The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly
Home Essential Library Archives  Resources Composer Bios


S/21:  Classical music audiences are generally conservative.  How do you balance the demands for the familiar standard repertory with the need to introduce and encourage young composers and create new classics?

Rattle:  I know that's an accepted truth in America but it's not necessarily true anywhere else.  I'm not a great lover of what I call musical ghetto concerts.  I have done all-contemporary programs but  I'm not always sure that it's the best way of putting everything across.

S/21:  So you think it's a good idea to mix periods and styles in the same concert?

Rattle:  They have to be complementary.  Look, I'm a child of my time.  I grew up in England in the time of Pierre Boulez and Sir William Glock, who ran the BBC and was the person who got Boulez to the BBC.  I know that at that time the Proms and the rest of the musical scene were absolutely mixed together and for awhile we had the feeling that there was something called ‘music,’ not contemporary music or romantic music or avant garde music, but the point was that they were all related to each other in one way or another.   And I find nothing wrong with that, so long as they are complementary. 

When Claudio Abbado went to the Berlin Philharmonic, he revolutionized the program with some very strange choices.  It was wonderful that he put on Stockhausen’s Gruppen für drei Orchester in his second year but what was extraordinary was that the second half of that program was the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto with Martha Argerich.  You have to think that the number of people who want to hear both of those pieces is limited, indeed.

One of the ways we helped people to push themselves forward in Birmingham was by doing this series called “Toward the Millennium,” where each year we played all music from a previous decade.  The year we did Gruppen, we did a Messiaen    and then the entire audience moved over to another hall on the other side of the building, which was actually a big exposition hall, and we did Gruppen with the three orchestras surrounding the people.  It was simply wonderful because the audience in Birmingham was our normal audience. In Vienna, the audience was all composers and in London all rock musicians and people in their sixties wearing jeans and with ponytails.  Each audience was in its way very different.  But, in a way, the most thrilling was to see 2000-plus people from our normal concert audience in Birmingham standing up, screaming and yelling…I mean, really knocked sideways by the power of Gruppen.

You can do programs that have real links--some with obvious connections, Rameau to Berlioz, Hadyn to Stravinsky and so on.  You can put a lot of pieces alongside each other that seem to help because every composer has taken from someone else.  I think contemporary composers have influenced our understanding of previous composers, as well as the other way around.  It's all a continuum.  I can't see how any orchestra can play Bruch that doesn't play Bach as well.

S/21:  What's your assessment of the current crop of composers.  Are we in a high period of accomplishment or low period?

Rattle:  I think it's a normal period.  There's a lot of crap out there but there always was.  There is also a lot of first-rate music and there are some real masterpieces.  I think we're at a period when the multiplicity of styles is almost alarmingly great.  I don't think there was an audience at any time in the past that had so many really different styles thrown up at once...and from so many different nationalities.  Part of it is that music is much more widely available, of course. All music is balkanized now.

S/21:  Who are some of the contemporary composers whose work interests you?

Rattle:  There are so many.  For English music at the moment, I don't think there has been been a time since William Byrd when there was as much talent around.  From Birtwhistle to Simon Holt to Thomas Ades to the Mathews brothers to Judith Weir, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Nicholas many others, an endless, endless list of wonderful composers.

John Adams is a close friend and a wonderful composer.  Sometimes I like to put him on the same program with Elliott Carter because I know it annoys both of them so much.  I think it's terrific that America has two such great composers at the same time.  I heard Carter's wonderful new opera--What's Next--in Berlin.

S/21:  What was your impression?  Many of the reviews were negative.

Rattle:  What a shame.  I just think musically that there are not any of his pieces that are quite so sensuously beautiful as this one.  I was gripped, particularly by what was happening  in the orchestra, from the word go, in terms of the fantasy and the wit and the sheer beauty.  I think, "God, this man is in his nineties.  I hope I've that much energy in my fifties."

The hysterical thing is I talked to Barenboim afterwards and he told me that Carter is seriously considering writing a sequel.  It rather reminds me of Pierre Monteux in his mid-80s saying he would only accept the conductorship of the London Symphony Orchestra if it were for a 25-year duration, with an option on a further 25.

Similarly, having just listened to John Adams' Naive and Sentimental Music--his newest big work, a big 45-minute monster--I thought how wonderful it is that two such different composers writing in such different styles could produce such remarkable music in the same country at the same time.

S/21:  Did you follow the flap about the commissions that Michael Torke and Aaron Jay Kernis did for Disney which were based on a "treatment" by Disney CEO Michael Eisner?

Rattle:  Not much, but it reminds of the story of Stalin getting Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Kachaturian into a room and telling them to write something.  It's obviously not the ideal way to create something worthwhile.  Torke and Kernis are terrific composers and what one wants for them is to write more and more challenging music, not less challenging.

I think there is a great danger for composers, especially American composers who want to use the orchestra, that they  write pieces that are too easily assimilated that are there to be "success" pieces.  And, also, that are there because they can be performed easily.  There is a whole generation of pieces where you can see "Oh, my God, yes, this has been written as a 15-minute concert opener where the percussion is busy and the strings don't have very much to do" and you can get by with only a couple of hours of rehearsal.  I think it's a rather dangerous thing.  There is also a generation of composers in Europe who write for radio orchestras where they assume there will be four or five days of rehearsal.  I think there has to be a middle line


S/21:  With so many "classics" firmly established in the repertory, how difficult is it for new works to find an established place?

Rattle:  Surely it is up to us to create the new classics.  But, it is also up to the record companies.  One of the things I've been telling EMI for years is that they need to sharpen up their marketing approaches to new audiences.  There are certain parts of pieces that they could market very successfully to a different audience from people who traditionally buy classical CDs.  The fifth movement of the Messiaen Turangalia Symphony, for example.  But in the Szymanowski  Roxana aria which we also recorded with a concert ending.  They should send that around to every radio station in the world.  Anyone who hears that is going to fall in love with it.  They don't always seem to get the hint.  My only interest is in sharing this great music with more and more people.

S/21:  You have been actively commissioning new works during your tenure with the CBSO.  Can you talk about some of the works and the composers you've been working with?

Rattle:  One of the things when I went to Birmingham about 20 or so years ago was that none of the British symphonies, except for  the BBC, had been playing much European contemporary music.  No one, apart from the BBC, for example, had played a note of Boulez.  Even composers like Lutoslawski, Ligeti, and Berio were simply never played.  This was the 1980s, remember, and none of these composers was unknown.  Things have changed over the last few years.

So, when I went to Birmingham, it was not only a matter of getting new pieces but actually playing what was already out there.  A lot of these pieces--Henze numbers 7 and 8, Dutilleaux's violin concerto, a lot of Takamitsu pieces--we gave the first performance in Britain. As for commissions, Takamitsu wrote for us a lovely concerto for guitar and oboe.  Oh, and John Adams wrote Lollapolooza as a 40th birthday gift for me.

Most of the commissions while I was there were for British composers because we wanted to provide an opportunity for a lot of things to be heard.  And the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, which the players set up, have made it a policy to commission a new work for every program.  So they have 70 or 80 commissions under their belt.  This is actually done in tandem with members of the audience who buy shares in new pieces through something called the "Sound Investment" scheme.  It's wonderful because the people get to feel they are part of it, they get to come to the rehearsals, they each get a photocopy of the manuscript.  It's been an extraordinarily successful scheme.

S/21:  Will you miss this when you go to Berlin?

Rattle:  I'm sure we'll do the same sorts of things there.  We will play a very wide and mixed repertory and we will commission a couple of pieces every years so we will play a great deal of new music. Under Claudio Abbado, the orchestra has been changing and I think they are ready to explore the music of the 20th century in all its richness.  They are certainly capable of playing anything that's out there.  I don't believe there is an orchestra in the world that has as high an individual standard of excellence.  I think they want to stretched.

S/21:  You've said earlier that there are many kinds of music being produced today, do you see any patterns  that suggest a major shift in direction?

Rattle:  I think we may be moving back toward an age when classical music and other forms or music are less segregated from each other. I know there is a very rigorous school of middle European composers from whom this is not true, and they produce some brilliant music, but most of the composers I know today are taking from other cultures.  There is an enormous amount of interest, from Ligeti onwards, in African music, for instance.  That awful phrase "world music" is now in our consciousness.  People are listening to many more kinds of music than they ever were and it's showing in the composers. Thomas Ades is just as likely to be writing music that is as influenced by techno and rave and it is by Ligeti.  It's very exciting.  There are people who will always follow very specific lines, of course, but I'm seeing that people are taking from more and more around them and what I find is that a lot of the most impressive music being written now is far more aproachable than the most impressive music that was written in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Composers like Magnus Lindberg and Ligeti are not only taking from many sources but also emotionally connecting with audiences and musicians.  And, Mark-Anthony Turnage, who has made many incursions into improvised music and jazz, is beginning to write music that is a synthesis of all this.  Certainly, for me, his piece for jazz musicians and large ensemble called Blood on the Floor is the most successful blend of jazz and classical styles.

S/21:  So you're basically optimistic that good new classically-oriented music will find an establish new concert and recording audiences.

Rattle:  You simply have to play it and play it.  That's really important.  And mix the stuff around.  One of the things I'll always treasure is a comment from an old, old lady in Birmingham who said 'Simon, I didn't always like all of the music you played.  But I always liked the spirit in which it was played." I think people are ready for new experiences  if you approach them with enthusiasm and as 'here's something that I like and I really want to share it with you.' They may hate it but they won't feel you've wasted their time or insulted their intelligence.