The long-distance life of the absentee conductor

The long-distance life of the absentee conductor


norman lebrecht

March 03, 2015

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.

rattle screen grab



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.


  • Brian Cooper says:

    I am not convinced by this line of argument. What is important is how the orchestra will sound under his direction. Ideally in a fine concert hall, some day.

    In my view, this is a match made in heaven. I have admired Sir Simon’s work since well before he was a superstar conductor, and I never once asked myself whether he lived in Birmingham. In fact, I have never believed that a conductor’s place of residence should matter.

    There is no doubt that he will spend enough time in London to rehearse his programs with the LSO, without jetting about between concerts and rehearsals.

  • Dr Solomon says:

    He can probably fly from Berlin quicker than he can commute through London!
    Why all the negativity? You ought to be celebrating this appointment, not denigrating it.

  • Maria Brewin says:

    Wow! Two swipes in one day.

    Should take some of the pressure off the VPO and the Met, I suppose.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Norman, I for one do not join in the hagiographic praise for this appointment. Just wait a few years and those who think Rattle is the best thing since sliced bread will be at his throat: that is what happens in the UK over and over again, you put the guy up on a pedestal and then you knock him down again. However, anybody with young children (and Rattle has three of them) knows how unsettling it is for them to have to adapt to a new environment and particularly to new schools. I don’t for one moment begrudge Rattle wanting to maintain his domicile in Berlin. In any case, the costs of housing in Berlin, even in the well-heeled parts, are way below those in London, the cost of living is lower and the standard of living is higher, plus the fact that in Berlin you have a wonderfully green city. I can fully understand Rattle’s desire to stay put.

    • Halldor says:

      Erm, Rattle has actualy held a major Music Director post in the UK before. No-one tore him down and 18 years later the positive effects of his tenure are still being felt.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        You are welcome to claim that this man is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If you spend most of your early career discovering one niche part of the repertory after another and programming contemporary works with which there can be no meaningful critical comparison, of course you are likely to turn into everybody’s darling. The problem is that Rattle has been found wanting – in Berlin and in the core Austro-German repertory. He saw the writing on the wall, so jumped before he was pushed. You don’t give up the Berlin Philharmonic if you are the world’s greatest conductor.

        • John says:

          Pushed out??? After eighteen years, including a six-year renewal???

          • Alexander Hall says:

            The Berlin Philharmonic let Rattle wait for a very long time before they finally agreed to renew his contract. Take a look too at the official words of “regret” issued by the orchestra when he made his public announcement to stand down. A “we’re sorry you’re leaving us” farewell card has more warmth and affection than their statement did.

        • MacroV says:

          You just can’t please some people. A young man takes up the directorship of a fine but hardly high-profile orchestra in a less-than-major music capital; helps raise the level of the ensemble; explores lesser-known corners of the repertoire; champions modern composers, and creates a really excited following over nearly two decades. Does everything we supposedly think a forward-looking young music director should be doing in the otherwise ossified classical music world. And then someone complains that his Beethoven isn’t sufficiently Furtwanglerian or some-such.

          I don’t know the thoughts of the BPO members, but over half the orchestra has likely joined since he became its director and are probably at least somewhat hip to his way of doing things. The other half voted for him and had a decade of experience playing with him as a guest; no excuse to have found him “wanting.” This is not your grandfather’s BPO.

          • Halldor says:

            Is there any idea in classical music more stultifying – and irrelevant – than that of an imagined ‘core Austro-German repertoire’? In 2015, any notion of a ‘core repertoire’ at all – let alone one that excludes Monteverdi, Rameau, Mussorgsky, Sibelius, Janacek, Bartok, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Boulez etc, etc – would be laughable if it didn’t betray such a limited mindset.

            Rattle is a living artist working in a living art form. Those who don’t grasp that are, of course, free to keep listening over and over again to their 1963 DG Karajan Beethoven cycle and mourning the death of Holy German Art. The rest of us have music to make.

  • Mark Stratford (London) says:

    ==Andre Previn lived in Surrey when he was in charge.

    Driving to the Barbican from deepest Surrey probably was probably not that much shorter than a flight from Berlin to London City airport. I think this whole topic is small beer. Let’s just be grateful we’ve got Sir SImon here. He’s actually the very antithesis of these fly-in-fly-out conductors like Gergiev and Maazel

  • Ivor Morgan says:

    ==he won’t be living in our midst.

    It never is village life where we bump into Mark Elder in the cheese shop and Thomas Ades in the newsagents. These guys never really live ‘in our midst’.

    Abbado apparently had a wonderful house in Chester Sq a few doors down from Mrs Thatcher and Menuhin. But did that make him more approachable than if he’d commuted from Milan ?

    I agree with earlier posters, let’s thank our lucky stars we’ll have this genius in our halls.

    • Nick says:

      Small points, but I have a memory of meeting Abbado in his house which I thought was in Chelsea. And did not Menuhin live in Highgate?

  • John Kelly says:

    Norman – a scouser can NEVER be a Londoner. Good grief. I must say that I find your whole negative approach to Mr. Rattle’s appointment to be absolutely nonsensical. His tenure in Birmingham was one of the highlights of British musical history (he’s not a Brummie either). Here we have a British musician achieving one of the most prestigious positions in the world (Chief Conductor of the Berlin Phil) who seeks to come back to our own London Symphony. And you want to complain about it because he lives in Berlin with his family. You think he won’t spend enough time with the LSO? I am willing to bet he will spend more time with them than any previous chief since Andre Previn.

    And I doubt he will become a Chelsea fan or a Gooner.

  • herrera says:

    Forget his residence, how much is he getting PAID?

    We all know Maazel got almost a whopping $3,000,000 his last year at the NY Phil. He at least lived in the United States.

    How much is London shelling out to have Sir Simon fly in once a week on Lufthansa?

  • Richard Hallam says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments regarding the orchestra itself. I’ve always been a keen supporter, even through the rougher patches – a bit like following Grimsby Town FC really. I remember a critique of the ’70’s of a then tour of Japan (I think by the satirical magazine Private Eye), which dismissed the tour as the usual serving of the the ‘three B’s’ – Birds, Booze and Bad playing. Thankfully, times have changed.

  • J. says:

    He don’t want to take pictures with you, Norman. Give up.

  • J. says:

    “Now, after the fleeting visits of Valery Gergiev, the orchestra needed and deserved a conductor who was in London, of London, with London.”

    Lorin Maazel and Colin Davis didn’t live in Munich, and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra chose Jansons, who doesn’t live in Munich either. This is nonsense and you know it. But we’ll remember these opinions in the future, relax.

  • Andrew R. Barnard says:

    More to the point, Norman: “It’s hard to acclaim the Rattle succession with full-throated joy when [I just happen not to like him]”. Right?

  • Mikko says:

    I believe Salonen tried his best, but his California-raised children hated the weather in London.

  • ganymede says:

    I agree with Norman’s remarks. It’s perfectly legitimate to raise the point of whether or not the Artistic Director of a city’s most important orchestra lives in the city or whether he only flies in for q few rehearsals, a concert and then leaves.

    This is an increasing trend which I really dislike. For example, Levine’s tenure of the BSO felt very half-hearted, his heart was really in the Big Apple and he only commuted in to tick the boxes – so it felt. He did the same in Munich before. And I don’t like how Gergiev did it to us in London.

    Rattle is perhaps one conductor who might manage to bridge the gap and actually not give the impression of the LSO being one item on his long agenda only. I still think he should have and could have made the effort of moving to London. It’s not too much to ask. He’s loaded financially and can live like a king here. His kids can easily move here and have a whale time. I moved every 4 years as a kid to new countries and it didn’t hurt me, on the contrary. So, please…

    Well, let’s see how it pans out. If he changes the culture of the LSO (more rehearsals, more time for music making) then the commuting conductor issue may become secondary.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    What about commute time to and from airports, and what about waiting time at airports? The case for the absentee conductor may be overstated, but many people in this blog are understimating travel time between Berlin and London.

    • Hilary says:

      5hours door to door I estimate. Could be worse. Karajan didn’t properly live in a house in Berlin either but that seemed OK.

  • Halldor says:

    “He maintained a home in the capital for a few years, but he has never been a Londoner.”

    Ah, that’ll be the famously inclusive, diverse, tolerant London spirit that we’re always hearing about. (From Londoners).

    • Maria Brewin says:

      That’s rich, bearing in mind the Scousers’ capacity for self advertisement. Brummies aren’t always so shy, either.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Sir Simon comes to the LSO. That’s great news. He stayed in Birmingham 17/18 years and got a new hall built, with superb acoustics. He is in Berlin in a hall with superb acoustics. I am hopeful that Sir Simon will work exceedingly well with the LSO – and will succeed in getting a new hall built, with superb acoustics. With Sir Simon in town, the politicians would make fools of themselves if they can’t work with such a heavyweight as LSO’s new chief to get a decent hall in town that equals Amsterdam, Boston, Birmingham, etc. in sound quality. Unless they settle for permanent second or third rank, leaving the London bands to fend for themselves somehow. Would Sir Simon need to be in London? A pied a terre would do, I’d think, as his family is based in Berlin for the good reasons provided elewhere in this thread. A plane from London City to Tegel and back, or from Tegel to London City and back, is no problem nowadays. If I were Sir Simon, I’d fly a private one, so as to not waste any time and money on commercial flying with its inconveniences.

  • Ivor Morgan says:

    ==Sir Simon fly in once a week on Lufthansa?

    NO no no – He would be here for longer extensive blocks. He’s not the Maazel type – he wants to build something.

    Can’t wait until he does Stockhausen’s Gruppen which he did with both his Brum and Berlin bands. He did say after the Berlin gig 5 or 6 years ago that he intends to do it again.

  • Milka says:

    In to-day’s world Rattle and the London Symphony mean zilch ! if that .One suspects
    Rattle will milk it for all he can get and the air head London symphony will exalt in the fact that they could buy a part time conductor .

  • Ivor Morgan says:

    ==Rattle will milk it for all he can get …
    ===and the air head London symphony …. buy a part time conductor

    Isn’t the internet wonderful ? You can just write whatever rubbish you want !

    Very few musicians are as committed and hard working as Sir S

    • Milka says:

      Such devotion ….can you imagine he will give 4 mths of the year. !!!! They just
      got screwed by the russian …and now 4 glorious mths . of the year.
      Now that’s commitment ………….

  • J. says:

    If only the CBSO had rejected Rattle for not being from Birmingham, we’d have been spared all this trouble.

  • Martin Roscoe says:

    Norman, according to the article in (today’s) Guardian by a member of the Berlin Phil,, Simon Rattle rehearses in German not English .

  • Michael Spencer says:

    Actually, I bumped into Simon in Endell Street buying fish and chips for his wife when he was working with us at Covent Garden a few years back. I also found myself alongside Tony Pappano at the vegetable stall in Borough Market. So they do get out…sometimes!

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Well, if you only say “Fünf Takte vor……” to mark the place in the score where you want to put something right and “Etwas lauter” or “Etwas langsamer”, friends of yours could argue that you speak passable German. He stopped addressing the audience in German at his New Year’s Eve concerts, presumably because it was so excruciating (at least it was to my ears). When Chailly was with the Concertgebouw he made a deliberate attempt to learn Dutch and used it with the orchestra too. Odd that an Englishman finds it so difficult learning the language of composers who wrote most of the core works in the orchestral repertory.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Until Rattle started working on his German, did he speak any language other than English? The older you are, the harder it is to learn a foreign language, especially if you didn’t grow up learning one. Dutch was not Chailly’s first foreign language.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        You make my point exactly. Dutch is a difficult language to learn and is spoken by relatively few people. However, Chailly made the effort. Rattle, with the typical Englishman’s presumption that the rest of the world speaks their language, so why bother immersing yourself in another linguistic culture, has had almost thirteen years (and counting!) since taking over the Berlin Philharmonic. When he’s interviewed on German TV he doesn’t even make the effort to say a few simple sentences in German; it is all in English. You can’t claim to fully understand the culture that underpins the canonic works of the Austro-German repertory if you have just a rudimentary knowledge of the corresponding language.

  • Erich says:

    Riccardo Muti has been conducting the Vienna Philharmonic for over thirty years and still rehearses in English – and conducted The Ring, Parsifal, Magic Flute etc. without speaking a word of German (mind you, he didn’t conduct them very well!).
    But I thought music is supposed to be a universal language anyway. And most orchestral musicians will tell you that the less a conductor chats, the more they like it anyway.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      You overlook in your example the fact that Muti has never been the Vienna Philharmonic’s big white chief (nor do they actually have one). We are talking about responsibilities that a chief conductor/artistic adviser/music director of a major symphony orchestra has and his/her ability to engage with the musicians and management in the local lingo. Take Bamberg where Jonathan Nott is in charge: excellent German. Go back to when Colin Davis and John Eliot Gardiner were chief conductors of the Bavarian Radio Symphony and NDR Symphony respectively. Both had excellent German (Gardiner still does; can you imagine him being such a persuasive interpreter of Bach’s music without having the necessary linguistic skills?). And then take a look at one Simon Denis Rattle. No contest, as they say.

  • Paul says:

    Seems a bit of a non-issue. Karajan never lived in Berlin. Commuted from Anif for years…

  • DLowe says:

    I think you’re right to question it (if nothing else, comments here and elsewhere may help to keep a degree of pressure on him to remain a presence here), but an open-minded approach should be taken for his first year at least. Give him a chance. He’s made it clear that he’s coming in not just as a music director/conductor, but as a campaigner – he’s put pressure on himself (from the media), and if he fails, they’ll make sure he knows it.

  • DLowe says:

    Out of interest, who do you think should have got it?

  • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

    Just read this 🙂 Norman, maybe for the record it should be noted that the gentleman (Principal Horn BPO) points out that Simon Rattle DOES rehearse with the BPO in German. 🙂

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Manchmal, vielleicht!

    • Milka says:

      Am positive the horn player is most sincere in his unstinting praise of Rattle but cannot
      get over the feeling he left out something …could it be the walking on water bit or
      the seven or five loafs( depending on which orchestra section) and 2 fish miracle to a full house of 4,000. Canonization will surely follow ……

    • NYMike says:

      Fergus McWilliam – actually 2nd horn and former member of their administration.

  • herrera says:

    Sir S’s worst nightmare would be The Dude appointed to Berlin.

    One wunderkind replacing an erstwhile wunderkind, the beginning of an era for one, the end of an era for the other.

    Dudamel would make Rattle irrelevant in Berlin and redundant in London.

    • Pete Parker says:


    • MacroV says:

      That’s just nonsense. Dudamel is an exciting conductor to many (though let’s see what happens when he gets a haircut), but he doesn’t have Sir Simon’s 40-year track record. The BPO may end up with someone better at Strauss or Bruckner, but as a leader I don’t think Sir Simon needs to fear being shown up by any successor.

    • Anon says:

      Huh? That’s like saying tomorrow’s lunch will make today’s lunch redundant.

  • Andrew Condon says:

    Menuhin certainly lived in Highgate in the 1960s and 70s, but lived in Chester Square from the early 1980s until his death in 1999