No nostalgia as Rattle visits with Berlin Philharmonic for last time
Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. (Monika Rittershaus)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent

Berlin Philharmonic

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Symphony Hall, Nov. 11. 617-278-5156,

In June 1999, Sir Simon Rattle took the podium at Berlin’s Philharmonie concert hall to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. On the program were Pierre Boulez’s “Éclat,’’ for an ensemble of 15 instruments, and Mahler’s gigantic, colorful Seventh Symphony.

At the time, Rattle was perhaps the world’s hottest conductor, a 44-year-old British wunderkind who had led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra out of obscurity as his own star rose. Having left Birmingham the year before, all eyes were on where he would go next. (Boston, where he was a prized guest conductor, was frequently said to be a possible landing place.)

The speculation ended a few weeks later, when Rattle was chosen to succeed Claudio Abbado as the Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor, beginning in 2002. And it was, at least in rumor, those Mahler performances that clinched his chances and spurred the orchestra’s musicians to offer him the job.

“They were like the trial, in a way,’’ said Rattle during a recent phone interview from his Berlin home. The trial, he added, was happening on both sides. “It maybe wasn’t only the time when the orchestra thought, ‘Oh, this could be interesting.’ It was the time when I couldn’t resist the idea any longer. I can remember thinking at the time, ‘Oh Simon, you would be an idiot not to try this.’’’

Rattle and the Berliners return to Symphony Hall next Friday, playing the same Boulez-Mahler program that won him the job. It will be the Berlin Philharmonic’s final American tour with Sir Simon at the helm. The wunderkind has become a grand old man of the conducting world, his mop of curls now gone gray — “I’m in what people tell me are my 60s, ridiculous, really’’ — and the 2017-18 season will be his last at the Philharmonic. It will overlap with his first season as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, which he is calling “my last job.’’

He is not, however, in a nostalgic mood. Not yet, anyway. “Look, it’s still two years to go,’’ he said. “Nobody wants to write their own obituary. Otherwise it’s like, ‘I’ll accept the result if I win.’’’

He chuckled when he said the last sentence, a reference to a line Donald Trump used at an Ohio rally in October about the conditions under which he’d accept the election results. “No one in their right mind would say that, would they?’’ Rattle added.

Asked how it will feel when he does step down, he replied, “I will miss it tremendously and it will be a gigantic relief at the same time. Sixteen years for a job like this is a wonderful amount of time — you can get somewhere. But there is a point also where I just simply felt, maybe this will not be constructive going on.

“And it’s not just a matter of conducting here,’’ he went on. “It’s a matter of keeping this whole ship with these extraordinary egos afloat. Everyone is a leading actor and very few people are supporting actors. A lot of Dustin Hoffmans and not very many William H. Macys.’’

That is a remarkably frank way to refer to one of the world’s finest orchestras. But “this is on the box when you get it. Everybody knows this. It always was and it always will be.’’ Indeed, it was part of the reason he’d initially resisted putting his hat in the ring for the Berlin job.

And, he added, “when it works, it’s like an absolutely gigantic chamber ensemble. People tend to work by listening and reacting to each other. It’s a different way of playing than of most orchestras. And that makes it much more complicated, and it makes things longer to achieve. But when it clicks, anything is possible.’’

So why London, after two decades in Europe? “Well first, it is the old country, for me,’’ he answered. “And the idea of going back and doing something in my country, in my language, and with our shared sense of humor — it was almost irresistible.’’ And there is the prospect of a new concert hall to replace the London Symphony’s current home, the Barbican, widely acknowledged to be among the least satisfying of the city’s concert venues.

It was also appealing to have the chance to work in an orchestra without the weight of tradition that suffuses the Berlin atmosphere. “They basically only talk about the past when they want to tell you a funny story,’’ Rattle said of the London Symphony. “They are completely interested in what comes next. And they just refuse to give themselves a ceiling for growth. And I just thought, this is a time to be there and to help them grow as much as I can, which is what they want.’’

He will continue to live in Berlin with his wife, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená and their three children in a castle-like house — which, he recently learned, is a PokeStop — and spend four months a year in London. He said that he would return someday to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, though not anytime soon. Other than a return to the Metropolitan Opera in three years, he has no plans to guest conduct in America for the foreseeable future. Home and family seem much more important now.

“My 11-year-old son said earlier this year, ‘Well Dad, I worked out that you must have missed about a third of my life, already. Will it always be like this?’ It wasn’t said in anger, though, just kind of asking. And I said, ‘Well you know, I think it will be. But I promise I will be there for the other two thirds, and really there.’

“Every week away is a week that that question hangs over you,’’ he continued. “And I don’t want now this peripatetic conducting life. I never really did want it that much anyway, and I’d like it a bit less now.’’

Berlin Philharmonic

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Symphony Hall, Nov. 11. 617-278-5156,

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.