Mahler’s Sixth Symphony—90-odd minutes of descent, disintegration, mad marching—is not a festive piece. The cameo-studded, light-hearted party-concerts for Simon Rattle’s departure as Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic had come and gone, and now it was time for serious music-making. This was, the program informed 2000-odd Berliners of reassuringly mixed age and dress, the piece with which Rattle had made his debut on this podium, and it was the piece with which he had decided to go out. One Waldbühne concert remains, a family-affair confection featuring mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (Rattle’s wife) singing Canteloube’s charming Auvergne songs and ending with Respighi’s bucket of proto-fascist lard “The Pines of Rome”; but this concert, on a warm June Wednesday, marked the end of the Rattle Era by consensus. As the orchestra prepared the program, the Italian interior minister announced plans to count up the country’s Roma population and deport the non-citizens. At the southern border of the United States, screaming toddlers were ripped from their mothers and locked in cages. In Rattle’s native United Kingdom, an hour or so before he took the podium, the government won the right to crash Britain out of the European Union without a deal. While the entering audience gabbed festively, the shuddering bass tones that usher in the symphony’s opening funeral march felt apt.

Rattle took up the job in Berlin in 2002, at the peak of what writer Huw Lemmey has referred to, discussing the very different Berlin-Londoner Wolfgang Tillmans, as “a form of post-Berlin Wall freedom…a moment of liberal triumph for the EU, and the entrenchment of a European form of neoliberalism.” Rattle was seemingly born for that moment. He promised, to quote the program, a “never-ending adventure…to bring the greatest orchestra in the world out of its comfort zone,” to break down its wall of sound to find a variety of approaches “as the basis, not as a special event.” The limits of this internationalist vision in application are clear even in the program text congratulating him on his departure: the text refers to his Beethoven and Brahms as having been a “work-in-progress” (a term pointedly given in English) until last year and, amusingly and somewhat chillingly, to his love for music education as “a concept brought from Great Britain in which children from the uneducated classes are invited in and allowed to be creative.” (This does not sound any less haughty or clueless in the original German.) Hearteningly, the orchestra’s next leader will be Kirill Petrenko, currently Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. He’s a deeply serious musician who brings unstoppable momentum and warm inner light to the works he conducts. Hopefully the orchestra’s administration will continue Rattle’s education projects, many of which inspired, even if they were strangely framed. As walls go back up across Europe, I am glad the orchestra did not decide to reconstruct its own by choosing the Pegida-sympathizing  “German sound” specialist Christian Thielemann as Rattle’s replacement.

Last night, under Rattle, the orchestra delivered an unimpeachable hour-and-a-half of Mahler. Only an embarrassment of luxury makes this statement banal: the Berlin Philharmonic is a phenomenal orchestra. They play with depth and engagement and in glorious balance and tune. Rattle took brisk speeds, interrupted the pace to emphasize key moments, and often conducted minimally, trusting the orchestra to lean in and guide itself through Mahler’s cascading runs and climaxes, turning on a dime from brassy bitterness to sweetness. In the fortissimo moments you could still hear every line. One of many moments to praise: a finale unison cello melody that took my breath away, seemingly born out of nothing. Mahler brings out the best in Rattle’s detail-oriented approach. If his second-to-last program, ending with movie music written by a Jewish composer who fled the Nazis, was more innovative, this seemed a fitting end. The audience held a moment of silence with Rattle after the work’s close, then delivered a standing ovation. Rattle invited every section leader, then virtually every section, to take a solo bow. He basked in the love-fest, picked up a mic, and told “my wonderful orchestra” and “my wonderful Berlin public” they were deep in his heart. After the orchestra left the stage, rhythmic applause brought him out for a final, solo bow.

It could have been one of Tillmanns’ photographs the audience stepped out into after the concert. The light-blue sky faded to deep, the last solstice-light hung in the air. Someone played a mazurka on the accordion. Huw wrote this of Tillmans’ idealization of Easyjet Europe: “If that image offends me, then my own life offends me.” The Rattle era in Berlin, however imperfect, will be missed. ¶

Ben Miller is a writer and historian, an opera queen, a regular contributor to the New York Times, and, with Huw Lemmey, the author of Bad Gays: A Homosexual History (Verso, 2022).