Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Tilting at the wrong windmills? Simon Rattle announced for the LSO

Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing with the Young Orchestra for London in the Barbican Hall as part of the Berliner Philharmoniker London Residency, 12 February 2015. Credit Mark Allen Barbican
Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing with the Young Orchestra for London
in the Barbican Hall as part of
the Berliner Philharmoniker London Residency,
~12 February 2015. Credit Mark Allen Barbican
So it has finally been announced, Simon Rattle is going to be the next musical director (and principal conductor) of the London Symphony Orchestra, taking over from Valery Gergiev in September 2017. That's a long time to wait, but these things are arranged a long time ahead in the classical music industry. After the white-knuckle ride of the musical directorship of the brilliant but over-committed Gergiev, it will be good to get back to Rattle's combination of flair with steady musicianship. 

A more worrying development, though, is the sabre rattling that has gone on about the prospect of a yet another new concert hall in London. At least, I hope that it is all hot air and that Chancellor George Osborne's feasibility study is just the delaying and obfuscating tactic that it would seem to be. Certainly it would be completely venal of any government to run down essential spending on the Arts and Arts Education and then waste millions on a concert hall when Central London has two large ones and three smaller ones already.

Throughout his career, Simon Rattle has shown himself to be a musician who gets his best work by devoting his time to a particular organisation. He spent 18 years (1980 to 1998) as music director of the CBSO, going on to become principal conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999. He has also had a long-term principal guest conductor role with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In both Birmingham and Berlin he has shown a transformative tendency, changing the CBSO into a band of international stature and re-organising the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's structure and ensuring its artistic independence from government. His relationship at Berlin has been somewhat turbulent but he has shown remarkable staying power and I hope that he does the same in London.

The press release from the London Symphony Orchestra contains some heartening words from Rattle outlining his 'vision', which includes universal access to music, with children and young people at its heart. He called for new standards in making world-class music available to all. His stated his aim that every musician should be engaged in composing, improvising, mentoring and performing; that the creation of new music will be central to the process. These are fine words indeed, and if he and the London Symphony Orchestra bring half of the ideas about, then they will be contributing immeasurably.

It will be a great waste if too much time were devoted to the cause of a new concert hall. We already have two large sized halls already, with the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican Hall. Neither is ideal, with the Barbican being too small for large scale concert work and the Royal Festival Hall having poor acoustics. And do we really have enough capacity for three concert halls? Evidently the City of London (which funds the Barbican Centre) is interested in the concert hall idea and it has been mooted to take the place of the Museum of London if that organisation moves, as it would like to. Such a plan will take years, and when completed would leave us with 5,000-6,000 seats to fill per night (and that's only counting the three big halls).

But as Charlotte Higgins wrote in an article in The Guardian, Simon Rattle seems to be tilting at the wrong windmill and he would be much better attacking the funding policy for music education and getting more money spent where it is needed. If a new concert hall is built, there is a real danger that by the time it is finished there will be fewer people with an adequate musical education to buy tickets and enjoy the results.

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