Is Simon Rattle leading a baton Brexodus?

Is Simon Rattle leading a baton Brexodus?


norman lebrecht

January 28, 2021

From the new issue of the Spectator, out today:

In the first month of Brexit, two British orchestras were publicly beheaded. The London Symphony Orchestra was shocked to discover that its music director, Sir Simon Rattle, had taken a better job in Munich, while the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was forced to accept that its luminous Lithuanian, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, was simply too hot to hold any longer. Some pundits quickly predicted a post-Brexit talent haemorrhage.

Of the two decapitations, the LSO’s was by far the more painful. Rattle is a totemic figure, a tousle-haired Liverpudlian who learned his scores in public libraries and won a music scholarship from the local council. He is the ultimate welfare-state success story, with a knighthood and an Order of Merit to show for it. He spent 18 years converting rustbelt Birmingham into a musical mecca….

Read on here.


  • Alexander Hall says:

    I’m sorry, Norman, but you can’t have it both ways. You have just been arguing that the UK (or what is left of it in less than a decade) will manage just fine with home-grown talent, citing examples from the immediate post-WW2 period, especially at Covent Garden. Every nation on earth profits from being open to the rest of the world, having an unbureaucratic exchange of artists and often seeing its sons and daughters succeed on the world stage and boost national pride. Just think of Latvia: such a small nation in geographical and demographic terms, but almost a giant in terms of conductors, singers and instrumentalists seen almost everywhere before the first lockdown.
    So, Norman, either you think Brexit was a disaster in so many different ways and that the musical profession, never mind all the creative industries, are now suffering significantly. Or you think that Brexit was a godsend, just what we needed so all graduates from our music colleges can walk into the jobs that were previously occupied by foreigners. So which is it then?

    • Allen says:

      “Every nation on earth profits from being open to the rest of the world”

      But “every nation on earth” is not a member of the EU, so how do they achieve this miracle?

    • Elizabeth Lloyd-Davies says:

      I entirely agree !
      Elizabeth Lloyd-Davies

    • Paul Capon says:

      I think Mr. Lebrecht know full well the self-destructive nature of Brexit and what it stands for. However, one might as well make lemonade from the lemons you been dealt with. What else can you do?

  • Rob says:

    The finest conductor the UK had in the past 50 years was the remarkable Edward Downes.

    Does Rattle think he’s great? He isn’t Bruno Walter.

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      Who in the BPO were the worst of the anti-Rattle brigade ? Watching videos that concertmaster Guy Braunstein never, ever seemed a fan. Always looked as if there was friction. But maybe he was like that with all conductors ? I know S.R. has arguments with the principal horn re: Eroica scherzo – I wonder what else is known

    • henry williams says:

      simon is wealthy what does he care.

      • Maria says:

        So are many other people wealthy, but that isn’t the most important thing in his or their lives if they are decent human beings. He also very, very generous but doesn’t make a song and dance about it.

        • henry williams says:

          what i meant was if you are in a comfortable
          financial position you can pick and choose jobs. not so easy if you are not. you then have to take what is offered or get into debt.
          i had to do jobs i did not like.

    • Maria says:

      I worked with bothTed Downes and Simon Rattle. Both excellent in their own different ways but you can’t say one is better than the other. You can only have a preference. Their personalities and temperaments were so different. Didn’t work with Bruno Walter – a bit before my time so can’t speak.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      During his years as a favorite guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle showed real greatness. Nothing he did was routine, and oftentimes they really made music together in the best possible sense. However, as best I can tell that conductor never made it to Berlin. I heard Rattle live with the BPO on tour several times and it was hard to imagine that the same person was on the podium with the two different orchestras. And the Berlin recordings were no better and often so indistinct as to not really have any reason to exist. I don’t know which Simon Rattle showed up in London, but regardless, I think of Rattle as an enigma. In the right setting with the right musicians working with him, I know personally with my own ears what he’s capable of achieving. But from what I can tell, his Berlin years were lost years musically and he diminished himself. Hopefully things will be better in Munich. If the Simon Rattle we heard in Boston shows up there, then these years could be his glory years. But forgive me for not being optimistic.

      • Maria says:

        The type of orchestra and the mentality of the players have to be taken into consideration as well. Birmingham adored him, Berlin tried to trap him with their bureaucracy.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      My comments re: Rattle have lately been censored by the moderator of this blog, apparently because I have stated my low opinion of Rattle in words too forceful, so I will just say here that yes, Rob – Edward Downes was certainly a fine conductor.
      But please don’t forget the marvelous Vernon Handley and Norman Del Mar! Both superb interpreters of British music.

    • Duncan says:

      Rattle is far too canny to enter a debate about whether or not he is a greater/better conductor than x, y or z. That does not mean that he doesn’t know his worth… ! No doubt he will be back to guest conduct, but he is a loss to the British music industry. Good luck to him though.

    • M2N2K says:

      No he certainly isn’t, but then BW was not Sir Simon Rattle either. However, regardless of what he does or does not think, Simon has been among the world’s finest conductors for nearly four decades now.

      • Maria says:

        And a humanitarian, and did an awful lot for the rough and tumble of Birmingham. He is far more interested in making music than conducting for the sake of power.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      Not sure of the past 50 years part. After all Boult conducted into the 1980’s. But I agree that Downes (who studied with Scherchen, btw) was a very good conductor.

    • Or Marriner or Gardiner…

    • Gustavo says:

      Richard Hickox 1948 – 2008
      Bryden Thomson 1921 – 1991
      Sir Alexander Gibson 1926 -1995
      Vernon Handley 1939 – 2008

    • Arnolphe says:

      Neither was Edward Downes.

    • Rob Keeley says:

      Rob, you should hear what David Hurwitz has to say concerning the vastly overrated (if supremely competent) Sir Si. 😉

    • Harry Collier says:

      And Bruno Walter was no Wilhelm Furtwängler !

    • Tom Phillips says:

      Re: Edward Downes, that is an opinion held by virtually no one outside the UK and probably very few within it as well.

  • Colin says:

    Rattle is 66 years-old now. He will be 68 when he takes up the job in Germany. His young children are German born-and-bred. To continue his career, with an acceptable family life, he has decided to move to Germany and take their citizenship. Big deal.

    Life goes on. He is not indispensable to British musical life. Get over it.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Rustbelt Birmingham? Oooh they won’t like that, an industrial centre yes but England’s second city which had a thriving arts scene especially in the 60’s – Walter Weller at the Council House ages before Symphony Hall and the Birmingham Rep. was one of the best in Britain in the 1940’s.

    • Christopher Clift says:

      I think you will find (with research) that Walter Weller conducted in Birmingham’s Town Hall, not the Council House.

  • Colin says:

    Simon Rattle and Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla both have non-British spouses based in Germany. The complications of Brexit must have been a consideration in their departures.

    Any other conductors with families based in the EU are therefore liable to consider their employment positions.

  • Malcolm James says:

    Your desire to cheer-lead for Mirga has meant that you’ve read far too much into this. She has two very young children, she wants to spend more time with them and she doesn’t want the commute to Birmingham or the administrative work associated with being a musical director at the moment. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • V.Lind says:

    I’m surprised at how negative the response was in the first 30 or so BTL comments in The Spec. I probably shouldn’t be — the commenters are very right wing on the whole, and utterly resistant to anything other than a very right wing party line on everything. Just the implication in your article that there may be some costs to Brexit is enough to make these types see red.

    While I would have voted Remain had I been in the UK, I am tired of “Remainers” who seem not to accept that this deal is done and it’s time to accept it and try to make the best of it, and fix things where possible. But I am equally sick of Brexiteers who act as if it has been a total win for all when it is obvious on a daily basis that the deal was ill-considered and has left a lot of problems that need sorting.

    Meanwhile, I think UK orchestras will survive the exodus of Rattle and the sainted Mirga. And I for one am not fussed as to whether they are British or foreign. London will probably go for a name. Birmingham seems to be a career-maker, so let’s hope they get someone else as good as some of its recent conductors who can grow in the job while building on a great base.

    • Allen says:

      “But I am equally sick of Brexiteers who act as if it has been a total win for all”

      Can you name one? I don’t know a single Brexiteer who said it would be without issues but many Remainers like to believe that they did. Remaining in the EU would not have been without issues either, as recent events are demonstrating. It’s not a happy place.

      Theresa May was an incompetent PM and must bear much of the blame for problems that need to be addressed.

      • George Porter says:

        “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside,” said David Davis.
        One among many such forecasts available in print or video.

        • Allen says:

          OK, I’ll give you that one – said several years ago, before T May got her claws into it.

          I stand by my claim the Brexiteers generally are not claiming perfection, just a substantial improvement.

  • Maria says:

    Simon does have children of school age living in Germany with their mum, who also need him, and his career has already cost him dearly. He is very much a family man. Makes sense to get a job in mainstream Germany and have a personal life as best he can. If you have children, then the bloke has to be there also to look after them, Brexit or no Brexit. Whinge as much as you like about Brexit. Good luck to him! But we haven’t heard thd end of him here in England.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Brexit has benefits the UK in vaccine roll-out, but is obviously problematic in the world of classical music. However there are conductors from outside the EU who can come. Alan Gilbert (USA), Thierry Fischer (Swiss) and one I would strongly suggest is Dennis Russell Davies USA).

  • JussiB says:

    Norman is British so we’re getting UK-centric reports on this blog. If Rattle is the best UK has got then they’re in serious trouble. Someone call Bramwell Tovey he’s available.

  • RW2013 says:

    the “luminous Lithuanian … was simply too hot to hold any longer.”
    adjective. If you describe someone as hot, you mean that they are sexually attractive or sexually desirable. (Collins)
    But has Deborah called yet?

  • RW2013 says:

    “Without him, music in this country will be weaker”
    I don’t believe I have just read this.

  • Liz Kelly says:

    Simon was not a ‘welfare state’ child. He comes from a middle class family. His father was a teacher if French and music and the family lived in a lively home in a leafy suburb. Simin was educated privately at Liverpool College

  • MJA says:

    “… a tousle-haired Liverpudlian who learned his scores in public libraries and won a music scholarship from the local council. He is the ultimate welfare-state success story…”

    I see. Simon Rattle was educated at Liverpool College, just about the only fee-paying (ie public) school in Liverpool at the time. How exactly does that square with the working class hero myth that’s being spun here? There is a thriving middle class in Liverpool too, you know, Norman.

    • christopher storey says:

      What NL wrote was drivel. Rattle’s Father, Dennis, was well known to me, and he was upper middle class, not without means, and successful. But, if it makes NL happy to suggest otherwise, perhpas he will cite the evidence…….

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    So much hand wringing over this topic. All or most of the impediments are bound to getting addressed and fixed at some point. London is not going to shrink into a cultural ‘podunk’, as we say in the colonies.

  • fflambeau says:

    The BSRO is Germany’s best after the Berlin Philharmonic? Almost everyone would give that to the Gewandhaus orchestra. The BSRO is, of course, a fine group but Germany has many.

    • John Kelly says:

      I’m one who would not give it to the Gewandhaus orchestra, good as they are. Many think the BRSO is better than the BPO………….certainly arguable.


    If we can get back to the impact of this developments on British musical life:

    1. The CBSO survived and thrived following Rattle’s departure and before Mirga’s arrival. Her current status is due in large measure to their investment in her.
    2. The LSO was highly successful, both at home and abroad, long before Rattle arrived.
    3. If memory serves, when Rattle came to the LSO it was for an initial period of 5 years. He’s now extended and collaborations with the LSO are planned several years into the future.
    4. He has stated that had he known about Brexit beforehand he’d have thought twice about coming, so at least some of these developments were predictable.
    5. The LSO works with several eminent conductors. Rattle is good box office of course, but he’s not there all the time and that must surely be a good thing.
    6. His influence has been mentioned several times on this website, but how influential is he in practice? Did we really believe he could persuade anyone to spend tens of millions on a new hall?
    7. As far as the LSO is concerned, I think the biggest concern should be the possible departure of foreign players. By my reckoning the orchestra is currently short of about 15 players. If anyone else leaves they’ll be even more reliant on guests. That has to be a worry.

  • batonbaton says:

    Regardless of the merits, or otherwise, of Sir Simon and Mirga as musicians – always a matter of personal opinion – they have made their choices for what are no doubt good, personal reasons. Which of us would do otherwise, if we were fortunate enough to be in their positions. Musicians have always gone where the work takes them. The UK has home-grown talent that hopefully will thrive in post-Brexit and post-COVID UK.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Norman, you would make your point a lot better by not insulting our intelligence by over-egging your pudding. Rattle was not an ‘ultimate welfare-state success story’ – rather a lad from a middle class home who succeeded. And good luck to him. He has a family in Berlin, for goodness sake, so it would seem very odd if he didn’t settle in Germany. Those of us who have brought up children will identify with that decision. Mirga finds herself in the same situation, Brexit or no Brexit. Don’t worry. There are plenty of talented musicians coming through to replace them when the pandemic at last is over. Rattle is 66 and has done his best work in orchestra building at Birmingham.

  • Alexander T says:

    From Furtwängler to Rattle.
    Talk about diminishing returns.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      You’re right, AT, and the gap is even greater when you go all the way back to von Buelow, R. Strauss, and Nikisch.

  • Bone says:

    As long as y’all have John Wilson there is still a great conductor in England.

  • Bored Muso says:

    Bravo Norman! a very readable and informed article (although very sad and depressing to read) which spells out the crisis clearly. Thank you for your honesty and understanding of the crisis, painful as it is to read and digest.