At a general assembly of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle made the surprise announcement that he will resign as the orchestra's chief conductor after his contract concludes in 2018.
"The decision wasn't easy," the audience favorite with his gray mop of hair told his musicians. "In 2018, I will have worked together with the Berlin Philharmonic for 16 years. Before that, I had already been head conductor in Birmingham for 18 years. Otherwise, I'll be facing my 64th birthday."
The charmer from Liverpool went on to quip, "As a 'Liverpoolian,' you can hardly pass this birthday without a question from the Beatles: 'Will you still need me, when I'm 64?'"
Enough is enough?
It's a line that opens up more than a few questions, though. Does the conductor want to leave behind the organizational side of his job in order to focus on the artistic? Is he beginning to run out of ideas? That's what a few members of the elite German orchestra are asking.
Dissatisfaction with the orchestra's head has been growing - even if only among some and slowly. Is Rattle leaving when it's most opportune?
Rattle completely reformed the democratically organized Philharmonic in the last 10 years. A precondition for him taking the job in 2002 was to combine into a single foundation two separate entities: the state-funded Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the private Berlin Philharmonic Association, whose royalties flowed directly into the musicians' bank accounts.
That took place without the orchestra having to give up its state funding. Under Rattle's leadership, the 129-member orchestra also grew visibly younger. And the group took on new projects.
Musicality and creativity
The repertory has undergone changes - away from the thunderous finales of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. In their place: smaller ensembles, and more modernism with the likes of Dutilleux, Debussy, Britten and Stravinsky. Contemporary works. And crossover projects with jazz musician Wynton Marsalis or theater director and composer Heiner Goebbels.
While the group's CD recordings are still rewarded with prizes - although not with royalties - Rattle established live online concert streams from the Berlin Philharmonic. The digital concert hall is said to slowly be earning profits, and observers can see that the number of younger fans is growing. Simon Rattle has a way of drawing people to the Philharmonic that never would have come without him.
The Philharmonie, the famous concert hall by architect Hans Scharoun, radiates openness to audiences. In an age of neglect of music education in German schools, the Berlin Philharmonic has finally taken up the task to educate and inform. The musicians go out into their city to teach and play music in schools, hospitals and socially problematic areas.
'Rhythm Is It!'
The first major educational project under Rattle's leadership was called "Rhythm Is It!" - a film about the preparation and performance of Igor Stravinsky's ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" in January 2003 in an old Berlin bus depot. It became an international hit, documenting the coming together of 250 Berlin pupils from 25 countries and divergent social and cultural backgrounds, who had no previous exposure to classical music or artistic dance. Together with the Berlin Philharmonic, they discovered the potential within.
"Rhythm Is It!" is a captivating narrative about fascination with music, trusting oneself and others, as well as passion, stubbornness, respect, love and joy in life - central messages of today's Berlin Philharmonic.
Words of praise
Simon Rattle, the star conductor with a knack for experimentation, symbolizes this new era of the orchestra. Following the tenure of Claudio Abbado, his appointment was seen by the orchestra members and the public as a stroke of luck.
"We regret Simon Rattle's decision," said the orchestra's chairman, Stefan Dohr. "However, we respect his personal resolution. The collaboration with him has been shaped by significant and mutual appreciation as well as respectful artistic and interpersonal relationships. For us, that's a wonderful basis for our shared work with Sir Simon as creative director in the coming five years. We look forward to many exciting projects that are already in the works. And after 2018, we will maintain a close and friendly relationship with him."
An elegant farewell
Sir Simon Rattle seems on the way to an elegant departure from Berlin. The orchestra does not want to discuss possible replacements for the next two to three years, nor does it want to talk about whether there will need to be a new shift in generations in five years. One likely candidate is the internationally celebrated 33-year-old Andris Nelsons, who sets orchestras' souls ablaze. He is routinely welcomed as guest conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic, as is the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, whose contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic will end in 2018. Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado or Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin will also surely be watched closely in the coming years.
Perhaps the "over 50" generation could offer Rattle's successor, though. Is Daniel Barenboim, who has offered plenty of competition with the Berliner Staatskapelle in recent years, already too old? Christian Thielemann, who has signed a contract as chief conductor of the Dresdner Staatskapelle through 2019, would surely be glad to take on the much sought-after post. But critics say Thielemann would mark a step back into the authoritarian times under Herbert von Karajan, who led the Berlin Philharmonic from 1955 to 1989. An outsider could be a possibility, too, like Thomas Hengelbrock, who has had major successes with Hamburg's North German Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Here, as with the decision for Rattle in 2002, it will be a question of money. With whom can the Berlin Philharmonic earn the most? Rumors will swirl. The choice among the world's top conductors will fall to the orchestra alone - a choice likely to send an important signal in the world of music. Rattle has given the members enough time to think their choice over well.