• Joshua Ballance

On the Departure of Sir Simon Rattle

It’s a funny one, Simon Rattle leaving (again). I read the news yesterday in and amongst speculation about impeachment (again) and horrendous pandemic numbers, and yet it touched me far more than I expected. Whilst I’ve got a huge amount of admiration for Rattle, he is by no means my favourite conductor. Much of his success seems to have been as a statesman, a politician and spokesman. First building up the CBSO, then encouraging fantastic new repertoire in Berlin, and finally coming home to the UK.

I was at his first concert as Music Director of the LSO, and ever since there has been a sense of cultural leadership. Here was a man willing to enter the public fray, fight for a new concert hall, defend the arts and their position in this society wracked by philistinism and anti-intellectualism. Somehow, knowing that he was there, even in a rhetorical, somewhat intangible way gave us comfort across four awful years. So I guess that’s what I’m going to miss. There have been some great concerts—Berg Sieben Frühe Lieder + Beethoven 7, and Messiaen’s Eclairs sur l’au-dèlaparticularly stand out—but it’s the leadership that matters.

I’m not that fussed about the concert hall. It’s true that London’s halls are fairly abysmal; I’m sure that a swanky new project would have had the potential to excite a lot of people, and I’m skeptical it would have diverted funding from other arts priorities—donor money isn’t fungible. Likewise, I can see the argument against spending money on a splashy new building, or at least putting it in the south-west or the midlands. Aside from The Sage, the UK really lacks anything of the level of its international competitors (Global Britain, anyone?).

Particularly following a weekend in which we learn that our appointed leaders have opted to reject an EU offering of visa-free tours for musicians, for Rattle to leave feels like he’s abandoning us. On one level, why wouldn’t you? He won’t have visa issues, his family lives in Germany, rather than fighting a culturally illiterate political class he’ll be embraced as a hero. From a personal perspective it’s surely the right move. And yet it feels like he’s giving up on us: for the rest of us, visas will be an issue, feeding our families will be difficult, and we need leaders to push against the imbeciles of Tory government and help this country save itself from itself before the arts completely die, paroxysmally grasping for neoliberal relevance. I guess on one level therefore I feel jealous; but on another somehow angry. Maybe Germany does feel like home to him, but it somehow feels like he has a responsibility to us, to help us through this dark, dark valley.

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