Working with Simon Rattle has been the best music education of my life

A horn player with the Berlin Philharmonic on his 13 years with the conductor and what the London Symphony Orchestra can expect from its new leader

In the course of my 30 years as a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra I have worked with three different principal conductors, each of whom made their own unique and indelible impact not only on the orchestra but on the wider music world. These were of course Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and since 2002, Sir Simon Rattle.

Over these last 13 years with Simon, I have experienced not only countless artistic high points, but also the best music education of my life. Musicians frequently bring scores to rehearsals now just to share in the discoveries Simon continually makes. We have frequently been motivated to read up, indeed even conduct our own research, on the repertoire we perform.

Always prepared, always thoroughly researched – he can justify every one of his ideas by referencing something in the score; it’s never just a personal, subjective interpretation.

Simon Rattle inherited a relatively stable orchestra membership from his predecessor Claudio Abbado (the post-Karajan generational change was largely completed by the time he started in 2002) and also a very international orchestra (25 nations, 50 non-Germans), one that is not only passionate but very curious about music.

Abbado had started the modernisation of our repertoire, and had influenced many other orchestras to do the same. Rattle seized on this, just as we had planned, and is a major reason why we elected him.

The history of his tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic is a testament to his expansion of our repertoire to a hitherto unimaginable breadth. We’ve been arguably successful in historically informed baroque repertoire performances as well as collaborations with jazz musicians such as Wynton Marsalis.

Simon always seems to approach the music as if it were for the first time, not content to sit back and relax upon traditions or conventions. Nevertheless he frequently references Karajan and invites the orchestra to draw on that legacy.

He has “rehabilitated” neglected or under-appreciated composers – Haydn, Schumann, BA Zimmermann, Britten, Sibelius – for our audiences. All-Haydn concerts, for example, were sellouts.

At the beginning of his tenure he told the orchestra his true music education was now about to begin and a year later he promised to work in German from then on. “If I can’t say it in German, I won’t say it at all.” Well he has been true to his word.

He has learned passably good German, rehearses in German, but still can’t resist irony, something that is particularly English and hard for Germans to understand. “Could you play that any faster?” might not be understood to mean “That’s too fast”, and could result in the orchestra actually trying to play faster instead of slowing down.

We don’t know where he gets his energy! He has more than most of us in the orchestra and on occasion we have had to ask him to slow down and forgo some of his plans – otherwise we simply couldn’t keep up.

Perhaps he is so inspiring because he himself is so curious about everything. Whether it be books, films, theatre, jazz, food experiences or wine – he is always searching. And celebrating.

Simon is an excellent communicator and champion for music of all forms. Perhaps this is because at heart he is still that youth who first discovered and was blown away by Mahler’s Symphony No 2 and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. It’s as if he hasn’t forgotten what that felt like and wants other young people to have the chance to share that kind of experience.

Certainly many members of our orchestra seem to be able to identify their own wondrous childhood discovery of music in the example of Simon Rattle. Education activities and outreach programmes were something completely new to us back in 2002, but this kind of work is now central to our orchestra’s sense of itself. Thanks to Simon Rattle.

The success of our revolutionary digital concert hall owes a lot to him. He recognised and supported what we were trying to achieve and how the Philharmonie was ideal for such an innovative platform. That word “innovative” applies wonderfully to Simon; he positively thrives on new ideas.

The Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle still have another three years together, with many wonderful projects still to be realised, and I know the relationship will not end in 2018. He will after all continue to live in Berlin.

For my part, however, I shall retire on the last day of Simon’s tenure at the helm of our orchestra. From Karajan to Abbado to Rattle, I have enjoyed the best an orchestra musician could ever dream of.

Fergus McWilliam

The GuardianTramp

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