Sir Simon Brings Berlin to Washington Heights

The opus ultimum of Berlin in Lights—Carnegie Hall’s genre-spanning 17-day festival of contemporary Berlin culture—took place in two performances on Nov. 17 and 18 at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights, a lovably gaudy, gold-painted 1930 movie house in Moorish Revival style. New Yorkers watched nearly 200 of their well-rehearsed children, siblings and friends, most from uptown public high schools, dance Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to the accompaniment of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

That this event came off at all—and it did, with joy and skill and dedication—is a tribute to the hard work and imagination of Clive Gillinson, Carnegie’s executive and artistic director, and his indefatigable colleagues. But a more subtle mark of success was scored several days beforehand, when the media Web site Gawker served up a tart little parody of the whole Berlin craze. (“New York is in love with BERLIN now…. [B]efore you could say ‘Bienvenue’ we ended up back at my hotel drinking cheap vodka and singing Kurt Weill songs with a dwarf accordionist, a Flamenco dance troupe and three Ukrainian baritones that we randomly met.”) Setting up a festival that brings Stravinsky to Upper Manhattan kids is one thing; getting the smart alecks of Lower Manhattan to notice it is quite another.

Ah, mein Schatz, how this little Berlin in Lights snuck up on us—a film screening here, a cabaret series there. But classical music is still the lifeblood of Carnegie Hall, and that blood is running strong, particularly in the case of the Berlin Philharmonic and its shaggy-haired British maestro.

There are people who complain that under Sir Simon the Berlin Philharmonic is not what it once was, and this is undeniably true. Gone is the machinelike perfection and thick, luxuriant timbre of the Herbert von Karajan years. Gone as well are the less predictable attractions of the Claudio Abbado regency, in which a high-flown Italianate lyricism was balanced by a curiously dark and grainy sound palette in the lower registers—a dichotomy reflective of the sensual and intellectual sides of the great Milanese conductor.

The product forged by Mr. Rattle (who’s been known to have occasional disagreements with his players) is not without its advantages: A battalion of newly hired young players has imparted a shivering vibrancy to the sound, which is now delivered with a clear sense of separation between the various instrumental choirs. The problem is that these qualities are closely tied to the strengths and weaknesses of the conductor.

Von Karajan, with his dictatorial control, crafted a sound; Mr. Rattle, in his very English way, tries to urge one into being. The baton technique is more square and blunt: Cohesion of ensemble can sometimes suffer (as it did in the frisky second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 at Carnegie on the night of Nov. 16), and the lyrical phrasing, while often lovely, can seem earnest, heavy and earthbound.

But Mr. Rattle is alert to what the Philharmonic, and its city, must now be: no longer a Cold War fortress but an open and international entity, with all the change and vulnerability that that can bring. It’s a matter of context—something this conductor expresses with his mastery of musical form. We first heard it in a concert on Nov. 12 in which Mr. Rattle, conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in a program he shared with his phenomenal young protégé, Gustavo Dudamel, led a performance of Shostakovich’s own Symphony No. 10 that not only raised the level of the students’ playing to professional status but gave the heartrending emotions of the composer’s music an almost classical nobility and poise.

It worked just as well with the Philharmonic and the works of Mahler: This conductor is at his best with 20th-century music, and it’s with Mahler that 20th-century music begins. Part of Mr. Rattle’s new openness is the freedom he seems to impart to his solo players. The contributions of the principal flute, horn and trumpet were especially memorable in the Symphony No. 10; the principal oboe took the diva role in Das Lied von der Erde, setting the stage for the singing of the tenor Ben Heppner and the baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Mr. Heppner’s heraldic, ringing tone was occasionally pinched at the top, but Mr. Quasthoff—like a singer he admires, Frank Sinatra—sang with an alluring, easy intimacy that belied the countless hours of consideration needed to produce it.

New music was also a prominent part of Mr. Rattle’s concerts. Thomas Adès’ Tevót preceded Das Lied von der Erde on the evening of Nov. 14, and I preferred it to György Kurtág’s Stele, which preceded Mahler’s Tenth. Mr. Adès, an Englishman, is currently the only person under 40 who can be confidently called a Great Composer; his works, dazzlingly eclectic in influence but stunningly original in outlook, have a way of instantly joining the repertory.

Tevót, an expansive yet gentle meditation on the Hebrew word for musical “bars” (Mr. Adès’ partner is the Israeli video artist Tal Rosner), will now make its way among the world’s leading orchestras. On the next evening Mr. Adès, a formidable pianist, performed his Piano Quintet in Zankel Hall with members of Berlin’s Scharoun Ensemble; the work employs a limpid, Schubertian lyricism within a complex rhythmic structure that makes it sound as if the music were suspended mysteriously in midair. It is, however, here to stay.

The distinguished Mr. Kurtág is just as original, but with Stele, a short, sluggish, slowish piece that seemed to mix all the colors of the palette into a swirl of medium gray, he imparted the message that his music always seems to: We see through a glass darkly, and once we’ve drained it, we die.

Fortunately, Mr. Kurtág’s message was contradicted by the indomitable energy of those Stravinsky concerts in Washington Heights.

Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. Sir Simon Brings Berlin to Washington Heights