My Heros: Rattle, Abbado and Davis

Courtney Lewis, Conducting ElectricityLeave a Comment

During our formative years, musicians are molded by many influences.

Obviously our teachers hold enormous sway, taking on the role of musical parents by establishing the basics of instrumental technique while introducing repertoire at the right time. But like any artist we are often influenced just as much, if not more, by professionals, we may not know. The people we admire in our profession can inspire us through their recordings, their public persona and the blueprint of their career. All of this is true for me. I had wonderful teachers at school, university and music college, but as a conductor, the greatest influences were three giants whose influence came entirely from afar. I sometimes think of them, jokingly, as The Holy Trinity: Sir Simon Rattle, the English conductor who was music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra throughout my childhood and is until the end of this year principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; Claudio Abbado, the Italian who also worked in Berlin; and Sir Colin Davis, another Englishman, most closely associated with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Along with my parents and my high school music teacher, Simon Rattle has influenced me more than any other human being – a remarkable thing to say about someone I’ve only met in passing a handful of times. Much of my musical personality and my convictions about who and what conductors and orchestras should be in the world stem from his example. He was appointed principal conductor in Birmingham at the ludicrously young age of 24 and set about turning a sleepy regional orchestra into a model for others around the world. He became a household name through several television series that popularized classical music through disarmingly fresh explanations. A relentless advocate of music education, Rattle fought cuts in school music programs and promoted the idea that the orchestra itself had a greater role to play. Most importantly, he provided a model of how to program the whole repertoire from the seventeenth century right through to the present day, championing living composers and presenting today’s music as an essential part of what we do. He did all this while bringing the Birmingham audience along with him, increasing ticket sales even as repertoire became more diverse, and building the orchestra into a world-class ensemble that proved trend-setting work could take place in the provinces, far away from London. His manner, as an approachable, dare I say it “normal person”, who communicates in a way audiences and orchestras can easily understand is a powerful example of how to achieve greatness while keeping both feet firmly planted on earth. I still draw inspiration from his concert programs in Birmingham and Berlin. And, of course, his musicianship, his ability to dig into a score and find a path through it that is replete with detail and character while having a rock-solid structural foundation, is unparalleled.

I’ll never forget the first time I met Simon Rattle. I was 19, and I’d crept into a rehearsal in the Royal Albert Hall in London. The Berlin Philharmonic were preparing for a BBC Prom concert, presenting Messiaen’s extraordinary late masterpiece Eclairs sur l’au dela. It’s a poetic depiction of the afterlife, and appropriately enough Messiaen died before revising the score, meaning the conductor has to make all sorts of decisions about how to make it work. After watching the rehearsal I managed to think of a plausible question, and as the orchestra was leaving I walked onto the stage. I got right up to the podium, face to face with the surprisingly short maestro, only to discover I had entirely lost the ability to speak.

I doubt a more elegant and profound musician has ever graced the stage than Claudio Abbado, who died in 2014. His career is well-known and celebrated, beginning at La Scala, then London, Vienna, Berlin and Lucerne. If you watch a video of Abbado conduct, you’ll be struck by the extraordinary beauty of his physical movements and the seeming ease with which everything is accomplished. Each piece, even the most complicated modern music, is from memory. His Mozart is the perfect blend of head and heart, while his Mahler is breath-taking in its combination of earthly grit and spiritual flight. He is always in complete control yet trusts the musicians so completely that they seem free. Watch a video of him rehearse, and nothing seems to be happening. He barely speaks, only stopping to encourage the musicians to listen to each other. When Abbado took over the Berlin Philharmonic, some musicians expressed concern about how dull the rehearsals were. “Just wait for the concert”, came the reply from others. While it’s dangerous to imitate other conductors – we all have to figure out what works for our own bodies – if I can’t get something to work, just imagining how Abbado would have conducted it usually solves the problem.

Sir Colin Davis led an extraordinary career. Like Abbado, his greatest work was in the final decades of his life, but he had a slow start. He didn’t play the piano, which prevented him from joining the conducting class at the Royal College of Music. A clarinetist, he founded an orchestra with classmates that he eventually conducted. After years of “freelance wilderness” (as he called them), he got a job as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This led to his big break, stepping in for the ailing Otto Klemperer in a performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The reviews were stellar – “Best Since Beecham” – and he was on his way. Yet there were many stumbles and points when his career seemed to be stalling. As a young man he was famously impatient with orchestras, often failing to be re-invited after a first appearance. Later in life Davis talked about the epiphany that took place in his mid-thirties: “I didn’t want to be an angry, idiot conductor.” His path to greatness was about giving up control rather than craving it. Years later, he commented, “the less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that’s as good as it gets.” Typically self-effacing, but words to live by. Listening to Davis’s recordings of Berlioz, Elgar and Sibelius, one is struck by the overwhelming generosity of spirit and a sense of the orchestra being gently guided, not driven. This is reflected in the way Davis moved: everything was flowing, round and inviting. The baton seemed to be alive in a way I have never seen with any other conductor.

Three great musicians. Two have left behind an enormous body of recordings. Listen to Colin Davis’s Symphonie Fantastique with London or Abbado’s Mahler 7 with Berlin. For Rattle, perhaps the greatest is still to come when he takes the reins of the London Symphony later this year. But as I write this I realize that all three have influenced me most strongly in ways that have more to do with life than the nuts and bolts of conducting an orchestra. From Rattle, follow your convictions and be fierce in your advocacy. From Abbado, find balance. And to give the last words to Colin Davis, “be generous, take the long view…maybe the absence of ego is one of the great joys that is available to us: the chance that music gives you to climb out of the prison cell of your ego and be free for an hour and a half.”


Posted with the kind permission of The Florida Times-Union.

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