The first time I met Simon Rattle was on a snowy January night in 2003, in the backstage area of the Musikverein in
"We're having fun," he said, with a glint in his eye.
Little did I know that less than two weeks later, he and the BPO would be performing The Rite of Spring at a former warehouse in industrial Berlin, with 250 underprivileged teenagers from around the city, dancing to primitive but intricate choreography by Royston Maldoom. The project, which was documented in the 2004 film Rhythm Is It!, was an enormous success and a powerful statement of Rattle's bold new intentions for the world's greatest orchestra. (There, I said it.)
"Without doubt," Rattle said, "it was one of the most memorable and emotional evenings that we have had, one that seems to have had a powerful resonance for our relation to the whole city."
When Catherine Milliken, the director of Zukunft@BPhil, was informed of Carnegie Hall's invitation to revive The Rite of Spring at Washington Heights' United Palace Theater, she decided to enhance the original project with an extension into song. Working with some 80 students from four Harlem high schools, her team developed Songs: Ritual Rhythms, a new choral work inspired by Rite, with a socially-positive, often humorous text that encouraged them to speak out and stand up for themselves. In addition to a chorus of sixty, 20 student percussionists worked with the formidable BPO timpanist Rainer Seegers, who strutted and danced around the stage with various tam tams, tambourines, rattles and other implements. Other BPO participants included oboist Jonathan Kelly, Franz Schindlbeck - who played Stravinsky on Thursday and was seen here behind a drum kit (playing hip hop!) - and Edicson Ruiz, the 22-year old double bass phenom from Venezuela. Many other members of the orchestra - including Rattle and concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa - watched from the first row, instruments in hand.
After intermission, Rattle came onstage to speak about Rite, offering some background for the numerous audience members who were likely hearing this music for the first time. He told us it was written in 1913, prophesying the onset of World War I, with its chaotic rhythms and violent sonorities. He pointed out how it was left to the women and the young - in particular a young virgin who dances herself to death - to save a world that is falling apart at the hands of men.
"Now, if that sounds like what's going on these days..." he said, to explosive laughter and cheers.
In Rhythm Is It!, Royston Maldoom says he sees a performance of Rite as nothing less than, "the enactment of a ritual to ensure the future." Maldoom believes resolutely in the power of dance to change people's lives, and over the past 30 years has developed numerous dance projects with everyone from prison inmates, to adults with learning disabilities, to Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. (Maldoom himself was brought up in lower-class London.) He has been here since September, working with 100 students of various ages from five Harlem schools; you can read some of their reflections here.
The hard work clearly paid off, with the kids putting on a riveting performance of truly complex movement. For his part, Rattle delivered an electrifying performance with the Philharmonic, which I was lucky enough to hear from the third row (making up for Friday night's seating fiasco.) After several curtain calls with the creators and organizers, Rattle took his own bows with the kids, clearly relishing the moment. Not everyday you see a world-class conductor surrounded onstage by a bunch of inner city kids...
The dance project has now become an annual event in Berlin, with the next one happening in February, to Heiner Goebbels 1994 composition Surrogate Cities. From the few locals I met who were deeply and sincerely appreciative of the BPO bringing this monumental event here, one can only hope there are more projects in our future as well. (Alan Gilbert: take heed.)
P.S. This trailer to Rhythm Is It! gives you a good taste of what this was all about.