Studs in White Ties


The conductor’s job is to seduce: first to exert his—and very rarely her—magnetism over his orchestra and then in turn over the audience. Like so many affairs, that between a director and his orchestra can thrive on a mixture of love and hate, resentment and desire. It is not only that the conductor’s dominion is absolute, thus bringing into play Kissinger’s old claim that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but also that he expresses his needy emotions—his anger, his desire, his love—continuously in front of his players and his paying public. His movements are as a demonstrative as the rutting of a Big Horn ram, and while less colorfully attired than the preening peacock, the black-and-white clad conductor is just as proud as these other beasts of his own animal magnetism. The maestro is well aware that it is to this power—one inseparable from his command of music—that he owes his livelihood, amounting to millions of dollars a year in the orchestral big leagues.

Taken as a class, conductors must be at least as successful as seducers as any other figures who thrive on, indeed survive from, the attention of others—from movie stars to sports heroes. Legendary are the conquests of Sir Georg Solti while music director of the Royal Opera Coven Garden, famously buying a white fur coat for all of his ladies, until one day he looked out into audience and was blinded by a sea of white fox. Even many of those conductors who couldn’t be more buttoned up on the podium, are more than ready to get unbuttoned once off it.

None of the present day world-class conductors traffic in quasi-erotic rapture more unabashedly than Sir Simon Rattle. Whether his abundantly silver-haired head is tilted slightly back, his thin lips pursed and almost quivering, his eye-lids half closed as he holds the painful pleasure of a dying Mahler symphony in his hands, or whether he’s locked in tempestuous embrace with a heaving Beethoven finale, Rattle in action is a picture of sensual bliss.

Music brought Rattle and the woman who three years later became his third wife, Czech mezzosoprano Magdalena Kozena, together in 2004; she had at that time recently married the French tenor, Vincent le Texier.  Rattle left his first wife in 1995 after experiencing a California earthquake that made it clear to him he should marry his second. With the help of Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, she divested Rattle of half of his considerable fortune. Kozena, is eighteen years Rattle’s junior, and the pair has two sons. Given the blond tresses of the mother and the abundant silver halo of the father, these boys most have fantastic hair, to say nothing of inherited musical talent.

None of this is to pass judgment on Rattle, who, anyway, is apparently more the “marrying type” than a serial womanizer like so many of his conductor colleagues. Rather, I want to suggest that when corporeal, singing evidence of Rattle’s musico-erotic prowess is presented alongside him in concert it is a big draw indeed. Musical power couples have a long history in Western culture, both from “high” to “low”—from Johann Adolph Hasse and Faustina Boroni to Jay Z and Beyonce. It’s not just the prospect of seeing two married musical stars together that entices; in the case of a conductor and his bride, she represents the physical proof of that intangible sensual power he exerts over his players and listeners.

Last month Kozena joined her husband and his Berlin Philharmonic, with whom she first performed in 2003, in  a program whose theme was dreams, some of them erotic. Kozena sang Maurice Ravel’s three Shéhérazade songs and Mahler’s Rückert Lieder on either side of the intermission. It is rare in symphony programs that the soloist appears twice in the course of the evening, but the appeal of the couple and the quality of their music-making warrant a double feature, one eagerly consumed visually and aurally by the in-the-round Philharmonie audience.

Framing these sets of songs were two orchestral works.  The first was Luciano Berio’s cello concerto, Ritorno degli snovidenia (Return of the Dreams), written for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch in 1976. In the Berlin concert it was performed under Rattle’s direction by the Orchestra Academy of the Philharmonic with one of the Philharmonic’s members, Olaf Maninger, as soloist. As Rattle said in his introductory words, Berio was “an old communist” while the dedicatee, himself an émigré from the Soviet Union, was “a realist.”  According to Rattle, Berio’s troubled dreamscape evokes a dim forest, the orchestral effects all threatening shapes and shadows, with the snap of percussion evoking distant gunfire. Maninger attacked the demanding solo part with a riveting amalgam of precision and abandon. Accompanying his sometimes tenuous, sometimes violent explorations, the Academy lurked and glowered. The cornerstone of the Philharmonic’s education program , the group is made up of young musicians, some of who go on to positions in the senior orchestra.  The Berio concerto the academy was charged with is fragmented and unsettled, and demands that the thirty-member orchestra be capable of hypersensitive chamber playing mingling unsettling effects and subliminal insinuations. Theirs was a haunting performance, guided by the expert hand of Rattle—as  much a master of feeling in 20th-century modernist music as he is when astride the Romantic war horses.

Then Kozena took the stage for  Ravel’s three songs, their shimmering silks, veiled gestures, and curls of incense a classic, almost silly, exercise in Orientalism—from the exotic English horn figure that opens “Asie” to the lilting retreat of the boy of feminine figure in the final “L’Indifférent.”  This is a world of magic flutes (the title of the second song); libidinous seas and flowered islands; dark, love-drunk eyes; enchanted castles; lush fabrics; queens; beggars; and, of course, minarets. In contrast to the combative instability of Berio, Ravel surrenders to pure, softly contoured fantasy. It’s a milieu Rattle is equally as entranced by, as he is by the dark visions of Berio. Kozena’s voice can yield all the languor Ravel asks for; her attention to the flow and flutter of phrase is matched by her ability to shade long-held notes and sometimes slide alluringly between. She can be powerful but also seductively understated.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade dates from 1903, the year after Mahler finished his five songs to texts by Friedrich Rückert. Kozena captures the light and the dark in these pieces, from the joyous flight of the bees in “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (Look Not into My Songs) to the reflexive Mahlerian turn towards death at the close. There is magic and reverie here, too: mermaids with pearls, and the intoxicating scent of the linden trees. Though very different there are coincidental, but telling, musical echoes between the Ravel and Mahler, as in the third song “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight) when the rocking lullaby figure in the clarinets coaxes plaintive half-step sighs from the flute and then the English horn. The opening song is a plea to love the person rather than their beauty or youth—a fitting theme for the Rattle-Kozena partnership. In contrast to the smoky luxuriousness of her Ravel, Kozena lightened and focused her voice for the often sprightly Mahler songs, but darkened her tone for their retreat from the world, before she transmuted it again for the final ascension to “my love and my song.”

This ascension was another dream the enraptured Rattle seemed not to want to wake from. But he and Kozena were nonetheless parted in their musical rapture by the inevitable applause. The handshaking, and cheek-kissing of conductor and soloist were courtly rather than intimate. From these formalities, no one in the audience would have guessed that the pair was married, though everyone knew it.

After the Kozena received her bouquet and made a provisional farewell, the evening closed found its close with the two movements of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, itself full of almost brutal contrasts in which the sanctuary of music is battered by the harsh realities of the world; the famous open-ended melody of the first movement was hushed and almost foreboding in the cellos; at the close of the second, the last fervent welling-up of the strings under the winds’ benediction was a sign that, for Rattle, parting from his orchestra is sweet sorrow, even when Kozena waits for him in the wings.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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