|Rattle and the LSO.|
Photo: Doug Peters/PA
THIS IS RATTLE. The posters greet you at the main entrance, on the programme cover, everywhere around the Barbican. And the first sound that meets your ears is of children singing. The foyer is crammed with opening-night concert-goers gazing up at a choir of primary-school kids on the balcony showing off their musical skills to the manner born. It's a great way to start the big night that marks the opening of Sir Simon Rattle's long-awaited return to Britain as music director (yes, music director, not chief conductor) of the London Symphony Orchestra. Explore their website to read about the plans for innovative digital work, outreach, British music focuses, streaming, filming and even some rather fine concerts. These are going to be exciting times, or so one might hope.
"This is music, this is what we believe.
Music is for everybody, music is a right.
It's the air we breathe, the water we drink."
--- Sir Simon Rattle
Rattle has been on the TV, on the airwaves, in the newspapers. He only has to sneeze for it to make the headlines, it seems. Having a household name at the head of the LSO can only be a good thing for musical life here. And his chosen opening night programme was something that probably no other conductor could get away with and end up still speaking to the management: a musical marathon of five works by British composers, four of them alive and kicking hard, two of them present to take their bows, and among them names of the type that in other settings sometimes strike fear and paralysis into the hearts of potential attendees. Not so here: the crowd, if occasionally bemused and unquestionably challenged, at worst read its programmes and at best positively lapped up the craggy music by Helen Grime, Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle and Oliver Knussen before relaxing into the sunlit garden of Elgar's Enigma Variations. If there was champagne for the musical soul of London, food for thought was never far away.
The first half could scarcely have been better chosen. First was a new work commissioned by the Barbican for the LSO, a five-minute piece by Grime named 'Fanfare' - but 'Overture' might have been better, since it seems to contain the seeds of much more than its moniker suggests. Vivid string syncopations and starbursts of percussion made celebratory noises, but the wide-ranging imagination in terms of forces mingling - whether punchy musical motifs or glitter-rich orchestration - suggested there is plenty to build on and possibly expand.
|The young Simon Rattle, portrait by Norman Perryman|
Christian Tetzlaff was the soloist for Birtwistle's Violin Concerto of 2009-10, which shows the doyen of British composers in relatively mellow mode. While the orchestration has a dark, cave-like spaciousness and resonance, or sometimes moves like a leviathan in the deep (the tuba writing helps), Tetzlaff was caramel-toned over the top, a poet amid a mass that sometimes comprehends, other times discusses, and often serves to offset the eloquent tenderness of his thoughts. It's a collaborative concerto, essentially: wind players emerge from the ranks to set up solo spots alongside the violinist one at a time, and Tetzlaff did all he could to spur them into playful musical discussion. The octogenarian composer, who today somewhat resembles a comfortable, shuffly polar bear, took his bow to a respectful ovation.
Oliver Knussen's Symphony No.3 is a short three-movement work of sensitive, moody, atonal architecture, begun when the composer was all of 21 in the early 1970s, and completed in 1979. Rattle tackled it with enormous affection, shaping and pacing it splendidly. If it proved one big chew too many for a single evening, probably few would have admitted it yesterday; we could reflect, instead, on why it is that when there are so many fine pieces of modern British music in existence, we can wait years for them to return, then get three at once (London buses, etc...).
It's also intriguing to think that while the idiom of this music was fully current by 1973, that was almost a half-century ago - yet the basic style of what's thought of today as mainstream British modern music has not changed much. The finest voices within it are individual and distinctive, and produce occasional masterpieces. But now, one could reasonably contend, isn't it time to move on?
Settling into Elgar's Enigma Variations after all of this was like stepping out of a deep lake onto dry land. The sense of gravity is transformed. Your breathing changes. You know where your feet are. Rattle's account of the variations homed in on the affection of the composer for his "friends pictured within" - and he coaxed the LSO strings into some Seidel-esque marvels on the G string in "RPA", a hush to end all hushes at the start of "Nimrod", an elusive, butterflyish, cherishable delicacy in "Dorabella" and a moment of anguish for "***" on her long sea voyage - for everybody, there must be one that got away. The finale was a giant musical bear-hug. The orchestra, playing its many socks off for its new boss, blossomed and shone; and the hall, too, was full of friends - friends of music and art and joy. If anything represents hope in Brexit Island today, it's the return of Rattle.
And there's that elephant stalking the corners of the room. The ambition expressed in the Barbican last night is vast: new initiative will follow new initiative and even the new hall was spoken of as a budding reality - though a lot of money still has to be found through donors and sponsorship to make it happen. Nobody said what many of us are thinking: how on earth are we going to manage any of this after Brexit?
What will happen to the LSO's large contingent of European players? What will happen to international touring if we end up with visas, customs and tariffs even to travel a couple of hours to Paris or Amsterdam? How can we continue to attract the world's greatest soloists if the pound plummets still further and our fees can't remain even slightly competitive on the world stage? Would Sir Simon have come back at all if he'd known Brexit was going to happen? (They asked him this on the TV news. He said it would have "given me pause".) It's possible, of course, that our civil servants, working behind the scenes, can avert a worst-case, crash-out Brexit, but there's scant sign of competence, understanding or realism among the front-bench politicians who seem hell-bent on driving us smack into the cliff-face, determined to sacrifice everything of the public good to a public opinion formed on the basis of proven lies.
Welcome home, Sir Simon.
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