Shake, Rattle and roll: Simon Rattle returns to Liverpool

As Simon Rattle returns to his home city of Liverpool, Lynne Walker joins him in rehearsals to watch how he can transform an orchestra
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The Independent Culture

"You know, you have a fantastic orchestra," declared Sir Simon Rattle to the Liverpool audience at the end of his concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. "So cherish it." It's most unusual for Rattle, whose accent still bears a distinctive Liverpudlian twang, to speak in a concert. Nothing gets between Rattle and the music. No extreme gesticulation, no superfluous words of introduction, no self-aggrandisement.

As he is a local hero and artist laureate of the RLPO during the city's year as European Capital of Culture, this home match had been much anticipated. But it wasn't only the professional musicians who benefited from the Rattle experience. In a busy week during which he became only the fifth musician to receive the Freedom of the City of Liverpool (the other four were the Beatles), Rattle made time to rehearse the youth orchestra which he joined at the age of 11. Everyone else had to wait until they were 13 but, for the boy who demanded a drum kit at the age of four, rules were bent. He played timpani and percussion as well as piano and violin in the Merseyside Youth Orchestra.

Forty years on, he became its patron (the MYO has since changed its name to Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra), and as he arrives at the rehearsal the youth orchestra chairman Geoff Cowie remembers Rattle playing under his own baton when he was deputy conductor. "He wasn't virtuosic," he says. "The musicianship didn't really show until he started conducting. But he did stand out as having something special."

Rattle wastes no time in launching into Tchaikovsky's bluffly patriotic Marche Slave, the very work with which he made his debut as the youth orchestra's new conductor in 1973. Ed Smith, his long-time managerial collaborator in Liverpool and, later, Birmingham, says, "You don't catch him conducting much Tchaikovsky these days! I think that's the first and last time he conducted Marche Slave. And it was as vulgar as it always is!"

But Rattle doesn't really "do" vulgar and he's clearly more interested in shaping the music, bringing out its texture. If he feels dismay at the cellos' nervous account of the difficult opening bars, he certainly doesn't show it. "I'm not going to conduct every beat," he demonstrates with a laborious up-and-down arm movement, "so you're going to have to watch me. And I'd love to see a few faces. Come on, you know this music."

Turning to the upper strings and winds, he calls out, "Don't wait for the sound to reach you. It's gone up there," he gestures to the balcony above the highly reverberant hall, "for a drink before it will be back down to you."

The first of the march's two Serbian folksongs is, the composer instructed, "to be played like a funeral march". The players need some persuasion to sound mournful. "I'm not afraid of embarrassing myself and neither must you be," encourages Rattle. That's just as well as his facial expressions, even in rehearsal, range from a beatific smile and impish glance to the grimace of a gargoyle. "If you're going to make a mistake make it a big one," he adds.

He gets the players to vocalise a big "whoa" sigh. Not nearly desperate enough, he says. Finally he gets the sound that he wants to hear from their instruments. "I'm getting really miserable," he says, nodding vigorously and smiling gleefully. In the triumphant melody he urges the players on. "Imagine you're Cossacks, raging right through the country, raping and pillaging!" (Has he noticed that the five hornists are all female, I wonder?) "Use your whole bodies, do something with the long notes, make a third Russian revolution happen." He wants the violins to "argue with the woodwind", the brass to come soaring at the strings "like a viaduct". Another passage must sound like a controlled explosion, the brass springing off the notes "like those big balls you sit on and bounce".

One tempestuous passage falls to bits and Rattle bursts out laughing. "That was pretty shit," he exclaims cheerfully. There's no fuss, no condescension, just an appealing determination to help these young players.

The difference when he conducts Marche Slave at the end of the rehearsal is utterly amazing. Before that Rattle runs through a suite from Bizet's Carmen admitting, astonishingly, that he's never conducted this music before. Content to let the orchestra just play, he says little apart from making a few complimentary remarks and reminding the players that while the sultry Carmen music is all about sex, it is definitely not "all about sex in the same tempo!".

Whether working with the youth orchestra or the RLPO, Rattle seems genuinely thrilled to be back in Liverpool. "This is an important musical homecoming," he says. Speaking at Liverpool's Bluecoat arts centre – where he attended Saturday morning Music Box classes as a boy – Rattle is nostalgic. It's his third visit to Liverpool in the space of a few weeks, once for the funeral of his elderly mother and the other to conduct his regular band, the Berlin Philharmonic. He's still smiling at the memory of having to explain to the German players what one Scouser meant after that performance when he told Rattle, "Your orchestra's a bit of arright, innit!"

He declares that he's "a sentimental old thing", and as soon as Rattle walked back in to the handsome Philharmonic Hall he experienced extraordinary memories. "I saw a procession of ghosts. Look, I learned what an orchestra sounded like from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and heard an incredibly wide range of repertoire from Sir Charles Groves in particular. As a kid I wandered in to everyone's rehearsals and attended every concert. It was a real shock when I discovered that the rest of the musical world was not as adventurous as Liverpool."

After his concert with the RLPO, his voice nearly gone from so much talking, Rattle signed countless CDs for nearly an hour and a half, sipping a pint of Liverpool's Cains beer and reminiscing about the days he describes as "paradise". Asked about his plans to return to Liverpool, Rattle seems genuinely regretful. "I've no plans at at the moment but who knows? As a father, with two small and two big children, travelling is more complicated than it used to be but this will always be home and I never forget that. When you're born here, you're a Scouser." Since he's about to sign up for another 10 years with the Berliner Philharmonic it seems likely that Berlin, where he lives with his partner Magdalena Kozena and their two young sons, will remain his home for the foreseeable future. He's proud, though, to find that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is so very clearly "in the ascendancy" and that its young Russian principal conductor Vasily Petrenko is making such waves across the Mersey.