By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Monday, November 23, 2009 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next concert: tonight at 8 p.m.: Wagner: “Die Meistersinger” Prelude to Act I; Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony; Brahms’ Symphony No. 2
Local visits by the Berlin Philharmonic are rare enough to be a significant occasion when they pop up on the calendar. Or maybe not. The Berliners represent a pinnacle of orchestral excellence but there were a surprising number of empty seats at last night’s concert, the first of two consecutive nights for the BPO at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The L.A. concerts are the conclusion of a six-city, 10-concert, coast-to-coast tour by the Berliners and their chief conductor and artistic director, Sir Simon Rattle. It’s Rattle first appearance in L.A. since 2003, but for locals whenever he shows up it’s always tinged with a wistful thought of what might have been.
In 1979, the then-24-year-old mop top first led the Los Angeles Philharmonic and two years later became one of the orchestra’s two principal guest conductors (the other was Michael Tilson Thomas). For reasons never fully explained neither relationship carried forward. Thomas conducted the L.A. Phil last year for the first time in a decade and Rattle’s appearances have been equally rare. Eventually the LAPO eventually fell in love with another youngster, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and now is immersed in “Dudemania.”
Thomas eventually migrated north to San Francisco where, since 1995, he has led that city’s symphony with innovative flair. Meanwhile, in an 18-year tenure that ended in 1998 Rattle transformed the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra into a world-class ensemble and, in the process, spearheaded the building of a major new home for the English ensemble.
In 2002, Sir Simon (he was awarded a CBE in 1987 and made a Knight Bachelor in 1994) was elected the Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor and artistic director (the musicians make the decision in the self-governing body; there is no music director title). Although his tenure has had its share of controversy they have also accomplished many significant innovations, and Rattle and the orchestra recently extended his contract through the 2018 season.
Part of the early controversy swirled around Rattle’s determination to introduce “contemporary” music the Berlin ensemble and its audiences, while maintaining its ties with its traditional repertoire. You can’t exactly prove that goal by this tour, which includes all four Brahms symphonies coupled with pieces that Arnold Schoenberg composed either based on or influenced by the music of his German predecessor.
The current incarnation of the BPO is quite different from when Rattle took over. Many of the players are younger, female and come from an increasingly wide variety of nationalities. Consequently, the orchestra has a touch less of the machine-like perfection exhibited under previous conductors, such as Herbert von Karajan; instead, this is an ensemble of notable individual players. Nonetheless, to no one’s great surprise, the orchestra’s quality remains exemplary, as Monday night’s concert demonstrated.
Rattle and Co. opened with Schoenberg’s orchestral transcription of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, a nice touch since the L.A. Phil (under the baton of Otto Klemperer) played its world premiere in 1937. The BPO’s rich, lush string tone was on full display from the opening notes. Except during moments of the second movement when he got ultra-fussy over details, Rattle let the musicians have the well-deserved spotlight; the whirling-dervish final movement brought down the house.
Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor was the post-intermission work. Again, the orchestra’s playing was splendid. Rattle let this familiar work unfold majestically and with great nuance; only occasionally did he fail to resist the temptation to show off, occasionally saying with his overly cute gestures in those odd moments “See how wonderfully we can play.” Fortunately, those were few in number and the overall impact was stunning.
As tumultuous applause rained down on the assembled forces, Rattle walked into the orchestra to shake hands with many of his principal players. Then, by refusing to stand, the orchestra insisted that Rattle take a solo bow, before departing the stage without an encore. Whatever the early troubles earlier in their relationship, the love fest now appears to be full blown between Rattle and the Berliners, and with good reason.
• Despite the fact that the BPO plays in a hall with a seating configuration similar to Disney Hall (including seats to the side of and behind the orchestra), neither Rattle or the musicians acknowledged the applause from people in those seats.
• One reason for the empty seats may have been the higher-than-normal prices: $175 per ducat for those chairs that were empty.
• If you missed the Berliners locally, you can catch them via the internet using the orchestral’s Digital Concert Hall LINK), which broadcasts all of the orchestra’s concerts from its home, the Philharmonie, and has an extensive archive section, as well.
(c) Copyright 2009, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.