Conductor, crusader, champion of new music and, with his shock of white curly hair, Rattle looks every bit the conductor. But if his appearance fits a stereotype, his professional approach is anything but. He’s down to earth, confident, encouraging, lives every musical element and whether the music is reaching for the stars, achingly sad, atmospheric, descriptive or electrically charged, he situates the LSO within a secure rhythmical frame, a bedrock of stability within which the music’s beating heart can soar.
Simon Rattle knows he’s but one essential dimension in coaxing orchestral works into life and, the London Symphony Orchestra is another. It’s a rewarding duality, a mutually inspiring partnership. He can hurry slowly, a term Rattle favours he confessed at his staged interview the night before, and he knows when to push and when to leave alone.
Refreshingly, the players give their all, not squeezed or deadened by micro-managing, ego-bound leadership and he doesn’t strangle the element of risk. As the eye scans each instrumental section, it’s like watching soloists except, the players’ earnest individualism is melded into a glorious unity. Rattle is faithful to the composer’s intent, his own interpretative ideas and he fully exploits the experienced orchestra’s virtuosity.
Minimalist composer John Adams is Schoenberg phobic. ‘Harmonielehre’ named after Schoenberg’s revolutionary treatise on harmony, is a tongue-in-cheek, hybrid. Call it classical rock if you like and yet, this uneasy alliance of minimalism and grand Mahlerian and Wagnerian opinion was dazzling. The violin’s execution of its highest reaches was laser sharp. This was Rattle’s first outing with Adams’ ironic protest against Schoenberg’s bleak tone rows and he accentuated the contradictions and spun keening lyricism courtesy of the woodwind and celli.
Intense and active on the podium he juggles multiple rhythms and channels drama through his person as well as his hands. Rattle is remarkably present and in conducting Debussy’s impressionistic La Mer and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite he didn’t use the scores and yet, the players and the listeners felt safe; he’s reassuring; cueing instrumentalists, balancing sections and revels in heartfelt moments.
He often plumps out the resonance of the lower strings, drawing on these players’ grounded radiance to ensure a cushioning bass layer. For someone who is a percussionist – he played percussion with the Merseyside Youth Orchestra at the age of 10 – he’s a canny strings whisperer.
There were many admirable solo contributions; the trumpeter in The Anfortas Wound, from John Adams’ Harmonielehre and the oboist in Delius’ beautifully rendered Fennimore and Gerda. Incidentally, it was good to see Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s percussionists Tim Corkeron and David Montgomery involved in the performance.
Debussy’s La Mer, a triptych, was richly evocative. There were glorious duos of flutes and clarinets, the cellos sang and the first episode ended with a glassy, moving brass chorale. Woodwind comes into focus in the second episode with lovely oceanic ‘sprays’ from these players. In the third episode, the lower strings’ ominous agitation signposts a storm until a beautifully revealed melody is passed between the oboe, horn and bassoon. This was an account with sumptuous tonal blends.
In an enjoyable concert, the Adams and Debussy were classy and worthy of a hundred per cent audience engagement. But Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe Suite’ has more gravitas and offers a greater challenge. And it was in the Ravel, the orchestra triumphed in a luminous telling which reached a thrilling threshold of brilliance.
The authoritative encores –Delius’ Fennimore and Gerda was wonderfully rendered and the LSO’s finesse lay in the ending’s ephemeral whisper. Britten’s ‘Fugue’ from ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ drove incisive, meticulous execution at blistering speed.
Mesmerising to watch, Rattle lovingly marshalled his players from the first upbeat to the music’s end. His wilful desire to alchemise each score into a breathing, powerful organism is heartening to witness. The outcome was a stunning concert of classical selections in similar sound-worlds which will forever linger in the memory.
Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer who has published with Australian Stage Online, Limelight, Griffith Review, Australian Book Review, The Australian, Good Reading, The Strad (UK) Cut Common, Loudmouth and Artist Profile. Her short stories have been published with Dillydoun Review, Antonym, Dewdrop, Unbelievable Stories and Hare’s Paw Literary Journal. Her memoir, Elvis and Me: how a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch Pty was released in 2016 in Australia, America, Canada, The UK and NZ.
Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Sydney Opera House and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra present
THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
Venue: Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Dates: 28 – 29 April 2023