Simon Rattle was getting ready to leave Europe for the first time since the start of the pandemic and head to California with the London Symphony Orchestra for a residency with students at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West.
“It’s kind of a miracle that it’s happening,” he said.
A U.S. tour started Saturday in Palo Alto, continued on to Berkeley and Costa Mesa before three concerts in Santa Barbara this week.
The symphony launched its partnership with the academy in 2018 when five section principals spent 10 days teaching and picked a dozen students as fellows to work with the orchestra in London the following January. Rattle did not accompany the company on its summer 2019 trip to California, and then the pandemic disrupted the world.
A 67-year-old Briton who is among the world’s leading conductors, Rattle was at his home in Berlin for much of the next year.
“We spent so much of our life having everything organized two or three years in advance, at least,” he said. “And now the fact that we don’t always know what’s going on next week means that sometimes it gives you a sense of vertigo, but in other ways it makes you very alive for anything.
“I have still on my desk a huge pile of programs that we had to change — and then the second change and then fourth,” he said. “In a way I suppose, musicians, we should be willing to do what ever turns up. Now we can’t always be hermetically sealed and booked far ahead, so we’ve learned to be more flexible.”
Rattle gained renown as head of Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1980-98, then succeeded Claudio Abbado as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 2002-18.
On occasion, he listens to his old performances.
“Sometimes you think, oh, God, that’s better than I thought it would be. Other times you think, oh, that should have been taken behind the barn and shot,” he said. “It doesn’t always feel like the same person even.”
His white, bushy hair trimmed shorter as he gets older, Rattle became music director of the LSO in 2017 and ends that tenure in 2023, when he starts a five-year contract as chief conductor of Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
“Every great orchestra has its own personality,” he said. “There is a particular type of fierceness. of excitement, the kind of hell-for-leather feeling, which always was a very London Symphony Orchestra quality, an extremely flexible orchestra, kind of open everything, but there’s a particular type of feeling, of electricity and rhythmic charge, which is very much theirs.
“The weight of the Berlin Philharmonic is a very particular thing, but they would kill to have the kind of rhythmic precision of an orchestra like the LSO. It’s fascinating as a conductor, because often you’re playing the same piece with different orchestras and you come out with very different stories.”
William Cedeño, a 30-year-old principal flutist of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, earned a fellowship with the music academy to train with Rattle. He learns from the conductor’s methods as much as from his mechanics.
“There is an aura that he has about music that just kind of is very contagious,” Cedeño said. “One of the most interesting things that I learned was actually the way he worked in rehearsals and the way he spoke about music. It was just a emotionally, a philosophical way of explaining things to be done. And he’s very good at showing them instead of really just kind of fixing rehearsal things by just like: ‘Oh, you guys play louder, you guys play softer, you play with more articulation.’”
Rattle withdrew from concerts on March 3 and 6 celebrating the 40th anniversary of London’s Barbican Centre while he was recovering from neck surgery. He is more reticent to agree to opera engagements far from home, such as his acclaimed appearances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Melisande” in 2010, Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in 2016 and Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” in 2019, the latter featuring his wife, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, as Octavian.
“I can’t imagine that my life now allows two months away from home, away from a young family That’s the kind of thing that has changed in the last years. I think that part of my life is over,” he said. “I was never an enormously peripatetic conductor like some of my colleagues, but I was still away a lot. And we all just have to find the way we can make that work. I was always one for kind of long relationships anyway, so I gave up the permanent guest-conducting tennis game relatively early.”
Remaining home during the pandemic reinforced his outlook.
“Anybody in Europe who had a garden was so pathetically grateful,” he said. “We missed all kinds of extraordinary musical experiences, but also that I was here for them. For my 5-year-old daughter learning to ride the bike, which I probably would have missed. Look, I mean, all of us have had a reset over this time. Everybody has to decide what’s most important to them and how they can live their life. Those of us who have been able to find benefits from it, we have to realize that we’re the lucky ones.”