Simon Rattle is to leave Berlin: what next for him and the Philharmoniker?

The great conductor has given the Berlin orchestra five years to find a replacement, and himself five years to decide his future. What options lie ahead for musicians and maestro?

Sir Simon Rattle's announcement that he will not extend his contract as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker beyond 2018 triggers what was described by his close advisers on Wednesday as another very personal and sensible decision by a musician who has always mapped his own future years in advance. But it triggers two irresistible pieces of speculation. First, what will Rattle do next? He will be 63 in 2018, early middle age by the standards of orchestral conductors, who often work until well into their 80s. Second, who will get Rattle's über-prestigious job when he packs his bags? Even today, the Berlin job remains the pinnacle of the conducting profession.

Rattle will have notched 16 years in Berlin by the time he quits. That's a good innings by anyone's standards. He was appointed to take over from Claudio Abbado because the Berlin players – who select their own boss – hoped he he could maintain Berlin's wonderful sound, forged in the eras of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan during the mid-20th century, but simultaneously throw open the doors to the Philharmonie and drag what is still widely regarded as the greatest symphony orchestra in the world into the 21st century.

On both counts, Rattle has lived up to those expectations. After an occasionally shaky start – there were rumours early on that the Berlin players were disappointed in Rattle's interpretations of the core central European repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner — the Liverpool-born conductor has won plaudits for his work on the classics. Five years ago, in 2008, the musicians extended his contract for another 10 years, to 2018, a huge vote of confidence. Since then his work has deepened.

Meanwhile, like Abbado before him, Rattle has opened up the Berliners' repertoire, putting contemporary works frequently on the menu, and taking the orchestra into schools and local communities to help break down barriers and stereotypes. The orchestra itself has been transformed, no longer all-male and all-German but now emphatically multi-national and with something approaching an equal male-female balance. Rattle will leave Berlin still at the height of his powers and with his reputation – rooted in his 18-year transformation of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s and 90s – burnished still further.

By 2018, however, Rattle will no longer be the glamorous whizz-kid he once was. The long, curly, black locks went white many years ago, and the prodigy will soon become a veteran. It seems unlikely he will look for another long-term, ful-ltime post like the ones he has held in Birmingham and Berlin. Rattle is more likely to forge a series of special relationships with orchestras and opera houses that excite his interest. He often works in London with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and makes his next appearance in the UK with them in London at the end of January. Though he could probably be guest conductor of almost any orchestra in the world, he seems likely to do things his own way. Perhaps, like Abbado after leaving Berlin, he will build a festival and an orchestra around him, as the Italian has done in Lucerne.

The remarkably extended five-year contest to succeed Rattle in Berlin guarantees that most of the big names in classical music will be heading for the German capital over the coming seasons. Strategically, the Philharmoniker will surely be tempted to skip a generation and stay on the cutting edge of orchestral life. In that case, there is bound to be speculation, and commercial pressure, for them to hand the baton to Venezuela's charismatic 31-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, now in charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or even Britain's hugely admired Robin Ticciati, 29. Vasily Petrenko, the 36-year-old chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, must also stand a strong chance of becoming the Berliners' first Russian boss.

But if the Berliners think the young pretenders must wait their turn before ascending to the most prestigious podium of them all, there will be no lack of contenders to choose from. Germany's great traditionalist Christian Thielemann, now 53 and currently based in Dresden, is sure to covet the job, and has recently been broadening his repertoire in ways that are likely to help his chances. Italy's Riccardo Chailly, in charge of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and just two years older than Rattle, would be on most people's shortlists. So would the veteran Latvian Mariss Jansons, who leads two of the world's top orchestras already, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Munich-based Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The favourite, though, could well be another young maestro whose career has prospered, like Rattle's, in Birmingham. Andris Nelsons, another Latvian and still only 34, is the hottest conducting property in Europe today. Nelsons is surely the man to beat.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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