Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Music journalist Andrew Mellor wrote a lovely article a while back about our relationship with Sir Simon Rattle, so we thought it was the perfect time to share it with you, just before we perform with the maestro himself tomorrow night at the Royal Festival Hall…

When Simon Rattle packed his bags for the Berlin Philharmonie in 2002, it felt like a definite ‘goodbye’. To a 21-year-old like me, who knew the UK orchestral scene only from the shelves of the local record shop, it seemed the final proof that we’d let the best thing we had walk away. David Beckham’s departure for Madrid a year later brought all the same feelings back: pride that we had the best the world could offer, but loss and even a little shame that we couldn’t keep them here. That turned out, of course, not to be the whole story. What people didn’t seem to be talking about in 2002 was Rattle’s intense, historic, ongoing and insatiably fruitful relationship with this Orchestra, the ever-pioneering OAE.

Yes, Rattle and the OAE have serious history. You could almost say they’ve been ‘through thick and thin’ together: ‘thin’ the time they decided in 1987 to mount a performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo here on the South Bank, but were largely unknown and twenty thousand quid short, with only days to go; ‘thick’ the landmark performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in 2004, which saw a 99-strong OAE take to the stage of a full Royal Albert Hall for Wagner, period style. Those performances very nearly bookend the Orchestra’s history to date; both were seminal, both offered the ear something altogether different, and both were realised by Rattle.

As it happens, with help from some generous bankers, that 1987 Idomeneo did go ahead. A good job too, because it turned out to be more than a staggering concert: it secured the future of the OAE and initiated the ensemble’s relationship with Rattle. And for the man himself? ‘In many ways it changed my life’, he reflects in the book Spirit of the Orchestra, talking of the ensemble’s thinking ‘in shapes and phrases…the music seemed grateful to be played in this way.’ It can’t have been easy for him, or any of the OAE’s early conductors, because built into the Orchestra’s DNA, as well as authentic instruments and techniques, was an outright rejection of ‘the cult of the maestro’; no performance or project was fashioned in the image of a single musician. ‘There were always more opinions in the room than there were people’, Rattle has said of those early rehearsals, and most didn’t shy away from voicing them.

The conductor and his players could probably agree on something though: the occasional worry that they might have taken a step too far. After Rattle introduced the very much ‘alternative’ OAE to the equally ‘traditional’ Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1989, The Independent spoke of ‘travesties’ coming from the pit. Well, today they’re part of the furniture. Some challenges were more real: In 1999 Rattle took the woodwind players onto new, lower pitched instruments for a production of Rameau’s 1763 opera Les Boréades: “this really is very difficult isn’t it?” Rattle apparently conceded to his players during rehearsals, whilst the following year they were having similar problems with French bassoons and ophecleides in Berlioz’s ultra-Romantic Symphonie Fantastique. There was simply nobody to ask how it should be done. ‘Stretching both players and instruments to their limits is a recurrent theme for the OAE’ believes flautist Lisa Beznosiuk; this was exactly what the Orchestra wanted, and Rattle was happy to help when it came to providing ambition, innovation, and that great prompt of passionate performance: pressure.

Indeed, only after testing journeys do you get the most enlightening results. That’s always been a hallmark of Rattle’s. At performances he leads, you feel that something very special is unfolding before you and that in some small way it’s entirely spontaneous. So eleven years on, we can forgive ‘our Simon’ for his journey east.

 

 

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