Rattle’s first night: how was it for you?

Rattle’s first night: how was it for you?


norman lebrecht

September 15, 2017

A long queue jamming the Barbican entrance suggested either a security alert or a total sell-out for Sir Simon Rattle’s opening concert with the London Symphony Orchestra.

It turned out neither was the case. Despite the biggest media campaign for a music director in London memory, I counted two dozen empty seats and quite a few more given away to BBC freeloaders (why aren’t the BBC made to pay for free seats?). The great and the good of the British arts world turned out for the occasion.

The all-English programme was ambitious, daunting even. It looked better on paper than it sounded.

Helen Grime’s fanfare commission occupied a landscape somewhere between Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies without asserting personal ownership of the space. Thomas Adès’s showpiece Asyla has wonderfully effective gestures but leaves listeners struggling for a structural thread.

The star work was Harrison Birtwistle’s violin concerto, insouciantly tossed off by Christian Tetzlaff who made light of its tremendous physical demands. It featured some breathtaking interplay with, tripping happily to the front one after another, the LSO’s principal flute, piccolo, oboe and bassoon.

After the interval, we heard Oliver Knussen’s third symphony, written in his 20s when he was the coming thing and stuck in the indeterminate 1970s. The piece has not worn well.

A performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which UK orchestras can play in their sleep, was distinguished by some fine pianissimi in the upper strings and a heart-melting solo from principal cello Rebecca Gilliver, earning her a smacking kiss from the conductor in the first round of applause.

The LSO played like the LSO, neither greatly elevated nor accelerated by Rattle’s constant facial exhortations. Rattle remains Rattle, weathered by his Berlin years and rather more comfortable in his skin, but still relying on physical exuberance to reach for that elusive high.

First nights are never a good test of love. This relationship needs time to bed in. But to pretend that this concert was epic, auspicious, historic or whatever, as some (but not all) reviewers have rushed to do is to mistake image for substance – which, I came away thinking, was what this concert was all about. Throughout the event, the audience faced two screens that proclaimed ‘This is Rattle’, except when the man himself appeared in short videos, delivering polished soundbites about the music.

Not a concert that will linger long in the memory. There will be better nights.



  • John Grabowski says:

    FYI, should be “screens,” not “screen” near the end.

    Sorry to hear this was disappointing….

  • Music Lover says:

    All tickets available to the public were sold out. It might be the case that invited guests did not appear or even ticket holders but as far as I am concerned it was indeed a sell out.

    The BBC who are covering a substantial number of events in the #thisisrattle festival were of course present. Any arts organisation (the LSO) wants to maintain positive relationships with the media, others artistic bodies and financial backers. The BBC staff’s attendance was not at the expense of the BBC but the LSO. I don’t really see what the problem is! I bet Hatink didn’t pay for his ticket, what a freeloader!!

    • Tityrus says:

      It was definitely sold out to the public. People who have tickets, especially if they haven’t paid for them, sometimes don’t show up.

  • Ben says:

    What a perfectly underwhelming way to start a tenure, with audience-alienating program like that.

    But conducting modern music has a big plus: No audience could tell any delinquency from the conductor as long as it doesn’t break down mid-piece.


    Nevertheless, I wish Sir Rattle a great tenure with the LSO.

    • Tom Wang says:

      Better than hackneyed standard repertoire in my opinion. Agree with Halldor.

      • David Nice says:

        Look, there’s Berlioz and Stravinsky coming soon. I applaud the idea, though the Birtwistle and Knussen works don’t do it for me, and in any case I was hearing an exciting YOUNG conductor taking over the helm of another superb orchestra that night – Santtu-Matias Rouvali in Gothenburg. I do wish the LSO could have taken more of a gamble, but I guess it’s about name recognition and getting the right money.

  • Halldor says:

    Most curious thing about the reaction to the concert is all the informed, knowledgeable London-based commentators reacting to Thomas Ades’s Asyla – 20 years old, recorded several times, and in the repertoire of most of the world’s major orchestras – as if it’s some startling new discovery.

    If Rattle achieves nothing else, he might at least start to shake London’s classical scene out of this sort of cosy, complacent provincialism.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Ades finds that music has progressed while the orchestra has become static since the beginning of the last century: music moved-on and the orchestra did not. This is the conventional, totally nonsensical narrative of ‘progress’ in music, while in fact Ades’ sound in this piece is entirely early 20C, but in comparison with what was written at the time, very poor, and lacking in musical content: just juggling with superficial sonic ideas:


      Even John Adams is better.

      The orchestra as it had developed at the early 20C, is so rich in possibilities and so flexible, that any composer with a truly musical imagination can do everything with it. That is why the medium has not ‘developed’ further, it has reached its natural constitution.

      The program of this concert appears to have been, apart from the Elgar, conventional, unthinking, and mediocre. The Elgar only escapes the accusation of a cheap lazy choice because it is such a good piece – or rather, it endures lazy choices because of its qualities. I think Rattle is a thoroughly conventional and mediocre musician.

      • Dargomyzhski Jones says:

        I always enjoy John Borstlaps posts. He’s witty, understands and appreciates the ways music has developed and is generous in his opinion of musicians who have chosen a different path than his. You never feel that he may have said it all before. Or if you do, it only adds to the pleasure. And concise? Never a word too many. What would Slipped disc be without him?

        • David Nice says:

          I don’t entirely disagree with you – remember ‘mediocre’ means ‘middle-ground’ and not ‘poor’, and for me Rattle is no longer the sensation he was when I frist heard him in my teens. The interpretations, like Gergiev’s, have got stodgy and aggrandized, though he can still do beautiful work on textures and occasionally surprises. The Elgar, yes, total masterpiece – sounded totally fresh when Ticciati conducted the LSO in an otherwise disappointing concert (Vengerov going off the rails in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto). Personally – as I’ve put it somewhere else here already – I’d have gone for an adventure with Ticciati rather than more of the Rattle same, but I can see why the Big Name won out.

    • It is said that describing someone as mediocre is a complement and mediocrity is the new excellence.
      Now I understand why.

  • Keith Kenny says:

    Norman. I sat behind you at this concert. You and your companion barely applauded once. That’s just rude.

    “Thomas Adès’s showpiece Asyla has wonderfully effective gestures but leaves listeners struggling for a structural thread” … erm, and the Birtwistle didn’t?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You are mistaken. My wife applauded more vociferously than I did. Myself, I generally like to reflect a few moments on what I’ve heard.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        I am glad that you spend a few moments thinking about the music before clapping; I wish more concert-goers did this.

    • herrera says:

      Is it rude not to applaud?

      I had no idea. I rarely applaud.

      1 – I consider that my applause is the money I paid for buying the ticket. If that’s not applause, I don’t know what is.

      2 – Sorry, but applause has to be earned, not automatic. Automatic like solo bows for orchestra wind players who play a few bars of “solo” and gets a big hug from the conductor at the end, like the composer had written a Concerto for Two Bars of Solo.

    • Here I’m totally on the same page with Herrera.
      I only applause when it was really good, which means in most cases I don’t.
      If we are allowed to pay applause instead of ticket price, then I am more than willing to applause more.

      I think what really rude are the following behaviors:

      1. Applause immediately after the last note ends
      2. Keep chatting until the very first note starts
      3. Mitdirigieren und mitsingen
      4. Read the program during the concert
      5. Coughing and heavy breathing

    • Concerts are commercial events, not worshiping ceremonies. Consumers buy tickets to get serviced. Musicians, being the service provider, should try to make their customers happy, not the other way around. When you go dining in a restaurant, are you obliged to like the food and applause to the cook no matter how it actually tastes? In many cases, you can even get your money back if not satisfied with the service or product. However, for concerts and operas, you can’t even return your ticket if the star cancels.

      In fact, applause should be forbidden in concerts. At least it would make a lot of sense for pieces like op.111, BWV244 and WAB109. In some of the most memorable concerts I have ever attended it was actually not allowed to applause. The audience and musicians just quietly stand up and leave the concert hall. How nice.

      • Maans Oosthuizen says:

        No applause at the end of the first act of Parsifal is wonderful – unfortunately very few opera houses uphold this tradition

  • Will says:

    There are always a few empty seats even for the most sold out concert. There are always some no shows, and always a few seats held back for double-bookings and for emergencies.

    • John Borstlap says:

      One of the usual emergencies of such programs is that people innocently buy the ticket – in this case, because of the Rattle perspective – and then before the concert find-out what is going to be played.

    • This time I have to agree with John.
      You can easily find concert posters in the street where the photo almost fills the whole page and the names of performer are set in eye-catching big fonts. However, in order to find out what pieces are on the program, you have to come much closer and read the small print at the bottom. In some cases, it just read “works by Beethoven and Brahms”. It seems that people really care much more about WHO perform rather than WHAT is performed.

      • John Borstlap says:

        In the seventies, LP’s were circulating with Karajan’s photograph covering the entire front in an authoritarian, pensive shot with his name in big capitals over the entire width, and in the right or left down corner in very small print ‘Beethoven’.

        But, with the general fossilization of a small core repertoire that everybody knows for many generations, who cares for the music? It is all about the performance.

  • YEP says:

    The empty seats were around the TV cameras for safety and sightlines.

  • Keith Kenny says:

    I always feel they’re too cautious and take too many stalls tickets out for the TV cameras. There were seats next to a camera along from me which people could easily have sat in. It’s not as if the cameras are going to move around throughout the performance and disturb people. Mind you, I suppose they don’t really know how many seats they need to suppress until the cameras arrive on the day.

    • Dave says:

      Unlike the Proms, where that ridiculous camera on a stick inconveniences not just audience but also performers.

      As for the Rattle thing, I’ve left the country. Unfortunately I can’t afford to leave it for long enough.

  • harold braun says:

    The concert was all in all fantastic.

  • herrera says:

    When was the first time during his tenure in Berlin that Rattle did an all British program (with the same range — an all Elgar program wouldn’t count) with the Berliners?

    Just wondering.

    I mean, if Rattle really thinks British music is that important, than he would’ve done a this program as his inaugural concert with Berlin as well, or at least, I hope during his inaugural year with Berlin.

    Otherwise, it’s just a bit…gimmicky.

    • harold braun says:

      He did Asyla on his first BPO program.

    • Tristan says:

      much better he did an English program as he was never great with the German repertoire and time has come he is leaving the Berliner – they made the best choice as Petrenko is so much more exciting! Rattle is another one among the most overrated and I learnt the news that he almost ruined the beautiful Easter Festival in Salzburg by cutting half of their patrons during his poor tenure there. Most of them left with the unforgettable Abbado.

  • Una says:

    What a lovely programme to have presented to the audience.

  • Chris says:

    “All-English programme”. Helen Grime is not English.

  • Ljubisa says:

    Predictible future of LSO..Magdalena Kozena on many ways, boring Rattle..some of best Musicians will go out of orchestra..would be to much for them..like Baborak, Braunstein in Berlin..pitty..
    Good luck, anyway, for great Orchestra!

  • David Osborne says:

    Simon Rattle is the pre-eminent figure of his generation of interpretative musicians, a generation that by all indications can now count amongst it’s many achievements, that of having passed the baton seemlessly to the next.

    This concert appears to me be a perfect summation of his tenure. A great conductor fearlessly championing not just the cause of new music, but the idea that we can continue indefinitely into the future, the great musical tradition of top-down creative control.

    Audiences must understand that the masters of music, the learned, the educated, know best. The composer of new music, who has put aside self-interest for the greater good of honouring and obeying his or her teacher, must be rewarded for their sacrifice.

    But Elgar? Who is responsible for this outrage, this is scandalous. I mean the man didn’t even have a teacher!

    • John Borstlap says:

      I always thought Elgar to be an amateur in comparison with Knussen, who throws his artistic weight around so much more effectively.