21st-century boy

Michael White on Berlin's boldness in putting Simon Rattle on the podium
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The Independent Culture
When the news broke on Wednesday that Sir Simon Rattle was to be the next chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, my first feeling was relief - that something I'd been confidently predicting in this newspaper for several years had actually happened. Not all my confident predictions do; and in the past weeks, as the tension mounted and the candidates reduced to Rattle and Daniel Barenboim, I'd found myself getting more confident by the minute. As if I knew. As if anyone knew.

This job was in the gift of an enclosed community: the 113 voting members of an orchestra which was once, indisputably, the greatest in the world but has since been shaken slightly off its pedestal. Choosing a new conductor is a big deal for any group of musicians. But for the Philharmonic, at this time, it was a matter of peculiar sensitivity: a make-or-break move that could restore their place among the gods or leave them grand but mortal - and subservient to the Vienna Philharmonic, their great European rival.

In the circumstances, the vote could have gone either way. And the argument for Barenboim would have been that he is a patrician figure, supremely sophisticated, who knows and can manipulate the ways of the musical world. A premier league power-broker, he would fight the orchestra's corner just as Karajan - the conductor who gave Berlin its iron glamour - once did. He would politic. He would lead. And he would be an icon - in a way that Claudio Abbado, his successor, nearly was but with not quite enough panache.

Yes, Barenboim had his attractions. But were they really looking for another Karajan? Word on the ground was that they weren't. A couple of weeks ago Udo Zimmermann, the German composer who has just been appointed Intendant of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin's premier opera on the old West side, told me he was sure they would not want anything remotely like another Karajan. Things had moved on from there. The Berlin Phil was planning to revive its fortunes with a fresh, new future, not an imitation of the past. And that made Rattle the front-runner - not just because he was younger (44 to Barenboim's 56) but because his style of leadership was everything that Karajan's was not.

Rattle is the very model of the modern non-tyrannical conductor. He is strong, he gets his way, but there's no lordly bearing and no hauteur. He has reached the pinnacle of his profession, but by comparison with the fully formed musicianship of Barenboim he seems to be still developing, still exploring possibilities. That makes him interesting. And to a far greater extent than Barenboim, he has made a commitment to modern music. He built his career on 20th-century repertoire; and if anyone is equipped to take an orchestra boldly into the repertoire of the 21st century then Rattle is.

That isn't necessarily a plus-point with an orchestra such as the Berlin whose raison d'etre has largely been the core classics of earlier times; and until fairly recently you might have said that Rattle wouldn't be able to supply the strength they need there. But anyone who heard his Beethoven symphony cycles with the CBSO, or his very recent recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos with Brendel and the Vienna Philharmonic, would have to admit that he has caught up. Rattle these days has as much to say about the centre of the repertory as he always did about its margins. That will certainly have bought some Berlin Philharmonic votes.

For the moment, the most interesting thing about Rattle's appointment is the burst of national euphoria that accompanied the anouncement. His photograph displaced the usual run of politicians, footballers and Kosovan refugees on the front pages of the national press - quite rightly if, as many people think, this is the top job in the music world. But serious musicians rarely get that kind of coverage: their CBEs and knighthoods pass unnoticed in the wake of OBEs to soap stars.

So the Rattle job, presumably, has touched some kind of national nerve: a recognition, at long last, that the arts in this country do matter and can provide the basis for an honourable British influence throughout the world. And in particular I think the job has touched a nerve among the young musicians in this country. Serious music these days seems to lean toward the geriatric: audiences on sticks and Zimmer frames, and pundits telling us the end is nigh. With Rattle in Berlin there promises to be a new tomorrow some of us had barely hoped for. And of that I'm pretty confident, so you can hold me to it. Sort of.