by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 7, 2002.
The Berlin Philharmonie, Hans Scharoun’s gold-yellow masterpiece of late-modern design, was once a temple in a wilderness. Even in 1995, when I last visited Berlin, the wreckage of history was all around: the gray crevasses where the Wall had stood; the Wilhelmine villas crumbling in the woods; the eerie meadow covering the site of Hitler’s bunker. Now the Philharmonie presides at the far end of the new avenues of Potsdamer Platz, its tilted, tentlike forms grabbing the eye at every turn. The "new Berlin" takes its cue from the Philharmonie, and the heightened glamour of the hall creates an exceptional challenge for the musicians who work within it. The Berlin Philharmonic, commonly and plausibly described as the greatest orchestra in the world, must now reach out to younger generations of Berliners. The orchestra took up that challenge by electing as its next conductor not another jet-set maestro but the passionate, obstinate, charismatic Simon Rattle, who, in the eighties and nineties, turned down many job offers to remain with the City of Birmingham Symphony. In Birmingham, Rattle brought a local orchestra to the attention of the world; in Berlin, his task is to make a world-famous orchestra local again, to prove that it matters to a financially unsettled city.
To conduct the Berlin Philharmonic is to be the unofficial chairman of the board of classical music. The authority of the post derives not only from the splendor of the orchestra—its intimidating blend of virtuosity and intelligence—but also from the lustre of those who have led it in the past: Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan. It is not surprising that when Rattle took over from his immediate predecessor, the diffident but deep-thinking Claudio Abbado, the city made an extraordinary fuss. Walking around the city before the recent German election, you might have thought that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his challenger Edmund Stoiber were being upstaged by an eccentric write-in candidate named Sir Simon. ("Welcome Sir Simon," the posters said, in English, not German.) The opening concert, on September 7th, attracted the Federal President and the mayor of Berlin, along with Harald Schmidt, the German David Letterman. Ninety-eight music critics attended—an orchestra of second guessers. The reviews ranged from the wildly enthusiastic to the mildly skeptical, but no one questioned that Rattle had seized the moment.
Rattle has walked into the middle of a complicated situation. Back in the Cold War, Berlin’s music was fodder for propaganda—East and West had rival opera houses, rival concert orchestras, rival radio orchestras, and so on. Now these institutions must justify their subsidies to a unified city. According to one ominous report in circulation, the budget for opera may be cut from a hundred and fourteen million euros to fifty-five million. Rattle cannily cemented his position long before arriving on the podium: he refused to sign his contract until the orchestra had been made an independent foundation and the players’ salaries raised. More recently, the papers were reporting an imbroglio involving Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, the imaginative and aggressive Intendant of the Philharmonic, who, not long ago, was causing consternation at Carnegie Hall. Ohnesorg evidently removed two plantings from the Philharmonie’s foyer in order to make room for a much needed intermission bar. Guardians of Scharoun’s architectural legacy were aghast—the Philharmonie was being "degraded to banality," one said—and politicians disliked the peremptory way in which Ohnesorg pushed through his plan. Bigger problems may ensue if the Intendant continues to show "poor style," as Thomas Flierl, the culture senator, put it.
The September 7th concert fell a little short of the impossibly high expectations that had been created for it. Rattle began with Thomas Adès’s 1997 work "Asyla" ("Asylums"), which also appeared on the conductor’s final program in Birmingham. The Philharmonic made a festive noise but never fully mastered the urban rhythms of the piece, especially the jagged syncopations of the bacchanalian third movement. And the orchestra missed Adès’s undertow of dark emotion—the big E-flat-minor chord at the end, which should have been in the players’ blood, came and went without causing a shudder.
Rattle sometimes brilliantly pulls a work to pieces, discovering unsuspected beauties in each part, without quite finding a way to put it back together. This is what happened to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which followed the Adès. You could hear the still points around which Mahler’s structures turn: Rattle often builds toward a whisper in place of a climax. But the result was a flurry of epiphanies rather than a single revelation. In the scherzo, Rattle had the idea of moving the first horn up to a soloist position, in front of the orchestra; the resulting concertino, while bracing to the ears, broke the symphony’s flow. The Mahler was recorded by EMI for a disk that will be in the stores next month, and it may have been unwise to rush through a recording while Rattle was still finding his rhythm.
I would rather have had a recording from the following week’s program—Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, Magnus Lindberg’s "Gran Duo," and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Rattle is the best Haydn conductor working, and the rhythms of the symphony were an ideal embodiment of muscular grace. The Lindberg piece, scored for winds and brass, glowed in the acoustic space of the Philharmonie like a great silver mobile. But it was the Schubert that was the breakthrough. The C-Major Symphony was a Karajan specialty, and Rattle dared a comparison that he could easily have put off for a while. In the Andante, something magical happened, and the Berlin Philharmonic really became Rattle’s orchestra. In the middle of the movement, a frightening tension gathered, and the climactic diminished-seventh chords turned almost expressionistically ugly. Then came an enormous pause—framed by one of those total silences that you hear only in German concert halls—and the solo cello sang out at a halting tempo, as if from another world. For the first time, you could see how Rattle’s pointillistic epiphanies would work with the orchestra’s tradition of rich-toned, chiaroscuro sound. Orchestra and conductor had become one animal.
When I last checked in, Rattle was preparing Mark-Anthony Turnage’s "Blood on the Floor," a symphonic suite, with jazz-fusion interludes, depicting the life and death of heroin addicts. Later this season, Rattle will lead "The Rite of Spring" in a former East Berlin bus depot, with a troupe of two hundred student dancers. He wants to take the orchestra out of the Philharmonie and throw it into the life of the city. The Philharmonic is to be both a traditional army of one hundred and an array of tactical units—wind bands, string bands, chamber groups, avant-garde ensembles, jazz combos. The astonishingly young-looking orchestra—the average age is around forty—appears eager to take it all on. I am inclined to agree with what Nicholas Kenyon writes in his biography of Rattle: "This could change the musical world."
Eleven days after Rattle’s début, Lorin Maazel conducted his first concert as the music director of the New York Philharmonic. This will not change the musical world. Maazel’s appointment came after a long and not very interesting soap opera in which all the usual names were in play. Rattle went unmentioned because he has never conducted the orchestra; according to Kenyon, he is leery of the Philharmonic’s reputation for humiliating new conductors. The orchestra went for Maazel presumably on the ground that this seasoned maestro exudes easy authority and takes a no-nonsense approach to rehearsal. He has been in many places—Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Vienna, Munich—and not all his former colleagues speak of him fondly. He has a clear, electrifying technique and a prodigious ear for detail. He is also unpredictable: performances of his that I have heard over the years have ranged from the propulsive to the repulsive, with few subtle shades in between.
A friend whose musical judgment I trust says that Maazel has mellowed in recent years, grown more questing and generous. There was evidence of this in the program I heard last Tuesday, which combined Beethoven’s Ninth with a new work by John Adams, "On the Transmigration of Souls." The Andante of the Beethoven had a buoyancy that the orchestra rarely achieved under the all too sturdy hand of Kurt Masur; the strings came to life with singing lines and plush textures. But there were also many glimpses of Maazel’s familiar tics. In the first movement, he repeatedly applied the brakes in passages that Beethoven marked "a tempo"; that is, don’t slow down. The movement didn’t so much end as grind to a halt. In the Scherzo, the timpanist was asked to produce various attention-getting thwacks—again, at precisely those points where Beethoven wanted something more subtle. The Finale had infectious energy—Marina Mescheriakova, Jill Grove, Thomas Studebaker, and Peter Rose sang, together with the New York Choral Artists—but Maazel’s heavy-footed tempos again slowed the work’s momentum. This Beethoven Ninth came nowhere near the nobility of Masur’s best performances; instead, it stomped toward pompous cliché.
On the evidence of the Adams première, we can at least look forward to exacting performances of contemporary music, which Masur tended to make a mess of. "On the Transmigration of Souls" sets to music the plainspoken, heartfelt language surrounding the events of September 11th: the final words of victims, exclamations of grief, missing-persons signs, scattered phrases like "Windows on the World." Orchestra and chorus are blended with a tape collage of voices and noises. Adams does not try to depict the destruction of the World Trade Center blow by blow, nor does he write an official requiem. Instead, his music captures, on some raw, unconscious level, what it was like to be in the city on September 11th—to see millions wandering without purpose, to hear those importuning voices, to feel grief in sunshine. At the climax, the massed voices—here including the marvellous Brooklyn Youth Chorus, under the direction of Dianne Berkun—sing the words "Light! Sky! Day!" obsessively, and the music climbs far into the upper register, forming terrible bright chords of D major and C major combined. Then it all vanishes, and a semblance of ordinary life resumes: sounds of cars, buses, voices, footsteps.
If Maazel had begun his tenure with this extraordinary work, he would have signalled his commitment to classical music as a contemporary art. But, on his very first night, he conducted Beethoven’s third "Leonore"Overture in place of the Adams. By way of explanation, the Philharmonic said that there was not enough rehearsal time to prepare the Adams properly. Aren’t million-dollar maestros hired precisely for their ability to surmount such obstacles? The Philharmonic’s reluctance to confront its black-tie customers with contemporary sounds revealed at once the gap between this regime and Rattle’s in Berlin. It is the distance between caution and courage, inertia and imagination.