Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO- The right conductor, but for the right reasons?

Congratulations are most certainly in order to both Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony on the occasion of Sir Simon’s appointment as the LSO’s next Principal Conductor. I can scarcely imagine better news for either party or for music lovers across Britain. Given the importance of today’s announcement for British music making, I’m going to bend my rule against discussing the work of living colleagues here [Note- I seem to be one of the very few professional musicians in the UK who has never met or worked with Simon Rattle. Hopefully we can remedy that situation some day].

It has, however, been a strange courtship, one that has led to a union of two parties who are seemingly perfect for each other for what I worry may be the wrong reasons.

For conductors of my generation, Simon Rattle was not just a conductor- he was a transformative idea. There had been other young conductors who made huge careers (Bernstein got off to a fast start and so did Haitink, just to name two), but from the time I first came across his name, Rattle seemed like a figure for a new generation. The impact he made on people like me from the beginning of his career was enormous- he seemed like a much more modern kind of orchestra leader. Looking back, a lot of what was most appealing in Sir Simon’s persona had already been developed by Bernstein- the informality (always Lenny and Simon, never Maestro), the forward looking repertoire, the engagement with the community, the advocacy for music education and outreach, the understanding of modern media and culture (and how they overlap). Bernstein may have done it first, but Simon did it with Brian May’s hair. All of this seemed fresh, visionary and badly needed. Like Bernstein, he knew how to deliver a mega project- pieces like Turangalila and Mahler 10 took vision to put on and mojo to bring to life and they always seemed to work (I still have his Bournemouth era LP of Mahler 10 with notes by my friend Michael Steinberg- fantastic!). To me, the idea of an engaged, articulate, open-minded, brave, regular-guy conductor seemed like just what the world needed, and that’s who Simon seemed to be.


The irony, of course, is that the music world has never treated Sir Simon as anything like a regular guy. He became, for the industry, the new archetype- the pop star who replaced the stuffy old maestro. Every orchestra wanted Simon, and if they couldn’t get him, they wanted the next Simon.  The industry has always been prone to elevating the odd musician to god-like status- something I find a bit gross. We call this “anointing.” Once anointed, no number of bad reviews or run of crazy behaviour seems to be able to seriously damage your prestige. I can remember attending a seminar at Aspen with one of the most famous orchestral managers (he was then in charge of one of the Big Five) in the world. He literally spent most of an hour (having seen none of us conduct) explaining that Simon Rattle was a different species to the rest of us, that even his mistakes were the mistakes of a genius. Rattle had been declared a Very Special Musician (VSM) and therefor was above criticism or comparison. We were to understand our destiny as frothing pond scum of the universe.  I found the whole speech not only discouraging (although it’s good I learned about anointing when I did) but stomach-turning, as well. Not just because it pissed me off that this pompous guy had written off twenty young conductors without seeing a single upbeat (turns out this is the norm because most guys like him can’t tell much from an upbeat anyway), but because his attitude to the anointed one was so creepy and sycophantic.  To me, the only measure of a musician is results- not genetics or talent or pedigree or résumé. Much as I’d always been fascinated by Rattle as a kid, I came to see a certain portion of his career as a particularly icky episode of anointed-ness. That’s not a criticism of him but of the industry’s view of him.

For the last several years, Sir Simon has had the best and toughest job in the music world as Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. No doubt there’s been plenty of Schadenfreude among jealous conductors at rumours of difficulties with the musicians and carping from the critics. In Berlin, some of the new“wow” pieces he tried, like Ades’ “Asyla” seemed to fall flat. It’s hard to find another Turangalila or Mahler 10 (and the BPO really struggled in concert with the Mahler), and I’m not sure any of his discoveries in Berlin have ranked in importance with those of his early career. With news of his resignation last year there came the usual litany of what he had done wrong there or why it hadn’t worked. I would advocate for a more balanced, positive assessment, particularly of the 2nd half of his tenure there.

I’ve been more and more impressed by Rattle’s work at the Berlin Philharmonic. The Digital Concert Hall is a fantastic resource and a wonderful innovation. It’s hard to tell if it will be viable financially in the long term in this era of micro-attention-spans and cultural banality, but it’s a great idea perfectly executed, and an incredible, incredible resource. He’s done a lot of good for the orchestra’s repertoire- particularly bringing in more Walton, Elgar and Sibelius. And, he’s made the orchestra more open-minded about how they play- building on the work Harnoncourt did with the orchestra to open eyes and ears to new thinking about how to play core repertoire.

Two things have really stood out for me in his tenure. First, he’s shown remarkable resilience and ability to grow and adapt there. I’m sure the truth of his relationship with the orchestra is more complicated, respectful and nuanced than anything one picks up in the press (this tribute from hornist Fergus McWilliam is most touching and interesting), but the Berlin Philharmonic was probably one of the few orchestras in the world where his “anointedness” would count for nothing from day one, and there he was always going to be a colleague and never a VSM. Berlin likely formed a crucible for Rattle in which this most charismatic and persuasive of conductors had, maybe for the first time, to learn to fight for his ideas among colleagues who had every right to think they knew the core repertoire as well as he did. He’s also shown an ability to change his thinking and to abandon or rethink things that weren’t working. I remember reading an interview with him in the early days in which he spoke about slimming down the string sound and reigning in the famous BPO bass WOOOMPH. That endeavor didn’t last long and instead he’s learned to work with the orchestra’s unique approach to time and sound.

The supposed knock on Sir Simon during his Berlin tenure has been that his work in the core German repertoire has not been what the orchestra and the German audiences want. It’s here, however, that I’ve been most impressed over the last five years or so. Rattle’s Brahms cycle came out just around the time a perfect storm of complaint seemed to be brewing: he was changing the orchestra’s sound, he didn’t do rubato well, that he just didn’t have the depth and intensity this music requires. When I heard those recordings, I was mightily impressed- more “schwoom” and “wuah” from the strings than I’d heard for anyone since Karajan’s death, but actually together (Karajan never seemed concerned about whether the orchestra actually played at the same time or not), and with a lot of line and gravitas. His recent Mahler performances in the Digital Concert Hall completely eclipse his Birmingham cycle and the film of the Fifth made at his first concert with the BPO- they’re infinitely more well thought out, colorful and intense. Likewise the fascinating program with the three final Sibelius Symphonies performed in Berlin in 2010 and repeated in Berlin and London last month. Fifteen years ago, even Rattle’s biggest fans would not have called him a great colorist or someone with an ear for the long line. His recent work seems full of these qualities. I’d never been convinced by his Bruckner, but when the BPO gave the first performance of Bruckner 9 with the “final” version of the reconstruction of the Finale, I was just amazed by the first movement. Granted, the orchestra has this music in their bones, but I’ve heard plenty of disappointing Bruckner 9’s even from them. I thought that performance had everything, and you can’t really fake or luck your way into a performance like that.

So the LSO are getting a conductor who now brings vast experience in the core repertoire, someone who has thought and re-thought the music he conducts and shown a remarkable capacity for growth and self-examination in the prime of his career. He’s developed a great ear for orchestral sonority- not only how to get it, but how to use it. I think he’ll help the LSO, one of the most virtuosic bands in the universe, to play more beautifully, more imaginatively and will produce interpretations that are more deeply thought out than either he or they would have been producing a few years ago. Of course, the charm, the verbal gift, the energy and the big-picture social vision are still there.

So, what a pity then that the entire lead-up to Rattle’s appointment has been a vast orgy of celebrity-culture BS. It seems like way too much of the excitement about Rattle taking this gig is because he’s REALLY FAMOUS, that he’s always been REALLY TALENTED and that he’s coming from a REALLY PRESTIGIOUS JOB at a REALLY GOOD ORCHESTRA. But mostly because he’s already REALLY FAMOUS. That’s right- we’re to believe it’s good he got the job because he’s a VSM. All the discussion of Rattle’s proposal for a new hall has been focused around his celebrity status (“World’s Greatest and Most Famous Conductor Demands New Concert Hall!”) rather than whether it’s a good idea. Read the papers and you’d think that the compelling reason to build a £500-million concert hall is because a Very Special Musician/celebrity wants one. Yes London needs a new hall, but spending that kind of money because a VSM demands it is a terrible idea*. Rattle’s return to Britain has been covered more like a celebrity wedding or football signing than a cultural event, and the PR push in the last month has been awesome to witness. This Guardian article, in which the author attributes Rattle’s struggles in Berlin to his reluctance to play into celebrity culture expectations (“He won’t play the game: Sir Simon Rattle is under attack because he balks at self-promotion and the instincts of a musical elite” byPhilippa Ibbotson) from a few years ago seems amazingly quaint after the last few months:

“Whether the importance of celebrity status today is related to Rattle’s diminished popularity is debatable. But some things are certain. The means often deployed to gain such status have little to do with artistic talent, even less with integrity. Nor will such means deliver better performances; if anything, they are detrimental to their quality. And while it is neither new nor unusual to seek fame, to accord it such worth in our cultural lives is surely to pull a dangerous screen over our senses.”

At the end of the day, there are a lot of big talents in the world, and every once –in-a-while, we find a real genius (Mahler, Hendrix, Haydn), but there’s no such thing as a Very Special Musician. Leaving a great legacy as a conductor is far more about hard work, self-criticism and luck than in-born talent, celebrity shizzle or specialness. The LSO are the busiest and most prestigious orchestra in the UK- it was important to whole UK music scene that they get the right Principal Conductor. Ask not if Rattle can replicate the old CBSO magic in his new post- he’s now ten times the conductor he was when he began his tenure there. Rattle richly deserves this job because he’s worked hard and continued to grow as an artist- it sounds like it’s time to anoint him as a “regular guy,”  let him drop all the celebrity culture crap, and have him get to work. We need musicians running our orchestras, not stars.


* On the question of a new hall for London, the calculus seems simple:

The city needs a concert hall with a good acoustic.

The question is whether this is the most pressing of many needs in the city. Many have pointed out that it is not. Working conditions for professional orchestra musicians in UK orchestras are shocking. They work insanely hard for miserly pay and endure travel schedules and work conditions that no other similarly expert professionals would.

It also seems self-evident that building an audience for the future is more important than building a concert hall.

The question about the hall is whether building it will improve working conditions for orchestral musicians and develop new audiences. If it does that, and it sounds good, they should build it as quickly as they can.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO- The right conductor, but for the right reasons?”

  1. Richard B

    Great stuff. It’s important to note that 1. Rattle has never seen himself as a VSM, 2. The conditions under which he worked in Birmingham in the first third of his tenure – a tough, underfunded band (who’d basically just driven their last music director out of his job) in a mediocre venue (it’s MUCH better now) with a demoralised management, a city in deep economic and social decline, a conservative audience and no money – were tougher than anything in Berlin (he wasn’t a star in 1980, just an untested kid taking some huge artistic gambles), and 3. Every one of the questions about a new hall in your final paragraph has been asked, and answered positively, in at least 5 other UK cities in the last 25 years – it’s maddening how many of the more parochial London journos don’t even seem to acknowledge this!

  2. Barney

    Brilliant, thoughtful analysis – glad you let go of your usual policy and wrote this! And “VSM” – that deserves to become part of the standard vocabulary!

  3. Tim

    Agree completely with you. Is there ever a good time to build a great concert hall? Is it now? Well, what makes us think we can anyway? AFAIK all the recent attempts to do so don’t work without baffles, reflectors, electro-acoustic feedback etc. The halls we admit as great are mostly great by accident. How are we supposed to build a great hall by accident?

  4. Evan Tucker

    I haven’t heard much of his Berlin Mahler, but I adore his Birmingham Mahler almost beyond any other collection of Mahler recordings. Obviously, Birmingham was never going to be the best-played orchestra, but the vitality of their work was so enormous that I found it pretty much always made up for any number of shortcomings. His Berlin appointment was frankly a mismatch from the beginning which he made the best of. Much as I love Sir Simon, almost to the exclusion of every other living conductor, there is something about the Berlin work that feels like a waste – we don’t need the world’s most famous living conductor to show how good he is in Bruckner and Brahms. We need him to go off the wall with crazy projects and little-heard music, exactly as he did in Birmingham. It’s amazing how much he did in Berlin, where a number of people in the orchestra clearly obliged only kicking and screaming. But he needs an orchestra that will follow his love for strange music-making to the gates of hell, and clearly the LSO is willing to do that in a manner that more plush continental orchestras never would. Bully for them. It’s of course much too late for Sir Simon to embark on a truly history-making partnership after the manner of Mengelberg/Amsterdam or Ansermet/Suisse Romande, but we’ll probably get fifteen years of great music-making that will make a serious dent in changing the way the world looks at classical music.

  5. Tristan

    Interesting and considered response, Ken. I think, though, that Rattle’s celebrity should not be dismissed so lightly – however icky that might feel. That fame – and it is fame more acutely felt here in the UK than anywhere else – is the reason classical music has suddenly become a talking point amongst politicians and the media. As someone who doesn’t share your estimation of Rattle’s artistry (I was enormously disappointed by that Bruckner 9, and felt his Brahms sounded ersatz), I am nonetheless excited by his appointment entirely *because* of the buzz this VSM creates. The halo effect of that buzz will, I think, make the ’20s a very good decade for classical music in this country.

  6. dieter

    I listened carefully to Rattles EMI Mahler cycle on a long drive from Queensland to Melbourne in 2012 and I was truly appalled. What I kept hearing was a clever young chap who kept turning to the audience and nudging and winking when he slowed down or emphasized an aspect and asking, well, how clever am I?
    In the meantime the overall structure kept on disintegrating while Sir Simon stood and winked and kept asking us to observe how clever he was. Significantly the only choir of praise came from his home country, Great Britain. Here was their new boy, at last a Von Karajan lookalike who was BRITISH.
    I can honestly say I have haven’t heard any music that Sir Simon conducts definitively. I’ve bought a lot of it, from Sibelius to Nielsen, the second Viennese Box, the Russian Box, much Britten, some Brahms, and the only music I respect him in is the Bruckner 9 with the 4th movement. Maybe that’s because I fell in love with the music. If you want or are able to do a little exercise, play Blomstedt’s Pan and Syrinx, then play Rattle’s. Sir Simon’s Pan is an earthbound run-through.

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