One of the biggest names in classical music has taken on a new role as music director of the Clerkenwell-based London Symphony Orchestra. As Sir Simon Rattle launches a season of Barbican concerts celebrating his arrival at the LSO, The Post profiles the talented, innovative and sometimes controversial conductor.
The British conductor who conquered the world has come home for his “last big job” to lead an orchestra in Clerkenwell. After 15 years as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle starts as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra and artist-in- association with the Barbican Centre and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama this autumn.
“It’s a tremendous coup, it feels like the start of a new era,” Huw Humphreys, Barbican head of music, tells The Post. “The response has been remarkable.” Rattle’s tenure officially begins with the This is Rattle season (14-24 September) at the Barbican, where the LSO has been resident orchestra since 1982. In the summer, classical music lovers got a glimpse of their musical union when he led the orchestra in what was described as an “adventure” exploring Haydn’s symphonies and oratorios.
“That concert was an example of why things are going to be exciting with Simon,” adds Humphreys. “It was a complete rethinking of a composer – that’s going to be indicative of the new thinking that he’ll bring to programming with the LSO.”
In fact, Rattle first conducted the LSO 40 years ago, aged just 22. It was rumoured he didn’t get on with the orchestra and refused to conduct them for years. The shaggy-haired maestro can sometimes be a controversial figure. When appointed to the LSO job, he said the Barbican Hall was not adequate for certain parts of the classical repertoire. A new concert venue is planned at the Museum of London site.
Rattle’s 2017 LSO season will also feature one-hour concerts starting at 6.30pm for busy commuters. He also plans more theatrical and mixed-media performances. “The London symphony orchestra, they’re always looking forward and it’s a very different mindset, that’s the wonderful thing and it’s a rare thing,” said Rattle earlier this year. His innovative approach is apparent from This is Rattle, which launches with a concert featuring Elgar alongside contemporary composers. Helen Grime says it’s a “huge honour” that her Fanfares opens the first performance.
“It’s a really big statement, pretty much all the composers, apart from Elgar of course, are living composers in a range of generations, and he’s really showcasing British music in this concert,” Grime tells The Post. “He has a huge interest in contemporary music as well, it’s really inspiring.” Grime describes Fanfares as a “celebratory piece” for Rattle’s arrival. As well as being broadcast on Radio 3, the concert will be simulcast live to open-air big screens and silent headphones to the Sculpture Court above the Barbican Hall.
The opening concert will also feature Thomas Adès techno-like Asyla, which was premiered in 1997 by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Rattle’s leadership. Five years later, the Liverpool-born conductor shook up the traditional approach of the Berlin Philharmonic by including Asyla in his inaugural concert.
Rattle sometimes had his critics during his spell in Berlin (his contract ends next summer), though the orchestra maintained its world-class reputation and he took them out of their comfort zone. His energetic conducting shows his passion for the music – he once said the non-stop soundtrack in his head made it difficult to sleep. “It’s incredibly magnetic,” says Humphreys of Rattle’s conducting. “He’s able to convey a kaleidoscope of emotions through his body language.” ‘It feels like the start of a new era’
That leadership with the baton is part of the reason Rattle has become a household name and, perhaps, Britain’s biggest classical music export. At the 2012 Olympics, he appeared in a comedy sketch with Rowan Atkinson playing in the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO has a rich 113-year history: previous conductors include Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham and Andre Previn. As Humphreys says, they are “one of the world’s truly great orchestras”.
The LSO is another prestigious role for the maestro. Rattle once said conductors start getting good when they reach 65 (he’s 62). Classical music lovers at the Barbican may be witnessing one of our greatest conductors entering his prime.
This is Rattle runs until 24 September: www.barbican.org.uk/music