After last season’s complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle returns to Carnegie Hall for the second year of his Perspectives series, during which Mahler and his influence play a significant role. In a recent conversation with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall’s director of artistic planning, Rattle discussed the origins of his affinity for Mahler, the combination of works that he likes to call “Mahler’s 11th,” and how the composer continues to inspire Rattle’s conducting.
One of the hallmarks of your career has been a long association with the works of Mahler.
His music made me become a conductor. Liverpool (where I grew up) was the first European city where all of Mahler’s symphonies were performed by the same conductor and orchestra [Charles Groves and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic]. It’s extraordinary to think that at that time in the 1960s and ’70s—more than 50 years after this music was composed—it was still considered to be really new. And so for me to come up through all of this—particularly the performance of the “Resurrection” Symphony— was my road to Damascus moment. There was no looking back. This is something that has lived with me all my life. And it’s something that will never stop being a challenge and a discovery.
I’d imagine that to especially be the case with a piece like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
Well, the Sixth comes with the most extraordinary question of what order the movements should be performed. Mahler conducted the symphony three times in his life, and he always conducted it in the order of first movement, slower movement, scherzo, and finale—always. But after a hiatus in the performing tradition of Mahler (because of the Nazi period and the ban on Jewish composers), it was quite literally reordered, where the two middle movements were reversed. I’ve never come across anything quite like this in my lifetime: an editor decided he would overrule the composer because he felt that his ideas were better. And it’s only in recent years—thanks to the work of a number of musicologists and [Mahler authorities like] Gil Kaplan who have really gone back and done the research—that we now know better. It’s fascinating—it was simply a piece of dishonest musicology.
Your Carnegie Hall season begins with a performance of that work in which you reunite with The Philadelphia Orchestra.
It’s particularly joyful for me to be able to include Philadelphia in this series at Carnegie Hall. It’s an orchestra that I have long loved, and we’ve had a very profound connection over the years since the very first time I went to conduct them in Mahler’s Ninth. Mahler has also been something of a leitmotif through our concerts. But it’s also one of the great orchestras of the world and one of the most generous. And I’m thrilled to be able to include them. It’s a kind of personal treat for me.
You go on to lead a non-traditional version of Schubert’s Winterreise with tenor Mark Padmore and Ensemble ACJW.
It’s a rather special Winterreise. For those of us who’ve known the song cycle for years, it can at first be a little bit of a shock coming to what composer Hans Zender has made of it in this interpretation. But it is done out of such love and respect. And he’s just simply expanded the possibilities in a lot of the things that are implicit in Schubert’s music. Even at the very beginning in the original cycle, one recognizes the imagery of somebody walking. Hans’s version starts just with tapping, with members of the ensemble walking around as though they are in a trance. And when the original music that we know finally hits, you can’t help but think, “A-ha. That’s what Schubert meant.” So often Zender manages to do this.
Would it be accurate to describe this as a staged version of the cycle?
Winterreise—A Composed Interpretation (as he calls it) is not exactly a staged piece, but yet there is an enormous amount of moving around, and Zender uses the musicians in different places to make different layers—layers of echoes and distance that are otherwise implicit. Most extraordinarily in the song that talks about there being three suns in the sky, he makes the piece that we all know blur by having it literally played at three different tempos. Once you’re over the shock of it being different, and once you’re over the extraordinary colors, which he’s taken out of the orchestra, it’s something that only gives you a deeper insight into the music. It’s like the van Gogh paintings where the actual canvas isn’t big enough and he begins to paint on the frame. It’s as though Schubert was pushing beyond the limitations of the song-cycle form. And Hans Zender has taken it and created one the most loving tributes to a piece of music I’ve ever come across.
This will be your second appearance with Ensemble Connect, comprised of young musicians embarking on a two-year fellowship.
It’s the greatest young musicians—full of life, full of ideas—all coming together. And that’s the most fantastic type of energy. What I remember about last time was that you could have powered a small hydroelectric dam with the amount of energy they had. And I think it’ll be an amazing journey with them through Winterreise.
The final part of your Perspectives series is with the Berliner Philharmoniker—your last two performances with them in New York City as music director.
Yes, it’s true. And both are such wonderful programs. The first is Mahler’s Seventh coupled with this kind of extraordinary swirling, twitching, coloristic chamber piece by Pierre Boulez, Éclat. They’re a wonderful pair—Mahler’s strangest, most eccentric symphony and this extraordinary fi rework by Boulez.
And how would you describe the second program?
We know there is a 10th Mahler symphony, almost totally complete in existence. But what we play on this concert could be considered Mahler’s 11th, comprising Webern’s Six Pieces, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, and Berg’s Three Pieces, played as a multi-movement symphony all together. The Webern alone is like a miniature Mahler symphony with just as much emotional force. You can have this Mahler-like experience in these pieces—the way that they all move together, the richness. They tell the whole story of what was musically coming at that time.
I remember being terrified the first time I heard the Webern.
There’s something extraordinary in that work. There is probably the biggest crescendo in orchestral history at the end of the fourth movement. And what is stunning is that the silence at the end of it often seems even louder than what’s come before it—that the silence is almost more shocking than the music itself. That’s an extraordinary thing to do.
And then that program—and your Perspectives—ends with Brahms.
We follow “Mahler’s 11th” with the Brahms’s Second Symphony, which is this extraordinarily sunny piece, shot through a lens of melancholy and regret at the same time. The Berlin Philharmonic started performing Brahms right from its beginning in the 1880s. In fact, there’s even one double bass—not a player, but the actual instrument—in our orchestra that was played under Brahms. Every time we do one of his symphonies, I have to go and have a little talk with that particular instrument.
It has been a treat to have you as a Perspectives artist for two seasons, giving audiences such a variety of music and insight into your artistic interests.
Thank you. It’s been a privilege to think of Carnegie Hall as a home, and to have an idea that over a couple of years you can show one or two different things.
“A song is a little magical charm that helps you hold onto a moment in time. It gives you a way to make a moment special, and remember it forever. A baby’s eyelid flutter, the softness of their blanket as you hold them, the way the night sky filters into the window as you rock them—all of these come back to you when you hear a lullaby you sang to them at bedtime.”
At the core of Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project is an effort to deepen the connection between parents and children through music. In line with this mission, families now have the opportunity to share in the experience of lullabies online. In partnership with Too Small to Fail—a joint initiative of The Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute that aims to empower parents to talk, read, and sing with their children—Carnegie Hall released a playlist of lullabies as part of Spotify’s new Kids and Family channel. Spotify collaborated with early childhood organizations Too Small to Fail, ZERO TO THREE, and the Bezos Family Foundation to create this channel in an attempt to better understand the role of music in children’s early brain and language development. The result is a series of family-friendly playlists and prompts for parents that encourage them to engage creatively with their young children.
At Carnegie Hall, our work with the Lullaby Project has shown us the impact that song can have on the healthy growth and development of a child. Carnegie Hall teaching artist Emily Eagen curated our playlist to encourage parents to sing and move with their children and create a deeper connection with them. In between songs, Shawana Kemp of Shine and the Moonbeams—a regular performer on our Carnegie Kids series—can be heard narrating and offering tips for parents and activity ideas to support children’s learning and development.
Photography by Jennifer Taylor
According to Eagen, “each of these songs is a lovely gem, capturing something sweet, funny, poignant, mysterious, tender, or true about what it is like to be a child going to sleep, watched over by someone who loves you. As a family, we use lullabies to relate to each other in a way that lets us linger for a moment, suddenly finding ourselves making music and playing together. As a mother, this lullaby moment is when I truly remember that parenting is so much more than just getting stuff done. I hope these songs can take you to that special, time-stopping, magical place where you can just be with your children in the moment and share a lovely song together. And don’t be surprised if a few new lullabies come up along the way!”
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