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Sir Simon Rattle, Who Once Disappeared From Guest Appearances In Boston, Returns

Sir Simon Rattle. (Courtesy)
Sir Simon Rattle. (Courtesy)

A new concert called “Hope & Harmony” has been added to the fall schedule, which, had I known about it when I did my season preview, would have instantly risen to the top of my list. It’s a benefit concert in support of underserved women facing breast cancer. The program includes three beloved pieces of music: the scintillating Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” the slow movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, and Brahms’s heroic Symphony No. 1, which will be played by an orchestra including members of three of America’s greatest instrumental ensembles — the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The conductor will be no less a maestro than Sir Simon Rattle.

That’s major news. But it also underlines a mystery.

For years Simon Rattle (who was knighted in 1994) was one of the most popular and frequent guest conductors of the Boston Symphony. He led more than 80 individual BSO concerts between 1983 and 2002. During most of that time, he was the conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, the same orchestra that Andris Nelsons was leading before he came to Boston.

Rattle was not the only significant conductor in the history of the CBSO, which played its first concert in 1920, but he was the conductor who, after World War II, was singularly responsible for putting it back on the map. Rattle even led a series of three concerts with the Birmingham Orchestra at Symphony Hall, under the auspices of the BSO.

Some of Rattle’s BSO performances were among the most exciting in the history of the orchestra. His uncanny attention to musical detail almost inevitably led to some greater and deeper understanding of an entire piece of music. His Mahler Seventh Symphony, one of Mahler’s least understood works, projected a transcendent beauty, mystery — and coherence! His Sibelius Violin Concerto was an unforgettable vehicle for the astounding Ida Haendel. Audiences loved Rattle as much for his musical insight as for his (still — though gray) curly hair.

It was widely assumed that Rattle was in contention for the BSO directorship after Seiji Ozawa retired. But before Ozawa’s replacement was designated, the Berlin Philharmonic, which many people regard as the world's greatest symphony orchestra, announced that Rattle would become its new music director.

Then suddenly, Rattle, one of the BSO’s most popular and frequent guests, completely disappeared from the BSO lineup of guest conductors. His only appearance at Symphony Hall since 2002 was when the Celebrity Series brought him on his final tour with the Berlin Philharmonic, in 2016. The concert was, of course, magnificent. And now he has left Berlin for another great orchestra and one closer to home, London Symphony. But we still have no explanation for his absence.

But once during that time, in 2010, Rattle returned to Boston to lead a benefit “concert for the cure” to support a cure for breast cancer — a concert organized by the flutist Julie Scolnik, director of the much-admired chamber group Mistral and herself a breast cancer survivor (she is now cancer free). It was a memorable event, with an orchestra made up of BSO players and other prominent musicians. The program, rehearsed all in one day (right before Rattle’s Metropolitan Opera debut), consisted of a heavenly Mozart concerto with pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the longing yet consoling Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and an eloquent, warm-hearted, and ultimately positive Brahms Symphony No. 2 — music, Scolnik said, that conveyed the feeling “you can survive.”

How did Scolnik succeed in getting one of the world’s most important conductors to return to Boston? In 2010, Scolnik told the Boston Globe she got to know Rattle when he was conducting the BSO and she was a frequent substitute in the flute section. He was, she said, "the type of man who used to hang out backstage … just mingled." They became friends. A few years later, they happened to reconnect in Aix-en-Provence, the summer home of the Berlin Phil. When she told him about her cancer and treatment and suggested doing a benefit concert, he instantly agreed.

And now she has gotten Rattle to return to Boston for another concert to benefit breast cancer patients and survivors. It's slated to be a rich program in which he’ll be conducting extraordinary players in a repertoire in which he excels — music of joy, consolation, and triumph. Rattle and the players are all donating their services. The proceeds will go to the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Project, the Boston Breast Cancer Equity Coalition, and the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. How can this not be one of the most important concerts of the year?


“Hope & Harmony: A Benefit Concerto for Underserved Women with Breast Cancer" will take place at Jordan Hall on Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m.

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Lloyd Schwartz Twitter Arts Critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and Somerville's Poet Laureate.

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