Sir Simon Rattle's new contract with the Berlin Philharmonic is just days old but already he's looking ahead _ to the orchestra's coast-to-coast tour U.S. tour starting this week, and to the role that classical music can and will play in 21st century society.
Rattle and the 128 members of the Berlin Philharmonic depart Monday for a seven-stop U.S. tour that will take them from New York and Boston to Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chicago, before wrapping up in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Unlike on previous tours, ticket sales have been sluggish this year, a problem that reflects the ongoing economic crisis as well as the challenges classical music faces in today's world.
"We really have to carry on," said Rattle, who since taking over as principal conductor in 2002 has reorganized the orchestra into a foundation run by the musicians and extended the reach of its music through education programs and state-of-the art distribution.
"We have to carry on what we are doing, which is also to discover what an orchestra is in the 21st century, how it lives within its community, how it deals with new music, how it deals with old music."
One answer to that question has been the Digital Concert Hall, a live stream over the Internet launched last year that allows fans across the globe to attend concerts virtually as they are played in the orchestra's iconic bright yellow home hall, or access an archive to listen to them later.
"At the moment it's unique, but I'm sure it will be the future," Rattle told The Associated Press last week about the online program. "Everything is going to change and people will expect their music to be as available as their water or their heating."
"I have the feeling that films, music _ whatever _ will be on this large screen in the house. People will want to dial up concerts whenever as they do HBO," Rattle said.
Yet the 53-year-old Liverpool, England native refuses to see the transformation to digital, on-demand music as a negative, insisting the ability to reach out to fans anywhere, anytime in no way detracts from what distinguishes the Berlin Philharmonic from other ensembles _ its sound.
"It's a sound that's built in waves rather than blocks, and it's a sound that also goes from the bottom up. Deeply breathed, intense, very intense _ get your hands too close to it, they'll burn," he said.
Another way Rattle has sought under his tenure _ extended by his new contract to 2018 _ to carve out a place for music in the modern world has been through a vast education program.
"It expanded very, very fast," he said of the orchestra's education program. "In a way there is no stopping it. Recently the orchestra started going seriously into prison, into maximum security prisons, because they also feel that part of the education work is to do with building up trust and tolerance and team building."
Looking ahead, the Berlin Philharmonic's next project is a collaboration with Wynton Marsalis to be played in June. The orchestra has also commissioned a piece for a South African tour in a couple of years that would draw on the talents of indigenous musicians.
Although neither would qualify as traditional crossover projects between classical and other genres of music, Rattle said that in principle he would not oppose such a venture.
"Classical music is such a multicolored beast these days. All young composers are listening to everything," he said, but then cautioned: "Putting just two different cultures together just for the hell of it, for sales, is obviously is not a great idea."
"It really depends," Rattle said. "But you'd better do it really well."
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