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For those who love out-of-town orchestras, this is a particularly strong season. The Rotterdam Philharmonic brought its tour to an energizing close a few weeks ago. On April 27, you can hear the Bamberg Symphony perform with pianist Hélène Grimaud at George Mason University. And on April 30, Washington Performing Arts welcomes the arguable highlight of the spring roster of visitors, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by one of the classical world’s most charismatic conductors, Sir Simon Rattle.

Rattle, 69, is the former principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and is currently in his inaugural season as director of the BRSO. In February, the Czech Philharmonic announced the appointment of Rattle as its next principal guest conductor for a five-year term, effective with the upcoming 2024-2025 season.

A massive star in his native England (he was born in Liverpool), Rattle launched his career with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1980 to 1998. And, most recently, he concluded a high-profile six seasons leading the London Symphony Orchestra, leaving the post as sweeping governmental budget cuts and post-Brexit economic shakeouts have destabilized Britain’s classical landscape. Rattle has told interviewers that his reasons for leaving were “entirely personal,” allowing him to be closer to his home and family in Berlin.

One of Munich’s four orchestras (along with the Munich Philharmonic, the Munich Radio Orchestra and the Bavarian State Orchestra) the BRSO has been helmed by a proud lineage of directors including Eugen Jochum, Rafael Kubelík, Sir Colin Davis, Lorin Maazel and until his death in 2019, Mariss Jansons.

The orchestra’s long-standing “Musica Viva” series of works by contemporary composers was founded in 1945 by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, picked up in 1948 by Bavarian Radio (a year before the BRSO’s founding) and continues to this day. Boasting a long legacy of composers conducting their own works — Stravinsky, Boulez, Penderecki and Stockhausen all premiered music with the orchestra — the series has helped cement the orchestra’s reputation as hospitable to experimentation. (This summer, the BRSO will launch an experiment pointed the opposite direction — a period-instrument ensemble that will spend the summer exploring Bach’s cantatas.)

Rattle made his debut with the BRSO (and the Bavarian Radio Chorus, which he will also lead) in 2010 with a performance of Schumann’s “Paradise and the Peri.” And the affection he has since developed for the orchestra appears mutual — its website features an excited cartoon Rattle, his most prominent feature that signature bouncing cloud of white curls.

On April 30, Rattle and the BRSO come to the Kennedy Center with a program including Wagner’s “Prelude und Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Symphonische Gesänge” (a piece featuring words by Black American writers including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen), and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major” (the “Pastorale”).

I caught up with the conductor by phone from his home in Berlin, where he has lived since 2003 with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, and their three children.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’re making your first visit to D.C. in 20 years with the BRSO. What do you see as the value of an orchestra touring internationally in 2024?

We are all thinking so carefully about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, whether this is the right thing to be doing. All the European orchestras are having enormous debates about it, just for the sake of the planet. Musically, the benefits have always been enormous, to share the way an orchestra plays music with other countries. America is full of great orchestras, but European orchestras play in a very different way, and we all learn from each other. But also, in playing, going around the world, we get closer together. A tour is a unique opportunity — we try to leave something in the places we go, so we’re not just jetting off and jetting back.

What can you share about the character of the BRSO that drew you to it?

I fell in love with the orchestra when I was a teenager. I collected records and I loved Rafael Kubelík, who was the conductor at the time. He influenced me in so many ways. When I was 16, the orchestra came to Liverpool and played the Beethoven Ninth symphony. I had never seen such a complete contact between conductor and orchestra; they seemed to be inside each other’s skins. There seemed to be rather extraordinary improvisation going on. This idea that an orchestra and conductor had such a degree of communication was one of my most enormous lessons in conducting, full stop — that this was even possible. From there I did whatever I could to sneak into Kubelík’s rehearsals to watch how this happens. It never occurred to me that one day I’d be at the head of the same orchestra.

What’s at the core of your compatibility with the orchestra?

I’m not always a very enthusiastic guest conductor. I tend to be terribly cautious. But when I first met them I realized immediately what a sense of collaboration there was there. This isn’t just the influence of Kubelík, but of [Mariss] Jansons. They came in with the idea of collaborating as fully as possible. How do you believe this music goes, and what can we all do together to make that a reality? I realized within half an hour at the first rehearsal that this was an orchestra I wanted to keep in touch with. Like everybody else, I thought we would have at least another decade of Mariss’s wonderful music-making. But of course, the last time the orchestra came to the United States was the last concert Mariss conducted — at Carnegie Hall, which he almost didn’t get through. He was very weak, but still full of music, and the orchestra felt they had to give him everything in return. I think that’s still a traumatic thing for an orchestra to have gone through.

What was the thinking behind the program? With the exception of the Zemlinsky, it’s music that we’re quite familiar with. Is this in service of showing something distinctive about the BRSO?

In some ways with the touring repertoire, this is just the way this particular cookie has crumbled. But, of course, what you will hear is one of the greatest of all the German orchestras playing right in the center of their repertoire. And the Zemlinsky is this extraordinary thing, with words written by great Black American authors and interpreted by Zemlinsky. This is very typical of the Weimar time.

You just left the London Symphony Orchestra. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the state of the arts in England. What’s happening?

It’s a struggle in my old country — there’s absolutely no doubt. What is amazing is the level of music-making that there is, despite the fact there is so little support. My old orchestra in Birmingham, along with every other arts institution in Birmingham, just got the news that next year the funding will be cut by 50 percent, and the following year by 100 percent. That’s a very extreme example of what’s going on in our country, but it’s a struggle. The LSO, which is a wonderful orchestra — they earn their living by touring. It’s not a boring life, but it’s a brutal life. As I face my 70s, it’s just simply something I couldn’t keep doing. They need to use up somebody else. It was of course, a very, very difficult decision to make, but it was absolutely a necessary one for my family.

And what about in Germany? I’ve read interviews where you’ve commented on how differently classical music is embraced.

I mean, of course, not everything is perfect in mainland Europe, but particularly in Central Europe, music is just considered absolutely part of what is necessary. I used to enjoy very much the fact that Angela Merkel would go watch football one day and come to the Berlin Philharmonic the next. So in that way, the idea that culture is important and should be part of everybody’s life is still on the agenda. But there are a lot of discussions about radio orchestras in Europe, about whether this is still necessary, whether this should still exist, whether these should still be supported. So I think there are plenty of fights ahead. And this is a problem for the arts all over the world: simply, to put a stake in the ground and say we are here, this is still a necessity, not a luxury.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on April 30. Visit www.washingtonperformingarts.org.



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