Berlin Exit Rattling the Classical World

Berlin’s loss is London’s gain. With Simon Rattle, the British metropolis has won over not only one of the world’s top symphony orchestra directors, but also an outspoken advocate for a new world-class concert hall.
Berlin will miss him.

This article was originally published on March 4, 2015, and republished without changes in February 2018.

Now it’s final: Simon Rattle is returning home.

Britain’s most celebrated living conductor has ended months of speculation over his next move, announcing on Tuesday his decision to take over the London Symphony Orchestra in September 2017 when his contract at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ends.

Speaking to the media at the Barbican, the London Symphony Orchestra’s residence, Mr. Rattle referred to the move as an “obvious step – the idea of coming home and having a position in this fantastic city.”

Mr. Rattle, 60, said it would be his “last big job” when he takes over the orchestra’s baton, previously held by world renowned music conductors such as Edward Elgar, Colin David and Claudio Abbado. He will succeed Valery Gergiev, the orchestra’s current principal conductor.

Mr. Rattle, with his wild shock of hair and youthful looks, is one of the world’s top music conductors whose appearance and performances captivate audiences.

Mr. Rattle first appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra as a 22-year-old in 1977.

His appointment is a coup for the orchestra, in more ways than one.

First and foremost, Mr. Rattle, with his wild shock of hair and youthful looks, is one of the world’s top music conductors, whose appearance and performances captivate audiences. He has made lasting impressions wherever he has worked.

Mr. Rattle made a name for himself through his leadership of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra between 1980 and 1998, and when he took over the Berlin orchestra in 2002, he steered it to new heights.

Over the years, Mr. Rattle has expanded Berlin's repertoire, putting contemporary works frequently on the program. He has also taken the orchestra into schools and local communities to help break down social barriers and stereotypes and introduced a music streaming service, the Digital Concert Hall, to open performances to the world. He has also transformed the ensemble of highly talented musicians into one that is no longer all-male and all-German but multinational and with something approaching an equal number of men and women players.

For London, Mr. Rattle has plenty of fresh ideas, such as using more technology, offering more chamber music and solo performances and pursuing what he calls a “more theatrical” concert experience with semi-staged productions.


Rattle made a name for himself in Birmingham.


He already gave the British a taste of what they could expect at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He led the London orchestra that played music from “Chariots of Fire,” while Rowan Atkinson played around on the synthesizer in his Mr. Bean character, in what turned out to be one of the most-watched performances of the games.

What Mr. Rattle will also bring to London – most likely – is a new concert hall.

In an interview with the BBC last month, he stressed the need for London to have a new venue, showing his lack of enthusiasm for performing in the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican.

“The music lovers of London and the country deserve to have something where also the orchestras can flourish,” he said. “You have no idea how wonderful an orchestra like the London Symphony orchestra can sound in a great hall.”

What Mr. Rattle will also bring to London – most likely – is a new concert hall.

Within weeks of those remarks, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, responded by announcing a feasibility study into a new venue.

Mr. Rattle was also a major force behind the new Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Yet for British music director, who will be 64 when he returns to Britain, the London gig is not without its challenges, the biggest being money. He will find himself in a climate of heavily constrained funding, as is the case in the United States and many European countries.

And Mr. Rattle will also need to adjust to life in two cities. Married for the third time, he said his family would probably not relocate to London. "We imagine still living in Berlin," he said in London, where he plans to be with the orchestra about four months in the year.

If that turns out to be the case, Mr. Rattle can rightly say, "ich bin ein Berlondoner."


Video: Rattle with the Berline Philharmonic performing Mozart'S Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter".


John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Globat Edition. He enjoys classical music and looks forward to a performance with Mr. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. To contact the author: [email protected]