Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Rarely obedient, occasionally hysterical, not as funny as Scousers, but unstoppable in a karaoke bar - that's the Berlin Philharmonic, according to its chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle.
Speaking with unprecedented candour about the orchestra - widely regarded as the best in the world - Sir Simon, who in the past has talked about his "love affair" with the ensemble, has now revealed to the Guardian that his relationship with the players is rather tempestuous.
"It can be turbulent," he said. "But never destructively so. Even when it's turbulent it's moving in a direction.
"The musicians are very articulate, they are very open, they are very curious. They always want to know why we are doing something. They don't just do it - they are not an obedient orchestra in that way, but they are a very creative orchestra.
"They are not that easy to deal with but it's a lot of fun. Big temperaments, big personalities. It's difficult."
Sir Simon was elected to lead the orchestra - perhaps the most glamorous job in classical music - in 1999, a move that was greeted with untrammelled joy in Britain, with even the Sun running a triumphant leader. His accession to the post in September 2002 was heralded in Berlin by countless giant banners proclaiming "Welcome Sir Simon".
The initial outpourings of breathless enthusiasm have now been joined in the German press, however, by a few notes of doubt. Earlier in the year a cultural commentator accused Sir Simon of a dictatorial attitude and referred to a "marital crisis" between him and the Berlin Phil - accusations that were vigorously denied by the orchestra's chairman. And the veteran Berlin critic Klaus Geitel has declared that Sir Simon has failed to "fill the shoes" of his illustrious predecessors Claudio Abbado, Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtw‰ngler.
Some, however, put these criticisms down to teething troubles as Sir Simon tries to extend the range of the orchestra beyond its traditional core of classics by the great 19th-century German composers such as Brahms and Beethoven.
"Part of it is to extend what they have done in all kinds of ways, be it early music, or more recent music or other nationalities of music," said Sir Simon.
But the conductor - who has a fascination with "authentic" performance styles, as evinced by his relationship with the British-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as a life-long commitment to contemporary music - admitted that teasing the Berlin players away from their comfort zone and towards a greater focus on contemporary, non-German music had been a struggle.
"The orchestra were immensely concerned and worried and even a little hysterical about our taking Aura, this great vast piece by [the Finnish composer] Magnus Lindberg on tour to Japan. And then they were rather astonished when the audience just lapped it up.
"Sometimes they are simply too worried. It is very important for me to explain to them that people expect this from us, and that as long as they are also hearing the orchestra's trademark, they will also want to hear us playing new pieces."
Sir Simon's much-praised debut concerts with the orchestra, in September 2002, featured a recent piece, Asyla, by the young British composer Thomas AdËs. The conductor has since continued to champion new British music in Berlin, performing works such as Mark-Anthony Turnage's A Relic of Memory and AdËs's These Premises Are Alarmed.
Comparing the German orchestra with its British counterparts, Sir Simon, who conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for 18 years before being courted by Berlin, said: "There really is a truth that British players are more flexible and are faster and have fewer fixed opinions.
"Some things are much harder for German musicians. Here, or in Vienna, you have to work hard to make French music sound good, for instance. They can do it, it's just not so natural ... What I know is that when I start [Wagner's] Prelude [from the opera Tristan und Isolde] there's a feeling of, 'Oh yes , we're at home, here is our sound.' And this extraordinary glow comes out, that you don't get in many places."
Another transition for the Berlin players has been towards engaging in community and education work in schools and prisons in the city, beyond the confines of their glamorous west Berlin concert hall. Such work is commonplace - indeed a condition of public subsidy - in Britain, but relatively unusual in Germany.
"It's not what they thought was necessarily part of their job description. But now they've gone at it like wild tigers ... They'll try anything. You only have to see this orchestra in a karaoke bar to see that," said Sir Simon.
Berlin "reminds me of Liverpool", said Sir Simon, who was born and raised in the latter city. He said that the Berliners had a similar style of wit to their Merseyside counterparts: "The slightly direct thing - you say exactly where you are but there is a rough warm humour that is very welcoming." However, concerned Liverpudlians may rest easy in their beds: "The Berliners aren't quite as funny as Scousers," he confirmed.
Sir Simon has recently moved wholesale to Berlin with his new partner, the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, having previously made his primary home in Islington in London. He described himself as feeling "Middle-European" and out of touch with British life. "I find it very hard to imagine moving away from here," he said. He has even let slip his reading of the Guardian. "If I had a subscription to the Guardian, the trouble is that it's a very good newspaper, and I would read it, and I wouldn't read enough of the German papers," he said.
On the recent news that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had increased the sports budget apparently at the expense of the arts budget, Sir Simon said: "Isn't it a shame that it has to be one thing or the other. I was a member of an arts education committee chaired by Professor Ken Robinson [of Warwick University]. The report [All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education] was rather buried. It didn't say what they wanted to hear, which was basically a pat on the back.
"The thing that struck all of us was that we do not need the same type of population as before, we do not need millions of drones. We need people who make connections and think laterally and the arts are the way to do that. Of course in some ways so does sport. You can make all kinds of arguments for that, but actually the arts connect people - that is the area where the arts are so extraordinary."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
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