When Sir Simon Rattle enters David Geffen Hall in May, it will not be the first time New York has ecstatically welcomed a Liverpudlian to its concert stages. Yet whereas the Beatles ruled the pop-music scene, Rattle has established his own legacy as a living icon of the classical world.
The English conductor will appear for the first time in New York as the newly appointed music director of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) May 4, 6, and 7 in the renowned ensemble’s 21st consecutive appearance on Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series. Appropriately titled “Mahler Transcending,” the three concerts feature Rattle and the LSO performing Gustav Mahler’s final three symphonic works: the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies and his “symphony in songs,” Das Lied von der Erde.
“It is hard for me to imagine a more rewarding musical match-up than the London Symphony Orchestra performing Mahler led by Simon Rattle,” said Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s Ehrenkranz Artistic Director. “These concerts are certain to be a highlight of New York’s musical calendar and will illuminate Mahler’s profoundly moving and transcendent masterpieces.”
The May 4 concert will feature Mahler’s otherworldly, heartrending Symphony No. 9, his last completed score. On May 6, Rattle and the LSO will be joined for Das Lied von der Erde by German baritone Christian Gerhaher and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton. (Gerhaher sang an all-Mahler recital in 2016 at Alice Tully Hall; that same year Skelton appeared in the Metropolitan Opera’s Tristan und Isolde, led by Rattle.) The LSO residency concludes May 7 with Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, a soaring farewell to Romanticism that depicts the composer’s own anguished struggle in the face of inevitable demise.
Strikingly, Mahler himself never heard these works performed. The Tenth Symphony remained unfinished at his death and was completed by British music scholar Deryck Cooke 64 years later. Representing the culmination of Mahler’s compositional career, the symphonies are illuminating in their beauty and “profoundly emotionally shattering,” according to Rattle via email. Moreover, these final compositions have a unique tie to New York City.
“All [three were] shot through with memories and experiences of [Mahler’s] New York years,” Rattle noted. “They were all on his composing desk while he was the busy head of the New York Philharmonic and conducting a wide swathe of repertoire…endlessly curious as he was.”
Both composer and conductor, Mahler was a New Yorker for the last three years of his life, debuting at the Metropolitan Opera in 1908 and serving as music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1909 to 1911. It was during this time he began his final symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde, which translates to “The Song of the Earth” and features texts adapted from Chinese Tang Dynasty poetry.
“It was in New York that he heard the cylinders of Chinese music which so influenced Das Lied, and the distant but shattering drum strokes from a policeman’s funeral which unforgettably punctuate the finale of his Tenth Symphony,” Rattle said. “Without New York these three masterpieces would have been totally different.”
The London Symphony Orchestra was founded just before Mahler began his New York tenure, in 1904. According to the official orchestra history, “From its first days, the London Symphony Orchestra has been defiantly different and proudly pioneering.” It is especially fitting, then, for the LSO to open this residency with Mahler’s Ninth, which contains a rondo-burleske movement the composer instructed to be played “very defiantly.” Rattle singled out this unapologetic third movement as again holding special resonance for New Yorkers, stating “even the urban landscape of the third movement of the Ninth Symphony, unparalleled in his entire oeuvre, would be unthinkable without his deep connection with this city.”
Mahler took his first conducting job at age 19, in his native Austria; Rattle had a similarly precocious start, first appearing with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1977, at age 22. Rattle went on to serve as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, among other prestigious appointments, and was knighted in 1994. He spent the past fifteen years as chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Rattle’s appointment as LSO music director last September was met with resounding cheers across the musical world—not least from the British press, as the famed conductor was returning home. Acknowledging Rattle as “one of the top three conductors in the world,” the BBC noted, “the [London Symphony] orchestra has a powerful personality and it needs a big beast at its helm.” Prior to his appointment, Rattle conducted the LSO at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2012, in London, before a television audience approaching one billion viewers.
Firmly established as a global superstar, Rattle now brings his fierce, majestic persona as LSO music director to the Big Apple, in these historic late Mahler performances that will conclude Great Performers’ Symphonic Masters season.
“All three of these pieces have followed me through my entire musical life,” Rattle explained. “So for me to bring my new musical family, the extraordinary LSO, to New York to make this epic journey is a very special experience.”
Ann Crews Melton is a writer and former New Yorker based in Bismarck, North Dakota.