Photo/IllutrationIn an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, the conductor Simon Rattle promises to bring a wide-ranging program for the London Symphony Orchestra during its concert tour of Japan. (Tsutomu Ishiai)

  • Photo/Illustraion

LONDON--Conductor Sir Simon Rattle has rare insight into the workings of an orchestra, having led two of the most noted ensembles in the world.

Rattle, music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, is leading a concert tour of Japan that began Sept. 23. For 16 seasons until June, he was principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

"The Berlin Philharmonic talk about their history all the time," Rattle said in an interview here before departing for Japan. "That is a very heavy weight on their shoulders, and a wonderful weight. The London Symphony always talk about the future, and they want to know where we can go. So it is a different mentality."

Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert von Karajan were principal conductors for the Berlin Philharmonic thought to have that post almost until they died.

In light of this, the 63-year-old Rattle's decision to step down has led to speculation about his real reason for leaving.

While at the Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle introduced a number of novel ideas, such as streaming concerts over the Internet. He also continued with his longtime efforts of promoting music education for children.

The Berlin Philharmonic, even when Karajan was principal conductor from 1955 until 1989, was always known for its emphasis on traditional German classical music, including the works of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. In a bid to shake things up, Rattle more frequently used styles of playing instruments that were prevalent in past centuries, as well as his own interpretations of classical pieces. The ensemble also expanded its repertoire by including works of contemporary music in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Initially, such efforts met with criticism, with one writing about the Berlin Philharmonic, "In the Rattle era, they have lost much of their identity, their sound internationalized."

Another wrote of Rattle, "He neglects the great German symphonic tradition."

However, Rattle eventually won over many fans and critics.

Current orchestra members touched upon the different eras in which the conductors have worked.

Daishin Kashimoto, a first concertmaster, said, "Today's Berlin Philharmonic does not have a single decisive sound, but has become like a flower bouquet made up of many different colors. Although the music during the Karajan era was outstanding, I don't think there is the feeling of wanting to perform the music in the same manner as in his time."

Karajan had such a command over the unique personalities of his players that some who performed under him initially responded to instructions from Rattle by saying Karajan would have approved of their playing.

Now, however, only about 10 members remain who have experience of being conducted by Karajan.

"They are an extremely competitive, very self-willed group of people in a most wonderful way," Rattle said of today's Berlin Philharmonic. "It's not a particularly Germanic thing that the Berlin Philharmonic is that way. It reflects Karajan I think in a certain sense."

In contrast, Rattle feels that the London Symphony Orchestra is in greater harmony with his own musical direction.

"They are completely curious, whether it's music from the middle of the 18th century or music written yesterday," he said. "They are stylistically very, very aware and very flexible."

Rattle added that the London Symphony Orchestra is not as hung up on what others think of it.

"It is not an orchestra that feels 'oh my God, we are so extraordinary--listen to us!' It is an orchestra that is hungry for what the music means, and is deeply moved by it," he said.

In reflecting on past great conductors, Rattle also said that in his building of a relationship with orchestra members he was more prone to a democratic approach rather than a more dictatorial top-down approach.

He mentioned two of the most famous conductors of the 20th century who had totally opposite ways of leading an orchestra. One was Arturo Toscanini, who was known for a more dictatorial manner, while the other was Bruno Walter, who eventually moved to the United States to escape the rise of Nazism in Germany.

"I was always more a Bruno Walter man than a Toscanini man," Rattle said. "I would rather hear the music of people who look after their musicians and care."

Rattle explained that his personal background influenced his continued efforts to bring classical music to children from families in lower income brackets.

"Without the scholarships from Liverpool, I simply wouldn't have been able to do what I've done," he said.

Before stepping down as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle said in an official interview, "I think this is not a job in this time that anyone can do for a very long time."

But Rattle and his family continue to live in Berlin, even though he is now music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. He was asked if Brexit played a role in his decision to continue living in Berlin.

"We had a family conference before Brexit and nobody wanted to move," Rattle said. "London is an extraordinary place, but it is so hectic. Actually music is about life and not the other way around. So it was a good decision."