The long-distance life of the absentee conductormain
Some time in the mid-1980s, I noticed that it had been nine months since the London Symphony Orchestra last saw its music director. Claudio Abbado had taken a short sabbatical to study Mahler’s ninth symphony and then got too busy with other engagements to attend to his London job.
I wrote a piece about his absence in the Sunday Times. Questions were asked at the Arts Council and a certain discomfort was felt at the long absence. Abbado’s contract was not renewed (apparently on his volition since he could not bear working in the dull acoustic of the Barbican Centre). Small storm, quickly over.
Few music directors ever live in London. Most choose London as a convenient landing-point between other commitments. No one is much bothered where the Philharmonia or LPO conductor happens to be.
But the LSO is not any other London orchestra. It is the oldest, the benchmark, the defining London orchestra. It is the city’s swagger band, its trophy orchestra, always giving of its best when the chief is a genuine Londoner. Andre Previn lived in Surrey when he was in charge. Colin Davis was at home in Islington. The LSO was at home with itself.
Now, after the fleeting visits of Valery Gergiev, the orchestra needed and deserved a conductor who was in London, of London, with London. Simon Rattle, a Liverpudlian, spent the early part of his career talking up the merits of other UK cities at the expense of London. He maintained a home in the capital for a few years, but he has never been a Londoner. Lately, he has gone on the record to say that his home and heart are now in Berlin.
When Rattle was voted chief of the Berlin Philharmonic, he announced at once that he would move to Berlin and master the German language (for the record, he still rehearses in English). Today, as the new chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, he will conduct its affairs from Berlin.
It’s hard to acclaim the Rattle succession with full-throated joy when he won’t be living in our midst.