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01 October 2021

the art of conducting | Sir Simon Rattle

by Jeff Schiltz

What was the lockdown situation like for the London Symphony Orchestra?

The orchestra and I have a long relationship here and this has really felt like one of our second homes and there's something which is beautifully symmetrical about the idea that we were just here before the lockdown and kind of right after it, because so often for instance, in our country the orchestras were some of the first people to be put out of work and some of the last people to be put back so this is another opposite symmetry. When we first went back in May and we played our first concert back at home in the Barbican, I think none of us were prepared for how emotional it would be. The sound of silence with people is a full silence. When you play to this mysterious void it's cold, it's empty. When people are there it's an entirely different thing. When we were able to go to Aix-en-Provence to play Tristan all summer, so the orchestra had five weeks in France which seemed like complete science fiction, the first thing... nobody had actually told the orchestra that as of the week before the government there had allowed there to be a completely full audience. So when we came and we suddenly saw all the seats filled this was also, I mean, many of us were in tears because you realize then just how much you miss it and how important it is to us. I think so many artists had a little crisis of who they are in this time and realizing that yes we are addicts, and we need this, this is what we do.

Can you tell us more about Ondřej Adámek’s piece Where are you?

Well this is a very special piece anyway and there's kind of a little story behind it because about I suppose three years ago, I had the idea I should really ask composers who is writing extraordinary music who I've never heard of? A from, you know, a luminary of around my own age like George Benjamin to young composers, particularly in Europe, almost everybody came back with the same name and I thought this is extraordinary I do not know this name. So I asked Magdalena because he's Czech, she said absolutely not, and in fact I mean he is unknown in the Czech Republic, because he never worked there, he left as a student.

Can you tell us more about the composing and rehearsing process of Ondřej Adámek’s piece «Where are you»?

Typically long and convoluted as it often is with composers. But Ondřej when he bought every recording Magdalena has ever made from, you know, Monteverdi and previous to Berio to whatever to see the range, but I think the most important thing was when they just sat down and spoke and he realized what a deep speaking voice she has. A due to our complete horror the first thing that came back was all basically in the baritone register where she had never sung, and indeed had no idea she had a voice there. And when she started singing in our little music house in the the garden, our children say you know, "Who's making those noises there?", I said, "Well that's mum's", they said, "No come on there's somebody else". It actually was a matter of discovering, discovering  a different type of voice and persuading Ondře that, "Yes please, let Magdalena sing sometimes". I mean this is a great singer with a wonderful voice. Don't only make sounds or machine music, which is what he had started. And so it was a long process of trying to get it.

Is it different from conducting a Bruckner symphony?

No difference, if it's great music it's great music. I mean Bruckner is a very particular other type of problem, if you call it a problem, because the arch is so long and you have to concentrate it. It's obviously a very different way of playing, but on the other hand, the very first two bars of the Bruckner where the strings play tremolando but it should actually sound like the planet breathing, it's rather similar to Adámek. Bruckner doesn't ask the string players actually to breathe and sing, but in a way it's the same thing, it's this gigantic landscape of what...  Ondřej Adámek’s piece is Where are you?. Like a lot of Bruckner's pieces could also be called Where are you?.

Do you impose your idea of how a piece should sound? Or is it developed together with the orchestra?

No, conducting it's one of the great fake professions. Without the orchestra we are completely helpless. And of course every orchestra has their sound and their tradition of what they do, that they carry with them, but it's developed together. For the LSO which is an incredibly rhythmic concentrated, quite fierce orchestra and always was, you have to find a different type of sound for Bruckner. We are all aiming towards one kind of goal, but with each different player and each different personality, they can lead you also in a certain way.

How do you keep the musicians focused during rehearsals?

I mean it depends what the personality of the orchestra is, also the London Symphony Orchestra is an unusually focused and professional group. You don't have to persuade anyone to come into work,  it's very disciplined and with a great deal of humour and if there's something difficult to sort out, humour is often the way to sort it, out at least with these players. You have to judge the atmosphere of the room and there are some orchestras who put things together very quickly, there are some orchestras who really need a longer arch. With each orchestra you find a different way. You find a different way to work and you have to judge when you're losing them or when they're too tired or whether they've given it everything. This is something where you just have to sniff the air.

After being several times at the Philharmonie Luxembourg, is there a moment that stands out?

What I remember here is just simply coming the first time and playing for a few minutes with the orchestra and us all going, "Oh this is a place you can play music". It's not always so, it's a beautiful hall and everybody is welcomed here in a very special and very warm way. In a way that's the most important thing when you realize you're in a place which will let the garden grow, and this is one of those.