A 21st-Century Orchestra Harkens Back to the 1890s

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Sir Simon Rattle

This Friday at 8pm, WQXR offers a live broadcast from Carnegie Hall: Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.

It was that very piece that inspired the 12-year-old Rattle to become a conductor in the first place. Whether the orchestra’s 2010 live recording - or this Saturday’s live broadcast - achieve similar affect on others remains to be seen. Regardless, the developing relationship and choices of the Berlin Phil and its conductor/artistic director continue to captivate the classical music world.

Sir Simon Rattle described being the first British conductor/artistic director of the Berlin Phil in a 2010 interview with WQXR’s Jeff Spurgen: “Yes of course it’s the best job in the world, but it's very, very far from the easiest job in the world." Filling big shoes rarely is.

The orchestra's previous conductors -- Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado -- while legendary on the podium, each were steeped in the orchestra's past glories but didn't entirely set it up for 21st-century innovation. And the players had a reputation for making great conductors, not the other way around. But in 1999, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were uniquely positioned to set a standard for balancing the traditional and the new in classical music.

Steeped in its own legacy, changes didn’t come easily to the orchestra. It took three years for Sir Simon to fully integrate as artistic director and conductor. Within a year of his appointment, a clash in values over some Bartok ballets (the players making the studio recordings wouldn’t necessarily perform in the live concerts) led to a reorganization of the orchestra's structure. “It’s the most democratically run orchestra there is, because the players have so much power and influence,” said Rattle after the restructuring, in a 2002 New York Times article published just before his debut in Berlin.

Almost a decade later, the Berlin Philharmonic is embracing a 21st century balance between technology and tradition. Rattle has dedicated the orchestra to presenting significantly more modern and early music than ever before. He’s initiated education projects, emphasizing the orchestra’s civic role. Beginning in 2008, the organization unveiled it’s “digital concert hall,” where online viewers pay a small fee to stream a live performance, now an orchestra mainstay. Saturday’s live broadcast of Mahler’s Second Symphony, which was debuted by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1895, epitomizes the orchestra’s combined reach and historic distinction.

But 21st-century tune-ups only go so far. Over three nights at Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Phil will not stray outside of the 1890s. Friday’s program pairs Mahler with works by his lesser-known contemporary, the art song composer Hugo Wolf. (Wolf was born the same year as Mahler and was his classmate at the Vienna Conservatory.) Yet, it's hard to criticize an institution for doing what it does best, and the BPO players recently endorsed Rattle with a contract extending into 2018.