn things around, most notably American choreographer William Forsythe, who headed the Frankfurt Ballet from 1984 to 2004. The city declined to renew Forsythe's contract after officials decided they wanted a return to more classical ballet productions instead of his modern interpretations.

Some say that flexibility and variety in the arts is exactly what is needed to bring in younger and more cosmopolitan audiences, but they warn that such efforts might come at the expense of an institution's prestige.

"The Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle has not lost its sound," wrote musicologist Christiane Tewinkel in Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper.

"Someone like Sir Simon Rattle, who says that if he believes in anything, it's that 'this music is for everyone', is right on one hand," she wrote. "On the other, however, he is mistaken about the extent to which classical music continues to thrive on distinction and on the concept of elitism. All this threatens its brand essence: Is the philharmonic really an everyman's orchestra?"

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