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Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin PhilharmonicCarnegie Hall Celebrates Berlin

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Premiered on January 7, 2008 on PBS
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By Tim Smith

In 1882, a group of German musicians, informed by their conductor that they would have to travel fourth class -- the lowliest of the lowly -- on a train to Warsaw for a concert, told him, not necessarily in these words, "fat chance." They promptly formed their own self-governing orchestra, which eventually became known as the Berlin Philharmonic. And you can't get much more first-class than that.

In 1999, the musical descendents of those players with high travel standards voted to name Simon Rattle principal conductor of the Philharmonic, launching a fresh and eventful chapter in the orchestra's celebrated history.

To revisit earlier chapters in that history is to be reminded of some of the most significant figures in classical music history. Joseph Joachim, better known as a splendid violinist who inspired many eminent composers, was an early conductor of the ensemble, followed in 1887 by Hans von Bülow, a towering podium force of the day. Another such force, Arthur Nikisch, took the reins in 1895; he presided over the Philharmonic's first recordings, the beginning of a discography that would become a major asset of the orchestra.

Next came the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose three decades with the ensemble established a benchmark of what might best be called spiritual music-making -- from 1922 to 1945 and again from 1947 to his death in 1954 (two years after being named conductor for life). Another intensely spiritual musician, Sergiu Celibidache, who enjoys something of a cult following today, led the Philharmonic between the two Furtwängler terms.

And then there was Herbert von Karajan, yet another legend (certainly in his own mind). His reign, 1954-1989, was remarkably fruitful, as innumerable recordings attest. He painstakingly crafted the Philharmonic's inspiring technical sheen. Claudio Abbado, among the most widely admired classical artists, succeeded Karajan, leaving his own distinctive legacy. And now, Rattle.

Even before the British conductor signed his contract, he put his mark on the organization. As a condition of accepting the appointment, Rattle asked for a major change that would make the Philharmonic self-governing not just artistically but also financially. But he has had much more than an administrative effect on the august orchestra in his few years at the helm.

New directions in programming were apparent from the start, even when it came to a familiar corner of the Philharmonic's repertoire -- Mahler symphonies. It was Rattle who convinced the reluctant musicians to explore for the first time Deryck Cooke's realization of Mahler's unfinished "Symphony No. 10." The amount of contemporary music performed by the orchestra has been greatly expanded under Rattle's direction, with the introduction of such composers as England's Thomas Ades. And fresh initiatives have greatly enlivened the Philharmonic's educational outreach. In 2003, a year after his tenure started, Rattle organized a collaboration between the Philharmonic and Berlin schoolchildren that included a choreographed version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." That project was repeated last November, when Rattle and the Philharmonic performed the Stravinsky classic with a troupe of New York public school students in an old uptown theater.

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Top banner photo: Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic

1st Konzertmeisters, Daniel Stabrawa and Toru Yasunaga
photo: 1st Konzertmeisters, Daniel Stabrawa and Toru Yasunaga

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Related Web Sites
Berlin Philharmonic
EMI Classics: Sir Simon Rattle
Gustavo Dudamel
State Foundation for the Venezuelan System of Youth and Child Orchestras
Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft
Carnegie Hall: Berlin in Lights
Carnegie Hall
International Gustav Mahler Society
Boosey & Hawkes: Béla Bartók

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