Simon Rattle, the LSO’s Right Choice?

By Sedgwick Clark

Thank heavens, at least this move on the musical scrabble board is settled. Local hero Simon Rattle will return home in 2017 from his 16-year Berlin odyssey to become music director of Britain’s foremost musical organization, the London Symphony Orchestra. He describes it as his “last job.”

He is indisputably an international star, with his recent Sibelius symphony cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic in London having sold out months in advance. His pop-culture image is right up there with that of Gustavo Dudamel and Lang Lang, and his magnetic personality and ability to talk about whatever music he performs is second to none, which should keep the box office teeming. He admirably declared in an interview in the Guardian that the LSO must act as evangelists rather than high priests for classical music “and spread the word right across the country.”

It remains to be seen, however, if he is the right man to advance the heritage of fellow Sirs Adrian Boult, John Barbirolli, and Colin Davis as representative of all that’s great in British music-making. His performances of 20th- and 21st-century music are most convincing, but those of the standard repertoire seem to me over-detailed and lacking a taut line. His admirers might call this expressive; I call it flabby. It’s nothing new: I recall a Mahler Second with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie in November 1997 in which a beaming Rattle seemed completely oblivious that the strings were rarely in sync (probably because they were unused to his left-right placement of first and second violins).

My guess is that the Berlin musicians were less bothered by Rattle’s programming of contemporary music than his meandering readings of the classics. His Beethoven has been most disheartening in this regard, but we’ll see how they do next season when he leads the BPO in a Beethoven symphony cycle at Carnegie. For those who recall Bernard Haitink’s energized Beethoven cycle with the LSO at Lincoln Center in October 2006, he’ll have a lot to live up to.

Originally, Rattle was said to demand that a new hall be built in London for him to accept the post, but he has denied it. Still, his ardor for a new hall is clear, as he stated in a BBC interview: “You have no idea how wonderful an orchestra like the London Symphony Orchestra can sound in a great concert hall.” The raising of money for such a project is daunting but crucial. When the New York Philharmonic returns from an international tour—playing in the likes of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw or Vienna’s Musikverein—the musicians sound renewed, especially the strings, which produce substantially greater tone and presence. Within a month, their collective sonority has reverted to its accustomed Fisher Hall coarseness, with strident violins, weak lower strings, and glaring brass. New York will get a new hall. London, at least, now will have a conductor determined to force the issue.

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