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Simon Rattle: The Making of a Maestro

12/02/2015 15:30 GMT | Updated 14/04/2015 10:59 BST

For the BBC Music documentary Simon Rattle: the Making of a Maestro (BBC Two, 9.05pm, Saturday 14 February 2015) my colleague John-Martin White and I spent several weeks observing the celebrated conductor at close quarters. We filmed him on tour and at home in Berlin, on his own in his study and in the concert hall surrounded by hundreds of others looking on in expectation - an intensive schedule of rehearsals and concerts, car journeys and flights across the world. As the detail of his busy life emerged, I found myself beginning to marvel at how normal and down-to-earth this remarkable man really is. Here is somebody who can command a room with a single look, who can conjure up harmonious music from a hundred disparate individual musicians with just a twitch of his right hand, yet we found Sir Simon Rattle to be thoughtful, humble and thoroughly grounded in the stuff of everyday life. Despite the fact that thousands of people applaud him ecstatically every night of his working life, he himself remains a normal person.

We interviewed him several times and he was always frank, good humoured and generous with his stories. At one point we were discussing his teenage years in Liverpool, when he already had the ambition to be a conductor and had started to organise his own concerts just so that he could practise his craft. I asked him what lessons these early DIY experiences had taught him : "I learnt very important life lessons, like never put hot coffee in disposable cups which have got wax on them, because you get a little wax circle to drink through".

Rattle consistently uses food and drink - the basics of human sustenance - as a metaphor for music. Whilst we were filming a sequence with him at the piano, looking through the scores of a Wagner opera, he said to us: "With these big Wagner pieces if I haven't started three years before, I'm screwed. You need time to look at the piece again and again and again, and then like some fantastic casserole or spaghetti sauce, put it back in the fridge and let the flavours get together."

It's difficult not to be charmed as this charismatic man talks about the elevated and rarefied world of classical music in these everyday, domestic terms. When we filmed Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic rehearsing Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto, the soloist was the German virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter. She and Simon had never played the piece together before and had time for only one run-through in rehearsal. But when we managed to snatch an interview during a break the conductor was typically positive and optimistic: "Fast cooking - keeps the vitamins." he said.

This theme of food and drink extends into the way he describes his beloved City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted for 18 years. Rattle was in his mid-twenties when he took over the podium and the young conductor and the orchestra built up their reputations together. "We decided basically that would make ourselves into the best white wine we could possibly be" he told us. Later he would describe the orchestra as still having a "Sauvignon Blanc colour".

On one occasion we interviewed him in the back of his car as he was being driven to Heathrow airport, and he told us the following story about the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. "He gave me one of the best presents ever when I did the premiere of his First Symphony, when I was all of 21, or something like that. He said 'Look, Simon, it's really time you got to know a bit about wine because if you get to love this, this will be absolutely something that follows you through your whole life and will give you so much pleasure. ' And what he'd done was bought me, not 12 bottles of wine but 24 half-bottles. So it's 12 pairs of all my favourite wines. If you like one, you've got another one there just to remind you of what it is. Taste all of them and see what you like'. And it's actually one of the presents that has had the most far-reaching effect on my life." Rattle laughs "...and probably on my liver as well. But it was OK, you'll need this in your life and so, here's a lesson! "

'Simon Rattle: the Making of a Maestro' broadcasts on BBC Two at 9.05pm on Saturday 14th February http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02h9fvl