Simon Rattle is subdued on post-Covid outlook

Simon Rattle is subdued on post-Covid outlook


norman lebrecht

June 10, 2020

The LSO conductor and his friend, the Halle conductor Mark Elder, have sent a joint letter to the Guardian newspaper in response to an article predicting Armageddon for British orchestras. The tone is notably quiet, dark, sombre, even confused. I have never seen a text by Rattle with so little clarity and resolution. Here’s the letter, posted online about an hour ago:



There are so many pressing problems to solve in the UK that it takes courage even to mention the desperate situation of classical music in the time of Covid-19.

There’s a real possibility of a devastated landscape on the other side of this; orchestras may not survive, and if they do, they may face insuperable obstacles to remain solvent in our new reality. What we write applies, of course, to all types of music, not just classical music which is our area of expertise. Our music is essentially a live experience and requires all the participants, performers and listeners alike, to be in the same room together. What we may do individually over the internet in these months is all well and good, but the living core of our work is a live communion, a sharing of space, art and emotion which is both vital and healing.

This healing will become ever more necessary in the coming time as we attempt to bear witness and understand what we have all gone through. In such an existential crisis, the realisation of our shared vulnerability will surely change and deepen our relationship to all the arts. In our own field we are asking ourselves; how can we get back to live music? How can we give our audiences the courage to gradually return?

More immediately, how can we maintain musical continuity when orchestras are silenced? And how do we nurture a generation of young musicians whose prospects look bleak just as they embark on a career in this ever more uncertain world?

The recent extension of the furlough scheme is a blessing and enables many organisations to hang on. For freelance musicians, which include four of the London orchestras among others, huge problems remain. Currently many freelancers fall between the cracks of the government’s self-employment schemes. We need to find a way to sustain some kind of backbone of income so that we will eventually be able to play whenever that will be possible. At the most basic level, despite all appearances to the contrary, musicians are humans. They need to eat and pay their bills. But we also need to play together and train, just like any sports team, albeit in a totally new environment. Crucially, this musical team is part of a complex structure that is focussed around, and serves, its home town or city.

We will have to reinvent the wheel in so many ways. Learning to play while remaining distanced from each other will be much harder than it may initially seem.

Our venues will have to learn to shepherd audiences in and out of performances in safety, and accept that at maximum only 25% capacity will be allowed, with all the economic knock on effects that this reality implies. We MUST find a way to play together soon, even without an audience, if we are to maintain anything like our normal standards, and we badly need clarity from government, a timeline, of when that might be and how it can be implemented. We understand that we cannot expect to revert to everything as it was before; we will be creative and tireless in making contingency plans and solving problems.

All musicians of whatever genre share the magnificent problem of an art form which is, fundamentally, songs transmitted to people in a room. When will our audiences have the chance to experience this once more?

We refuse to believe that live music will die, but it will not survive merely on energy and optimism. It will need support and understanding, particularly when it ventures out in public once more. The first year of performing with fewer musicians to a much smaller public will be our toughest time, and we will need a helping hand to make it through.

In Mainland Europe orchestras are gradually opening up and finding different ways to deal with the problems of distancing. Good practice is being built up: in the UK we must gain time by learning what has already been proved to work, rather than starting from the beginning yet again, with people not from the performing arts making the decisions. Until we have some practical idea of what our future might entail, musicians in our country will continue to feel out in the wilderness.

Sir Simon Rattle, OM, CBE, Music Director, London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Mark Elder, CH, CBE, Music Director, Hallé Orchestra


  • Gustavo says:

    Now that does sound very British.

    Abwarten und Tee trinken!

    (Just wait and see!)

  • Leo Doherty says:

    The prognosis is pretty straightforward when the Government declares that we’re virus free and we can go back to gatherings without social distancing. New Zealand is a recent example of this. The idea that we adapt and live within some sort of covid society is completely far fetched and absurd.

    • Gustavo says:

      Covid fan tutte?

    • buxtehude says:

      “when the Government declares that we’re virus free” —

      This will do it for you then? Really?!

      What if no vaccine appears, or whether a stab at a new one will be required every year, as with the flu?

      Don’t know about London but here in New York the revised perception of Other People as reservoirs of possibly life-threatening disease has taken hold with remarkable speed and completeness.

      This will linger. The music-for-big-elderly-crowd-in-a-room paradigm has run into a brick wall.

      • nielsen says:

        So that’s it then, throw in the towel because of a flu bug. The planet is vastly overpopulated with human beings, the amount of people affected by this pandemic is a drop in the ocean and takes place while the human race makes hundreds of other species extinct every decade. Quote R.D.Laing ‘ Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate.’ Let’s end this lockdown nonsense and get on with our lives.

    • Luca says:

      I would remind you that the common cold and flu are also coronaviruses even if they are less mortal they are still endemic. We must learn to live with Covid: that’s a fact.

  • Dennis says:

    Will people never wake up? The IFR of this virus if .016, in the range of flu. The reaction by governments, supposed health experts, etc. has not just been a mistake, but an outright crime.

    The idea that nothing can ever go back to normal, no concerts, sports, etc., with normal crowds, rules, etc., that all life must forevermore revolve around Covid parnaoia is just insane. Even if there is ever a vaccine it may not be particularly effective (even flu vaccine is only 50% effective and exists mainly to line the pockets of BigPharma since they can produce a new one each year at little cost).

    Wake up!

    • Amos says:

      Stick to watching FOX News and conversing with other tin foil hat types. The effects of the virus on public health are real and not a plot to enrich biotech/pharma or put Bill Gates on the Iron Throne. If and when a vaccine is 50% or > efficacious and we can reliably test both for virus and anti-viral antibody life can go back to normal.
      On an unrelated point regarding the future of orchestras in the UK, I just finished listening to John Culshaw’s 1968 interview with George Szell. Even then Szell was advocating for consolidating the 5 London orchestras into 2 ensembles. Harsh perhaps but certainly more sustainable with improved product.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Check your facts, quote sources and stop spreading myths.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      . . . until you actually get it yourself, of course.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Dennis, reactions in the UK have bordered on mass hysteria, similar to the outpourings of moral outrage this nation is prone to from time to time. Teachers and the unions behind them are now opposing sensible attempts to get schools to re-open because of the fear of the virus circulating with abandon. Strange, but I cannot recall similar arguments being employed In winter months when the danger of contracting flu is far, far higher. Life is all about risk management, but too many in the musical profession now want to eliminate all risk.

    • Alter Frager says:

      I am not a believer in amateur epidemiology. Conspiracy theories don’t make the cut either.

      Dennis, what is a “supposed expert” as opposed to an expert?

    • engineers_unite says:

      Well done!
      I have been saying exactly the same on here for weeks, with the sheeple on here giving me aggro & harrassment constantly.

      It’s well known the British government deliberately frightened the living shit of people to force its Ferguson-crap-o-nomics lockdown into place then allowed PLOD to abuse basic freedoms to death, & even encourage friends and neighbours to grass on each other.

      Now we have a social environment and economy worthy of Honecker, & his Stasi, with no way back from the total brainwashing from the BBC and mass media.

      Listen to Carlin on government,then you will realise not a single one is to be trusted. EVER.

      Nutter Bojo is even going back to the “shag-a-minute” Ferguson for more “advice” from his shit-in=shit-out so called computer program which has been WRONG 100% of the time for the last 20 yrs on every single illness it tried to simulate.

  • Ron Swanson says:

    The reason why freelancer musicians aren’t getting government help is because they pay themselves via dividends. They don’t pay national insurance or income tax. They are not alone in this there are 10,000s of non musicians in the same boat. If you avoid taxes don’t be surprised when it has consequences.

  • M2N2K says:

    Some kind of combination of natural immunity + vaccination + improved treatment will decrease rates of infections and severity of symptoms, as well as risk of fatalities, to such low levels by the end of next year that normal concert life will be able to resume in the early part of 2022.

  • J Morris Jones says:

    A very good article here by the British conductor Lee Reynolds, an inordinately talented musician and wordsmith. He offers some refreshingly commonsense observations, as well as a few more radical ones: ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’

  • Tone row says:

    We are witnessing international mass pyschologically self-inflicted colony collapse disorder of human society.

    Cases went up. We locked down (probably a bit too late). Cases now down. Let public health professionals do their job and catch and trace and further outbreaks. Where prevalence is low enough for normal life activities to be individually safe (e.g. in London and much of the UK now), time to go back to normal life.

  • Allison Rosselli says:

    I am hardly expert in classical repertoire but enjoy it enormously. How about looking at less performed quartets, quintets, etc. using various orchestra members in small concerts at first. We, the audience might find new pieces to enjoy.

  • Prommer says:

    Maybe the two Knights of the Podium couldn’t agree on something: ie what to do about social distancing. Mark Elder was on Radio 4 this morning, advocating its reduction/elimination in order to get the concert scene going in September. Bravo to him.

    • Henry williams says:

      I-am in the high risk category i will not be rushing to return to the concert hall.

      • Prommer says:

        Totally understandable. But we cannot run things at the lowest risk level for much longer without things falling over, not least the arts scene.

      • Tone row says:

        Your risk of harm declines as case prevalence declines ([risk of harm from the disease]*[risk of catching it]). The current opposition to mass gathering events is the risk of seeding new case spread in the community; not risk to individuals per se. At the point that the government gives the go ahead for concerts to restart, there would surely be really very little rational reason for individuals to choose to stay away. But then, it is a well-known truism that most of us are very poor at judging true risk.

  • christopher storey says:

    I don’t see anything confused about the “tone” of this. It seems eminently sensible and well thought out . There are obvious dangers for large orchestras, but the idea that this epidemic involves the end of life as we know it is ridiculous. One of the very extraordinary aspects of the statistics is that only a small proportion of those tested for the disease have in fact had it . We all take risks every day but give no thought to it – in the morning we get out of bed – go down stairs ( now there’s a risk for you if ever there was one ) – leave the house, cross the road , and so it goes on. Personally , if it is a choice between spending the relatively few years of life I have left in a solitary monastic existence, or taking a risk as a social animal , I know which choice I shall make

    • Henry williams says:

      Mr storey i know all about this in 2018. i was knocked down by a car on a pedestrian crossing . I never plan for anything.

  • Judy Proctor says:

    Maybe Norman he has the perspicacity and emotional intelligence to realise that snappy strong sound bites are only empty words at this stage… when no-one quite knows how this pandemic will play out.

    It may well take 2 -3 years to recover.. in the meantime we have a very serious heavily interlocked problem between the many layers that help contribute to a healthy live music existence: global pandemic; global quarantining making international touring nigh impossible; economic depression not seen for 90 years… domestic travel restrictions impacting audiences and freelance musicians alike… so without ticket sales.. without sufficient subsidies… what would you suggest?

    I would suggest big businesses start paying an additional arts tax.. but who is going to get that through parliament in this vacuous conservative government?

    On a positive note musicians could hopefully rehearse and practise and improve.. away from the often debilitating demands of touring.