Moved to the Point of Trust: On Simon Rattle, Musical Magic, and Play on, Philly!

Simon Rattle astounds me. Pure serendipity first put me in his presence nearly fifteen years ago, brought me to a seat in the fourth row of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia where Rattle was conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 2. It is a moment for which I am eternally grateful to one of my college friends who had suggested a group of us attend and to the Philadelphia Orchestra for their student voucher program. (They came in a book of five or ten vouchers back then that could be exchanged for tickets on the night of a concert.) I didn't hear the music that night so much as it consumed me. Orchestral maneuvers had never moved me as much, despite an entire childhood spent playing in school orchestras complete with weekly rehearsals, bi-annual concerts, and yearly competitions. Rattle became fused that night not only with Mahler, a composer whose works until then I had enjoyed but had not yet been so utterly transfixed by, but also with an unchecked exuberance and bliss-filled joy -- so much so that after I glided back to my apartment that night, I unearthed the violin bought for me when I was nine years old from its tattered, black case and played a few measures each of the South Pacific Overture and the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the only two pieces I could still play after having not touched the instrument in nearly five years.

This man with a nest of white-grey curls surrounding his head, and whose body, even from the back, wove symphonic stories in rhythm with the members of the orchestra; only the robotic among us could not be moved. From that evening, there settled within me a deep trust for this bloke called Simon Rattle and since that first time I have seen him in action on several other occasions in a few other cities and at each performance I have learned something new about music, about sound, about the art of listening simply by sitting in his audience.

Rattle conducts with anticipation and with responsiveness. He leads the musicians even as he receives the melodic sounds they produce with their instruments. He registers them -- not merely their music, but the musicians themselves -- on his face, making contact with their eyes, matching their gestures and inspiring theirs.

This week, again by the grace of serendipity, I found myself in Rattle's audience twice. Thursday evening I stood with others in the community rush ticket line in hopes of acquiring a ticket to see Rattle conduct once more. An ocean of time had passed since the last concert, and I continued to miss his guest conducting performances in both New York and Philadelphia in recent years. But on Thursday evening the line moved swiftly and it became clear that I would indeed get a last minute ticket; and the truth of it was that I didn't care at all about the program. Bach or Brahms, Rachmaninov or Mahler, and any number of lesser known composers he has brought to life with a flick of the baton and with the cooperation of the musicians in his charge -- the music impressed, leaving traces I would revisit long after the last note had been played and also evoking deep admiration at what a stage full of people could convey musically through their manipulation of carefully crafted pieces of wood, string, and metal. Watching Rattle is not an exercise of assessing the music, it is an experience of becoming an instrument yourself. Thursday night was no exception, however a profound yet simple truth struck me several minutes after we had returned from intermission. 

After completing the crowd-pleasing Brahms Symphony No. 3, Rattle dared the audience, as he so often seems to do, to go on a different sort of musical ride. This time some of us were introduced to six short movements by Anton Webern, which I will not attempt to describe here not only because I am no music critic but also because to do so will seem both self-indulgent and unstudied. I'll merely say that near the end of the fourth movement, several seconds before the dramatically thunderous concluding note -- if indeed the magnificently near-cacophonous convergence of sound that elides into nothing in response to Rattle's sudden closing of his left hand into a fist can be called a note -- a realization occurred to me in a wholly embodied way. I trusted Simon Rattle. And for the rest of the Webern composition and the equally complex, yet more traditionally symphonic selection by Schumann, my mind wandered through the tricky terrain of trust. 

The phrase that reverberated in my mind with an echoing refrain was "pedagogical trust." How utterly important and yet under-discussed in the preparation of teachers is the notion of trust. How hard won and easily lost is this all-too-important lifeline of human relationships -- the ones that move us to take risks, to veer down unlikely paths, to read and watch and listen to texts that may change our lives. And when that trust is violated, how devastating the impact can be.

But when that trust is reaffirmed, the effect is multiplicative. Such as was the case on Saturday night when I was, once again, in the audience ready to learn at the baton of Sir Rattle. But this was no ordinary performance. And while I had jokingly considered the prospect of attending all three of his Philly performances this week, I only seriously pursued the notion of a second performance when I read more about the special guests with whom he would open Saturday's performance. Play On, Philly! is a musical program for young people in Philadelphia ages six to thirteen intent on providing musical experiences and overall enrichment for its participants. But more than words, it was this clip that captured my heart.

So overjoyed was I that I arrived over two hours early for the community rush ticket "Power Hour" as it is properly called, making me first in a line that soon extended far back enough to warrant a multi-fold, snakelike arrangement. Another difference: my seat for Saturday's performance was in the Conductor's Circle, the section behind the orchestra that faces the rest of the audience inside the massive Verizon Hall. This time, I would be able to watch the visage that matches Rattle's lively conducting physicality from my vantage point of dead center in front of the conductor's podium. But something unexpected happened instead. When the bodies of the young musicians occupied the seats on the stage, where the green POP folders with musical scores had been placed on music stands for them, my eyes were transfixed on the way their presence filled the hall in a way that no group of adult musicians ever could. The poise of terror-filled nervousness, the grace of performing for so many strangers (and more than a few ready-made fans) whose applause greeted their entry onto the stage, the beauty of a bond with a fluffy-haired leader who seemed as excited as his musicians -- it was a privilege to be in their audience. Rattle took the microphone and offered a few words by way of introduction, linking Play On, Philly!, which was founded just last year, to its Venezuelan inspiration El Sistema, noting that in thirty years of the latter's existence, nearly half a million young people had become involved in youth orchestras. His projected words offered a glimpse into a deep-seated passion that lies beneath about the potential power of musical participation. (He has spoken about this and much more to reporters who have been fascinated with him, his conducting style, and his life for most of his conducting career. I especially like the interview with Ed Vulliamy and a short commentary by Phillipa Ibbotson, both in the Guardian.)

Rattle turned the microphone off, picked up his baton, and gave the first downbeat to signal the start of selections by Brahms. With these young musicians, Rattle was no less his animated, conducting self. His face registered each note, contorting at times and echoing bliss at others; his body took in each pause and staccato and rousing crescendo, and his hands moved independently of one another to speak to the strings while also bringing forth the rich sounds of the brass players. The initial tentativeness gave way to an increasingly confident performance, soothing to the ears and heart, not only to the audience but to the man in black at the center of the stage who seemed to grow a few feet during the five minute performance; or perhaps he, too, was floating. With the final note came more thunderous applause, the entire Hall on its feet, shouts of Bravo! and more than few hoots and woo-hoos. And Rattle bowing, bringing the orchestra to its feet to receive the crowd's adoration, walking out once, then twice and thrilling the audience by high-fiving one of the viola players, a young man with his braids held back in a ponytail. He thanked them, winked at the players who stood with what seemed to the outsider like a bit of shock mixed with an uncertainty about what to do next. Following Rattle's third exit the orchestra began to exit the stage, evoking yet another applause apex. 

There may be many interpretations of the events of Saturday night, but I take them to mean the following. If the people in line at the community rush ticket line were any indication, most were there for Rattle. As the man who was second in line behind me said, "If Rattle's conducting, I knew I had to get here early." Being a bit of a rebellious rock star -- or as much of one as a conductor of classical music orchestras can be -- comes with it expectations and responsibilities and what I suspect is a panoply of opportunities and choices. So what does it say about someone who chooses to spend time with young people, to not pay lip service but to work with them and conduct them, to allow himself to be impressed by them and to learn with them, to use one's fame for good -- public good and private good; Rattle, incidentally, has had a long-standing commitment with El Sistema as well, and having been a member of and then conductor of a youth orchestra himself in Liverpool and feels a strong conviction that young people everywhere, and not just a few, should be invited into intimate, instrumental dialogue with texts of the musically minded from generations ago. We can entertain the high/low culture debates later -- although, I find myself increasingly tiring of them -- and perhaps we might focus instead on the possibilities that come with nurturing encounters (with people, with texts, with moments in time, with artifacts and instruments) through music -- and arts more broadly, not just for the "sake of art" but for the sake of humanity and the humanizing spaces that materialize when one gives oneself over to a piece of music that illuminates even as it confounds, to words carefully crafted on a page by authors who invite you to read further and to make connections not otherwise evident, paint applied onto surfaces in a manner akin to catharsis that evokes multiple interpretations and a desire in the viewer to not only know more but to be transported. These are powerful seeds.

I continued to think about trust for the rest of the concert, and heard the Webern pieces differently than I had just two nights earlier. Perhaps Webern was scripting sounds that would make us appreciate the silences, or perhaps Rattle had brought in these six pieces as a way of sharpening our listening, inviting us to attend to what we hear and what we might hear if we listened. Because of an as-yet untarnished trust, I never for one minute doubted the value of this selection, and was focused instead on what I might do to enter this text that was being presented to me. What seeds were taking root with the engagement with the works of Webern? And how would the musings on sounds and silence and attentiveness bloom in my conscious mind in the days, weeks, and years to come? 

A part two to this already too-long essay will soon follow, with some musings on pedagogical trust, the occasionally mis-guided obsession with popular culture, and the unexamined meanings of culture in the practice of culturally relevant pedagogies. For now, however, I'm going to see what else I can find out about upcoming performances of my new favorite musical group, Play On, Philly!


Read at exactly the right time -- a collection

In response to the question: What have you read at exactly the right time?

Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge by Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson