Knight of the big noise; profile; Sir Simon Rattle

Music's most bankable talent has no fixed plans. Or does he? asks Michael White wonders
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ON WEDNESDAY morning Simon Rattle was off to the dentist for root canal treatment, and "positively looking forward to it" by comparison with what he had been through the day before. On Tuesday afternoon he had told the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that their 16-year relationship was over: he would bow out as music director when his contract expired in 1998. And within hours of the announcement a tremor had passed through the fax lines of agents and orchestral managements across the world. The most bankable talent on the international conducting circuit would, at last, be on the market.

But from what he told me over a pre-dental lunch on Wednesday, Rattle intends to keep the market waiting. He has no plans to rush into another job, still less a job in London where, by common consent, he is the missing ingredient in the world capital of classical music. Three of London's five symphony orchestras have vacancies pending for a conductor, most of them are in financial and/or artistic crisis, and they all know Rattle's charismatic power would be a sure bet to revive their fortunes. At the same time, Covent Garden needs a successor to Bernard Haitink; and if Rattle wanted that job, it could be his for the asking. But he doesn't.

"Look, these are all fine possibilities, but the London jungle is not what I need at the moment. I need a rest. I've loved Birmingham, it's been fantastic, but when I joined the orchestra - aged all of 25 - I hit the ground running, and I've been running ever since. I'm 40 now and I simply can't go on at that pace. I need some time out, and this is the time - while things are on a high in Birmingham and before the inevitable diminuendo sets in, as it does sooner or later between conductors and orchestras."

What Rattle will do with his time remains to be seen, but he'll certainly take a sabbatical and, after that, a limited amount of guest conducting with "the CBSO and maybe two or three others, so long as there's still the space to think and reflect". I asked if there was some spiritual prompting behind all this, and there followed a long pause. "I'm an Englishman and distrustful of putting it in those terms. But in a sense you're right. I'd like to work out a way to live with a little more balance. That's not unreasonable is it?"

To take a balanced view of Rattle's departure, conductors come and go from orchestras all the time - it's a great global game of musical chairs - and the only surprise is that he didn't break with Birmingham before now. Sixteen years is the longest any British orchestra has ever had with one conductor; and as Rattle's star has risen, his loyalty to the Midlands - "I'm naturally monogamous in relationships," he says - has been remarkable. The CBSO was never a "great" orchestra, and by the standards of the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonics it still isn't. But somehow, through the inexplicable chemistry that can pass between conductors and players, he has taught the CBSO to give great performances - and there are 60 or so recordings to prove it. What's more, he has made the CBSO a model of, as he says, "what orchestras should be in the 21st century and how they must change". Fresh, young, dynamic, forward-looking, Rattle's players have found themselves a role in Birmingham community life that isn't hidebound by the old conventions and formalities of concert-giving, and open to possibilities. "They never set themselves a ceiling, and there's simply no work-as-usual attitude," says Rattle, "and that's why they've achieved so much."

SIMON RATTLE is given to talking about the achievements of the CBSO as though he isn't responsible for them; but then he has the endearing - almost absurd - modesty of someone whose gifts are so manifest that he's never needed to trumpet them. He made his first appearance in the national press at 15, as the boy-wonder conductor of an orchestra he set up himself in Liverpool. By birth he was a middle-class scouser, the son of a jazz-loving businessman, and his formative musical experience was as a percussionist - which steered his interests toward the 20th-century repertory that gives percussion instruments a better deal than Bach and Mozart. At 19, in 1974, he won the prestigious John Player Conducting Competition with the attendant prize of two years' work experience with the Bournemouth orchestras; a bad experience in Rattle's case, because the players gave him a baptism of something worse than fire. They called him Baby Rattle, not altogether affectionately.

But if Bournemouth failed to recognise what had dropped into its lap, others were more perceptive: not least the Philharmonia in London, which gave him his Festival Hall debut at the age of 21. Four years later came the CBSO offer and celebrity. Before long the distinctive Rattle insignia - shaggy mop of not-too-well-kept hair, ill-fitting tails, and a distressing penchant for lurid party shirts - had become tantamount to the insignia of British music. And with it all came one ultimate gift that ensured his appeal beyond the ranks of dedicated music-lovers: the common touch.

No one has ever quite worked out how to present serious music on television, but Rattle has been more effective than most and reached a huge audience in the process (the party shirts were useful there). For good measure, he has also featured in a classic of modern gay fiction: Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library, where one of the characters asserts his cultural credentials by listening to Rattle's recording of Tristan und Isolde. That Rattle has never actually recorded Tristan und Isolde has confused CD collectors ever since.

Above all, he has always managed, in a profession whose greatest exponents tend to be tyrants, to establish his authority in genially unassuming ways. He grimaces when people call him maestro; and as Sir Simon Rattle - an embellishment acquired at only 39 - he couldn't be further from the Edwardian cliche of the musical knight. He certainly challenges the common assumption that only baton-bullies get results. And very surprisingly, his anti-maestro stance has proved more than acceptable to some of the most conservative orchestral establishments. Throughout his time in Birmingham he has always guest-conducted other ensembles, but only in moderation and within a selected family circle whose members include the Philharmonia, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Glyndebourne, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. But more recently the circle has embraced the Vienna Philharmonic ("the pair of shoes I've always wanted to walk in," says Rattle) and the Berlin Philharmonic, where he will be found directing three concerts this coming week - the elite corps among European orchestras. Both evidently like him very much; and though Vienna doesn't appoint chief conductors, Berlin does - and probably will be in 2002 when the contract of the present incumbent, Claudio Abbado, ends. It's not unlikely that Berlin is the ultimate prize for which Rattle is saving himself.

But meanwhile there are still two years in Birmingham to go, and they'll go with no sense of easing into the home stretch. The CBSO has never been on better form or done more interesting work than now; and of all the conventional symphony orchestras in Britain, it is the one that, thanks to Rattle, has most successfully absorbed the lessons of period performance practice. If that sounds academic, it isn't, because period performance - the attempt to approach composers of the past on their terms rather than ours - is probably the most vital issue in music-making today. Until recently it divided musicians into two, often warring, camps: those who play period instruments and those who don't. But a few inspired figures have crossed the divide. Rattle is among them. And anyone who heard the CBSO Beethoven Symphony Cycle he conducted last autumn will know how well he does it. That cycle was a historic event, as dazzling a display of musical intelligence as most of us could ever hope to hear. For Rattle it was certainly a rite of passage, marking his transition from enfant terrible to absolute master; and privately he might agree that it was equally a ne plus ultra, not irrelevant to the timing of his decision to go.

Rattle's going raises not only the question of what he does next: it leaves a major problem for Birmingham, which has played him as its cultural card and most famous (adopted) son for all these years. Birmingham Symphony Hall - the finest concert auditorium in Britain - was effectively the city's gift to Rattle, and the product of a rare alliance between local government and the arts that brought the city international prestige. The town hall flags will be at half-mast this weekend.

But anyone taking odds on successors should note a CBSO concert coming soon that may offer a clue. Featuring Stockhausen's epic of the 1950s avant-garde, Gruppen, it requires three conductors. One is Rattle, one is Rattle's mentor John Carewe, and the third is Rattle's 21-year-old protege Daniel Harding: a sacerdotal laying-on of hands if there ever was one. Harding is dauntingly young but formidably able. Rattle believes in him; in two years' time he won't be much younger than Rattle was when the CBSO first came along; and, to tie the ends of this story neatly together, where should Harding be at this moment but working as Claudio Abbado's assistant at the Berlin Philharmonic. Place your bets.