In the world of orchestral music, there is no bigger band than the Berlin Philharmonic, and, as such, there is arguably no bigger post than Chief Conductor of the Berlin Phil. Past leaders of this peerless orchestra read like a roll call of classical-music history: Bülow, Nikisch, Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado.
So it's pretty big news that Simon Rattle, the BPO's first English-speaking conductor, announced today that he will be stepping down at the end of his current contract in 2018. From all indications, the decision was Rattle's, though it must be said that his tenure in Berlin has not been without controversy. In 2005, Rattle himself said that his relationship with BPO musicians could sometimes be "turbulent"; in 2006, German critic Manuel Brug of Die Welt started to publicly question the quality of Rattle's concerts. Indeed, Rattle will only be 63 when he leaves Berlin—not exactly retirement age in a profession where many work well into their 80s.
But by any reasonable measure, Rattle's tenure in Berlin has been an unqualified success, where his accomplishments could be felt well beyond the podium. In 2002, he won independence for the orchestra from the city of Berlin, resulting in greater artistic freedom and a dramatic increase in player salaries. He auditioned players from around the world, resulting in a multinational orchestra that is approaching an even male-female balance. He established the orchestra's first education program, Zukunft@BPhil, collaborating with local youth in such remarkable programs as The Rite of Spring, which Rattle brought to New York City in 2007. Aditionally, he has mentored many up-and-coming musicians—including his own potential successor, Gustavo Dudamel, with whom he shared a podium during that same 2007 visit.
In Rattle's own words:
“As a Liverpool boy, it is impossible not to think of the Beatles’ question, ‘Will you still need me.., when I’m 64?’ and I am sure that then it will be time for somebody else to take on the magnificent challenge that is the Berliner Philharmoniker. This was not an easy decision. I love this orchestra and therefore wanted to tell them my decision as early as possible. I deeply hope that this will give them enough time to start new plans. I look forward with great pleasure to our next five years together and hopefully many years afterwards. I am thankful for the time that we have spent together so far.”
Why, you might ask, is this fodder for a New York City-based music site? As felt during the BPO's visits here in 2007, 2009, and 2012, the BPO sets the standard for great symphony orchestras around the world. Whether it's the quality of their playing, or their technological innovations (such as the Digital Concert Hall), the better Berlin is, the better all orchestras are. And, Berlin is better for Simon Rattle having been at the helm.
Fortunately, New Yorkers will have at least one more chance to catch Rattle with the BPO when they return to Carnegie Hall at some point over the next few seasons; more on that as info becomes available. Those not willing to wait can catch Rattle with the Philadelphia Orchestra this April—details and tickets here.