Over 16 Years, Simon Rattle Transformed the Berlin Philharmonic. Here’s How.

Posted June 25, 2018 5:11 p.m. EDT

BERLIN — The conductor Simon Rattle stepped onto his podium here last month and gave the downbeat. But the orchestra in front of him was not his mighty Berlin Philharmonic — not exactly. One of the horn players was a police officer. The concertmaster was a cardiologist. The violin section included a Turkish engineer and a Dutch airline pilot.

The ensemble, affectionately named the Be Phil, was an amateur orchestra of 101 musicians, ages 10-75, who had come from all over to play with one of the world’s greatest conductors.

“Could we be noble, rather than aggressive?” Rattle asked at one point as he shaped a passage in rehearsal. Then he smiled. “That would actually be quite a good thing for all over the world, wouldn’t it?”

It was a fittingly Rattle-esque way to help bring his 16-year reign as chief conductor here to an end — a period in which he helped transform the Berlin Philharmonic, one of Europe’s most venerable ensembles, into one of the 21st century’s most forward-thinking orchestras. He mounted ambitious educational extravaganzas, broadened its repertoire, reached out to Berlin’s diverse communities, and asked its musicians to embrace a different vision of what it means to play in an orchestra.

It was a partnership that wound up succeeding despite occasional tensions, creative and otherwise, with the players — who self-govern the orchestra and hold the power to hire their chief.

“It’s on the box you get via the high-art Amazon, a warning sign on the cover: ‘This is Not Going to Be Easy,'” Rattle, who has moved on to become music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, said in an interview last week.

But the era ended with warmth and admiration Sunday at an emotional, open-air farewell concert — with some players donning wigs that mimicked Rattle’s instantly recognizable poof of white curls.

“I’m sure there were many moments of ‘lost in translation,'” said Rattle, now 63, a spirited choice to fill a Berlin post that had previously been held by a pantheon of more Olympian maestros, including Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. “What’s interesting is, at this point, the ‘lost in translation’ on both sides seems mostly to translate into affection. OK, we were a strange fit, but we also could become a team.”

— 250 Schoolchildren, Dancing to Stravinsky

Rattle made a big statement in his first season, inviting 250 Berlin schoolchildren from different backgrounds to dance Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” with the Philharmonic at Berlin’s Treptow Arena.

“I had had this weird dream of putting lots of young people who had not danced with an orchestra,” Rattle said.

It was tied to his vision for reaching out to communities that had previously had little to do with the orchestra, which some players feared was seen as a “chilly diva” by too many in the vibrant city it served. Such educational initiatives were not common at the time in Germany. Sarah Willis, a horn player at the Philharmonic, recalled how surprised some players were when Rattle, at his first meeting with the ensemble, outlined his expansive education plans.

“You try telling classical musicians that they have to go and stand in front of a class of 10-year-olds,” she said. “It’s like asking them to take their clothes off.”

But it worked, and was the first of several large-scale dance projects.

— Giving the Orchestra ‘Passion’

Rattle significantly broadened the Philharmonic’s repertoire — not only by programming more new music, but also by reclaiming Baroque works that many symphony orchestras had ceded to early-music ensembles. Most notable was Peter Sellars’ simple but shattering staging of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

It broke with any number of traditions. Singers popped up and sang from seats in the audience. The chorus, the Berlin Radio Choir, learned its parts by heart so its members could move throughout the auditorium and act. Members of the Philharmonic were asked to get up from their seats as quasi-actors in the spiritual drama.

“This was the point where everybody left how wonderfully they play out in the dressing room,” Rattle said. “Working with Peter on a piece like that simply involves everybody deciding on not what it sounds like, but what it means. It was a way of almost healing the orchestra from their own virtuosity and excellence. Because this music has nothing to do with that, however beautifully you can play.” — A Digital Pied Piper

The Berlin Philharmonic was once a recording-industry titan. When that industry melted, the orchestra responded by starting one of the first, and most sophisticated, orchestra streaming services, the Digital Concert Hall. The ensemble is still building a subscription base — the service costs about $17 a month — but the project has extended the orchestra’s reach; its Facebook page has 1.2 million followers. And Rattle remains one of classical music’s great communicators.

Simon Halsey, the choral conductor who has long worked closely with Rattle, said: “How do we make sure, in days when a 17-year-old has a million choices about what he or she will do after the high school day ends, why would they practice the cello or play in the orchestra or come to a concert? Therefore you have to have these Pied Pipers, and I think he’s been extraordinarily successful at that.”

— Crashing the Philharmonie

Rattle presented 40 world premieres during his tenure, and embraced contemporary music. Last season, when the American composer John Adams turned 70, Rattle made him the Philharmonic’s first composer in residence, and the orchestra released a box set of his works. While the list of most-performed works of the Rattle era is still heavy with Brahms and Beethoven, 20th-century pieces by Stravinsky, Berg and Webern have also been among the most frequently heard works.

— Patches of Turbulence

The Berlin Philharmonic is considered one of the most virtuosic orchestras in the world — and one of the most independent. It was founded in 1882 by a group of musicians rebelling against their conductor. A little more than a century later, the autocratic von Karajan resigned in a dispute with the players.

Fergus McWilliam, a Philharmonic horn player, recalled how the orchestra had come to select Rattle. “Do we turn the clock back, be a more traditional orchestra with a living museum role?” he recalled the players asking themselves. “Or do we embrace the future?”

If any orchestra could have afforded the status quo, it was this one. It plays in a city that embraces and supports classical music like few others, and boasts a global following. It regularly sells over 90 percent of its tickets. But the players decided to go for change. But if Rattle was initially greeted rapturously in Berlin, there were hard times, too. Some German critics found his readings of the 19th-century canon lacking. There were honeymoon-is-over stories in the press. Some musicians disliked the new music he brought them. Rattle said that he worried at times that the orchestra “might want more the appearance of change than change itself.”

In the end, though, the partnership came to be seen as a success. Many of the innovations — including the idea of the Be Phil amateur orchestra — came from the players themselves. (The successor they chose, Kirill Petrenko, is, however, in some respects the anti-Rattle — shunning interviews, while Rattle was a media darling.)

Looking back, Rattle acknowledged that there were some projects he had not been able to realize, but said he was pleased overall.

“I think we moved this big, big ship forward,” he said.

— ‘Music is for Everybody’

On the podium last month, Rattle was putting the Be Phil amateurs through their paces as they rehearsed Brahms’ First Symphony, which they were playing at the orchestra’s open day, when it unlocks the doors of the Philharmonie for a day of free concerts large and small. Rattle stepped backstage, where he was given a dab of makeup — “It won’t help!” he joked — and found Willis, the horn player, who was waiting in the wings with a camera crew to interview him for the Digital Concert Hall.

“Music is for everybody, and we’ve all believed this, and this was really one of my most important goals while I was here,” Rattle said, his enthusiasm tinged with a note of wistfulness. “To spread it everywhere.”