Turkey Interview with the Maestro: Alain Matalon Talks with Sir Simon Rattle in Istanbul
“That’s so nice, but I’m Simon. The Maestro is coming next week,” Sir Simon Rattle says jokingly at the first mention of the accolade, setting a friendly mood a few minutes into our sit down with him at the balcony of his hotel suite overlooking both the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. The late September evening is unseasonably warm – even for Istanbul, and Mr. Rattle has just arrived in the city following a concert at the Alta Oper Frankfurt. “I couldn’t believe how nice and warm the weather was, when I got out of the plane,” he says. “We had the best time when we were here last year for five days [with his wife Magdalena Kožená] – apart from trying to be cheated by every taxi driver in the city. We ate great food; we walked and walked and saw wonderful sights.”
This time around he, along with his Berlin Philharmonic, is here with a mission: a special concert as part of the 40th-anniversary celebrations for the IKSV (Istanbul Culture and Arts Foundation), the organization behind most of the leading arts festivals in Istanbul. Mr. Rattle graciously accepted to be interviewed in the short time that he had between arriving in his hotel room and his evening engagements. He won’t be spending much time in Istanbul this time around. There are the rehearsals and the concert tomorrow, and then he will be flying to Izmir for a second performance on Friday. Despite the fast-moving schedule and people hurrying in and out of the room reminding him of how much time we have left, Mr. Rattle stays relaxed and focused the whole time we are together. At the end of our conversation (which ran more like an evening spent chatting than a formal interview), I was convinced that what he brings to the conversation table is probably very much in line with what he has brought to the Berlin Philharmonic: an open, animated, intelligent and farsighted discourse.
Sir Simon spent a good part of this summer in his homeland, first with his appearance at the London Olympics opening ceremony with the London Symphony Orchestra, then with two celebrated evenings at the 2012 Proms with the Berlin ensemble. He remembers the Olympics ceremony with great delight: “The fact that they successfully managed to keep him [Rowan Atkinson] a secret, and the laughter from the 80,000 in attendance ten bars into the music when he appeared and did his bit completely unrehearsed…I have tremendous respect for him. I found it very moving to be a part of that crowd.” Mr. Rattle is also very proud that Britain was “actually happy, and not even cynical about things for a few weeks. It’s good for the country.”
Off to the Proms, then. Was I wrong in thinking that he had programmed his two evenings like the way he did in 2010, where standard repertoire was tactically separated from the more modern music? “No, we try to mix it together,” he says. “I don’t really like the ‘ghetto’ of contemporary music. If it’s great music, we should be playing it. And this is one of the fantastic things about Lutoslawski [whose Third Symphony was performed on their second evening] which is as central to the repertoire as Le Sacre du Printemps, and you should play it in a normal concert.” Mr. Rattle’s complete internalization of contemporary music is truly commendable. He clearly doesn’t see it as something that we should really be talking about anymore. Still, was that something that he had to instill in the orchestra? “They [the orchestra] have an enormous amount of curiosity and energy. I don’t have to encourage anybody to do their job because the famous Berlin passion is always there.”
I tend to feel that the Berlin Philharmonic has gone through two distinctive personalities before Rattle. There was the long period under von Karajan, of course, in which utter control was perhaps top priority. Then came Abbado with his programmatic dispositions yielding a lush and romantic sound. Now, after nearly ten years with Sir Simon at the helm, have things settled down once again? “Oh, the words ‘settle down’ and ‘Berlin Philharmonic’ are not easy bedfellows”, he says earnestly. “At the moment we are at an extremely happy time. But it’s always full of debate, argument and ideas. It’s not the easiest job in the world, but again you wouldn’t want it to be.” Does he think that the orchestra has evolved, I ask him, thinking about the many new facets of their playing style without letting go of their signature Berlin sound. “I do hope so. You wouldn’t want to affect this fantastic, deep strong Germanic sound. But maybe there’s more of a stylistic awareness now. We’re playing more French music, we’re playing Puccini. But, there is no doubt, when you return to the German repertoire after doing two weeks of Porgy and Bess for the first time in the orchestra’s history, coming to Beethoven’s Seventh you say ‘this is where these animals belong’ – but that’s a good thing.”
We have recently heard Rattle talk about the ‘razor-sharp rhythm’ that Berliners seem to be lacking, and perhaps it’s a good time to bring it up while we’re on Beethoven. Is it something unique to romantic music and Beethoven in particular? “Oh, everybody has rhythmic problems with Beethoven,” he says matter-of-factly. Then he goes on to elaborate it in the most stylish way imaginable. He looks across the vista, spots a sharp skyscraper close to where we are, and says, “It [the orchestra] doesn’t play that shape so much – these contemporary skyscrapers; it plays much more like the other side of the water, like the Topkapi Palace. It’s a wave-form, the way they play, it moves around a lot. The Berliners don’t dance the same way as the Viennese. They can be very sharp – but not at the click of a finger. They have to feel the rhythm, they don’t calculate it. When they feel it in their body, it is played in a very different way almost like chamber music.”
The Berlin Philharmonic is now officially a young orchestra, but Mr. Rattle considers the dramatic decrease in the average age of his musicians in the last ten years to be ‘an accident of time.’ “It’s the same thing that’s happening in the Vienna Philharmonic. As it happens, a lot of people were reaching retirement at the same time. What also happened in Berlin is that the orchestra has become much more international, comprising twenty-six nationalities.” Actually it used to be twenty-seven, but their Turkish bass player, Fora Baltacigil, has just been appointed as the principal bass for the New York Philharmonic, and Sir Simon could not be prouder. Tomorrow’s concert will include the Bottesini Grand Duo Concertante featuring Mr. Baltacigil as one of the soloists, which will be the final time they will play together. “We are completely torn between wanting him to be the most fantastic success there, and wanting it to be a catastrophe so he comes back immediately – but we’re trying to go with the better side.”
So, the repertoire and the members have been undergoing a dramatic change. How has this affected the subscriber base in Berlin, if at all? “It is really interesting,” he says after a pause. “When I came, after a while a lot of subscribers felt ‘okay, that’s probably enough for us’ [laughs], but a lot of new subscribers took their place. We play a big variety of music. They’re not getting so much now of the old school ‘Overture, Concerto, Symphony’ program. They’re getting a lot more variety. Berlin is almost as vibrant and diverse a city as yours. People are coming with many different interests, and they are open to new things and new forms. We just started playing late-night concerts which have become a great success.”
I want to bring the subject to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall which is a testament to Mr. Rattle’s visionary persona. Before I have a chance to ask him about it, he dives right into the subject when I inquire about the possibility of another Mahler recording in the works. “Like everybody else, we have had a little bit of Mahler overdose in these two years,” he says smiling, “but don’t worry; we would never be without it. Mahler is what made me into a conductor, and I can’t imagine my life without him. As for recordings, first question is, what will the recording industry be in a few years? Nobody really knows. It’s been interesting since we started this Digital Concert Hall” His eyes light up as he starts talking about the hugely successful project. “It may be that something more like this is going to be the future of recording. I have this feeling that people will have a system, big screen and speakers where they’ll get whatever entertainment, whatever music, culture they need – just like they get the water they need. Maybe people will want more live performances at their homes. I’ve recently been told that we have had 13,000 Turkish viewers for our Digital Concert Hall.” 13,000? That’s an incredible number – hard to believe even, when concert halls in Istanbul are hardly ever sold-out except for when big names are playing. “Not necessarily subscribers,” Mr. Rattle quickly says seeing my astonishment. “Some may be full-time subscribers, and some may have connected for one concert only. But it also shows you what’s really going on – it shows you that people are interested.” He can’t hide his excitement when talking about the new technology: “There is a big group in Colombia that plays our broadcast. My favorite single photograph was sent by someone from the biggest Indian Reservation in Minnesota, and they were watching Mahler’s 2nd on our Digital Concert Hall. It was in a huge barn and it was being projected on a big sheet. And the picture came with a caption saying: ‘You never know who’s listening’”.
True. And what is Sir Simon Rattle listening to? What is currently on his iPod? “I use my iPod just for work”, he says almost forlorn. “If we sit down and listen to music, it’s at home with a glass of wine, and it’s not classical music. It will be jazz or music from Senegal, or wherever. My iPod is full of what’s coming up or what I would be interested in doing. The last thing I bought was Schumann’s Genoveva with Harnoncourt, because it’s a work I want to explore. There’s some Herbie Hancock in there, but I can listen to it only occasionally. My iPod’s become my office, so that’s depressing. I’m sorry.”