How We Met: Simon Rattle and Imogen Cooper

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The Independent Culture
Simon Rattle, the conductor, was born in Liverpool in 1955. He is music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; he also works in London and at Glyndebourne. He is married to singer Elise Ross; they have two children.

Imogen Cooper, the pianist, was born in London in 1949 and studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Married to photographer John Batten, she works with many of the world's major orchestras. She has recently begun a series of recitals and concerts, centred on the works of Schumann, around Britain.

SIMON RATTLE: My friendship with Imo is one that has always managed to survive the long absences which are part of the music business. She is one of a handful of real friends who go back a long way and always turn up at the most important times of my life.

The music business is completely unnatural. There's no opportunity to build on relationships, which is what most people do in ordinary life, and you don't have any initial stages followed by a 'getting to know you' period. When I was 24 I took a sabbatical to study English at Oxford which made me realise how different life was in the world Imo and I inhabited. Up until then, all my friends tended to be people involved in arts and music. Suddenly, I had the time to make new friends at the normal rate of the rest of the world.

We met almost 20 years ago when I was invited by Christopher Seaman to be guest conductor with the Northern Sinfonia, at Kendal Church, which had the most wonderful acoustics. Imo was the soloist. In those days she seemed very much older, and serious. There was none of the larkiness that she has now. These days, Imo increasingly reminds me of Emma Thompson. She really sparkles.

She had been sent away to study in France very early - which, of course, is why she plays so well, but I think that maybe she was sent away too young. She missed out on a lot of ordinary growing up. That, and what I imagine must have been a great weight of Catholicism in the family, was quite a burden for such a serious young girl. Imo is quite different now. It's not just that she's happier and looks younger. She's somehow much younger in spirit too.

Not long after we met, I remember taking Imo out to lunch. I was all of 22. While we were eating, I told her that she simply had to change her hair-style. It was bouffant, and added about 15 years to her. I would never say that to anyone now, and I'd certainly never done anything like it before. It could have been so hurtful, but fortunately Imo took it in the right spirit and went off to the hairdresser's. Her new hairstyle completely changed her.

Imo is one of the greatest musicians England has produced. She's utterly without show. Mozart, Schumann and Schubert could have been written for her. There's a poetic, reflective side to her which is always there in her playing. It isn't Imo's style to play to the gallery. She's not someone who goes in for fireworks in the rafters. But I can bet you that if I were to ask any orchestral musicians who they rate as one of the best Mozart pianists, three out of four of them will come up with Imo's name first time around. Orchestral musicians are the toughest critics.

As couples, my wife Eli and I are very close to Imo and her husband John, but the distance between Birmingham and London is quite a problem when it comes to visiting each other. From the earliest days of our friendship, though, Imo and I have always gone to each other's concerts. There was no way I would have missed her first major London recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Unfortunately, it was an afternoon concert, so that by the evening, because a performer's time clock is geared towards a 7.30pm start, Imo felt completely jet-lagged.

We had gone back to my then girlfriend's flat in Earls Court to have some spaghetti and wine. By nine o'clock, Imo was terribly agitated. She felt as though it were three in the morning, and explained that she needed to let off steam. I went for a walk along Earls Court Road and found a shop which sold damaged china. When I got back, I gave Imo a dozen plates and told her to smash them in the passage by the fire-escape. The look of relief when she came back into the flat was extraordinary.

All that seems such a long time ago. As I get older, I see how Imo's music has become more like she is now. There's an area of lightness, humour, wit and danger in her playing. It's something you rarely see in a poet.

IMOGEN COOPER: I can't remember exactly when I met Simon, but we first worked together with the Northern Sinfonia in Kendal Parish church. He was barely 20, but after the first 15 minutes of rehearsal it was obvious to everyone that here was someone who really had what it takes. He had presence and maturity. He also listened like stink, which isn't such a common quality in a conductor. He hasn't changed. Simon's ability to listen is one of his strongest points. After the concert we went out to eat. He was very nice - if a bit subdued. I never knew the details, but I think he'd just broken up with someone. We became good friends and, whenever possible, went to each other's concerts.

One day I was having lunch with Simon when he suggested, sweetly but firmly, that I ought to do something about my hair. I was staggered - firstly that he'd noticed, and secondly that he'd taken the trouble to tell me. My twenties were a lonely time, and in those days I didn't get much feedback from anyone. But I suspected he was right and started to look at myself with new eyes.

Home, children and stability are tremendously important for Simon. They're a wonderful counter-balance to the daft side of the music business. For him, quality of life is a high priority, and he seems to have got the balance between work and family right. If he and Eli have friends over for supper, Simon is quite often the cook. He's very good at stir-fry.

As a colleague, Simon is fantastic to work with. He's meticulous about preparation and knows his own mind. He hangs on like a terrier for something he believes in. If someone is nervous he usually picks it up and is even more supportive, although occasionally he also suffers from nerves. You have to know him quite well to recognise the signs. He becomes overly cheerful, with a sort of glazed look in his eye. When that happens, I know that he needs a bit of space. In similar circumstances, I look like thunder.

In the 18 years that I've known Simon, I've never not enjoyed his company. Very often, quite by chance, we meet in cities all over the world where we both happen to be working. Months and months can go by when we don't see each other, but I would never just phone him up for a gossip. We try to work together at least once every couple of years, and, for me, to have the combination of a close friend and a great conductor is very special. Some conductors tend to dismiss soloists: they don't put as much into the rehearsal as they should.

But Simon is very disciplined. He knows how to sub-divide his rehearsals fruitfully so that he gets the best out of everybody. For us both, compromise is deeply offensive, but we always work out a valid solution which is pleasing to us both. After a concert, we go out for dinner. Sometimes, if there's a free night after a rehearsal, we go to the cinema.

When we're on our own we don't talk about music. We're much more interested in all the other things which are going on in our lives.-

(Photograph omitted)