Keeping time with Sir Simon Rattle

Dvorak’s American Suite and Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers are two of the pieces being performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Bath Forum this March. Emma Clegg asks Sir Simon about the programme, encouraging young musicians, and the difference between the musical styles of England and Germany.

What events stand out from your time as Music Director of the LSO?
The tour of Latin America in 2019, which was the first time to this area for the LSO and for me. We visited Colombia, Peru, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, five countries in two weeks! Audiences were hungry for the music, and so appreciative, and we felt honoured to have been invited.

I am particularly thrilled by the success of East London Academy project, which despite every attempt by COVID-19 to put a spanner in the works, is thriving. The LSO East London Academy, launched in 2019, aims to identify and develop the potential of young East Londoners between the ages of 11 and 18. Through the provision of free, inspirational coaching delivered by world-class musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra, the Academy offers high-level training and mentoring to young musicians who show exceptional promise, accelerating their instrumental learning, confidence and aspirations.

The LSO East London Academy aims to represent the diversity of east London, particularly encouraging young musicians from backgrounds under-represented in professional orchestras to take part and continue their instrumental learning, including those who have financial, cultural and practical barriers – a step towards facilitating wider diversification of the professional classical music sector. There have been special moments along the way, most notably when the strings section joined the orchestra on the stage for our BMW Classics outdoor concert in Trafalgar Square last August. The musicians performed the wonderful Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s composition DreamCity to the thousands watching in the square and online.

What inspired the programme selection that you are playing at the Bath Forum in March (Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers, Antonin Dvorak’s American Suite and Schumann’s Symphony No 2)?
These are works the orchestra and I know well, and all of them are special. What I love in creating programmes is throwing pieces into the mixing bowl of the concert and seeing how subtle relationships emerge in the playing. I love to cook, and creating a concert programme is like putting together a dinner menu. During lockdown, when we were reduced because of social distancing to a maximum of 70 players gathering together, the restrictions encouraged us to explore a new repertoire which was in many ways liberating. Dvorak’s American Suite was a piece we played during this time, and it was terrific, so we want to share it again.

How important has it been for you to play 20th century and modern as well as established classical works?
Music never stops evolving, and human nature is such that artists respond to the moment as well as the past and that’s what keeps us fresh, innovative and properly stretched as musicians.

Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers depicts the working lives of women who worked in the Bryant and May match factory. Can the listener pick up the correlations between the music and this story?
Absolutely – I’ve conducted Hannah’s piece a few times already, both with LSO and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) for their centenary. I’m doing it again because I think it’s a knockout piece that makes no concessions and which always grabs orchestras and audience by the lapels and never lets go!

It has established itself in the repertory. Hannah is such a powerful composing talent and I love the fact that she has found inspiration for her piece in a real event and an unusual one. I am interested in how a musician responds creatively to events going on around them.

You started off as a child playing piano, violin and percussion. What was your first experience of conducting?
I began playing percussion and piano as a kid, at age 11. I played percussion with the Merseyside Youth Orchestra and took up conducting, making my debut with my own orchestra in Liverpool when I was only 15. In 1971, I entered the Royal Academy of Music in London on a piano scholarship, but it was conducting that drew me. Conducting never comes naturally; I never stop learning from composers and from fellow musicians. It’s this daily challenge that keeps me stimulated and working. It makes no difference if it’s a piece I know well or a new work; every time you play these creations you find something new to explore or refine.

You have always aspired to present classical/orchestral music to a broader audience. Why is this important?
What we have with music is evolutionary, as different cultures develop their voice and find the means to share their indigenous sounds. And as technology challenges and enhances how we make musical sounds, so new musical genres emerge. They add to the mix that’s on offer to music lovers. In the end there’s room for everything, and there’s more out there for audiences to encounter. Your route to music may be through pop, rock, rap or jazz, but it may well lead to classical, and that’s fine with me.

You grew up in Liverpool and describe yourself as having been surrounded by music of all types. What was it on your journey that drew you to particular styles of music?
I suppose it must have been the early experiences I had through school and youth orchestra, or going to concerts and being bowled over by what I heard and saw. I grew up in Liverpool in the 1960s when they were doing the first Mahler full symphony cycle in the UK, at a time when Mahler was having a real rebirth, led by Leonard Bernstein, a hugely influential figure in the music world at that time who espoused all Mahler’s symphonies. It is extraordinary to think that was the middle of the sixties, but nobody had played all the symphonies with one conductor; it had only been done in Utah. One forgets how off-centre Mahler was in the time before Bernstein.

I remember hearing all kinds of bits, but actually the Symphony No. 10 was one of the first I heard live. Of course, the thing that completely knocked me sideways when I was 11 or 12 was hearing the Symphony No. 2 – that’s the reason why I am a conductor today. It was a time when all this came to the forefront and so Mahler has been part of my life forever.

If you wanted to educate someone who knew very little of classical orchestral pieces, what composers and works would you suggest they started with?
Oh that’s a tough question; it’s impossible to say. I remember being introduced to certain pieces of music because it was felt that they were important, recognised as masterpieces, but then found that one’s response to music is much more personal and visceral, influenced by the moment you hear it for the first time, or the circumstances in which you encounter it. So, I really don’t believe that there are any rules that need to be adhered to – just to keep an open mind.

What musical figures would you have liked to have met?
I have always said I would love to have met Haydn; his music is so expressive, varied, accomplished and infused with wit – and of course he was prolific. He would be a great dinner companion. In 2023 you will take up the role of Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. Will you be based there?

I live in Berlin and that’s where I intend to stay. My work requires a concert hall, and preferably one within reasonable distance from home. I have made the decision that I would like to be closer to my family for longer stretches of time. But I remain committed to the wonderful orchestra family that is the LSO and look forward to many musical adventures together in the future.

Can you compare the musical tastes of German and British audiences?
I will try to explain the difference between the two orchestras, one German, one British, and this might apply to audiences too. For me the Berlin Philharmonic will always be a deep, dark, rich red wine. And the LSO will be a stunning white wine. There are national characteristics. There is a weight of sound in Berlin which comes from the bowels of the earth, which is particularly German. Then there is a kind of silvery, wonderful flexibility of many different types of character which is a particularly English thing. The characteristic I have always loved in England and which attracted me is that they will try anything. They will always talk about the future. Added to which is English humour about more or less everything. With the LSO I am working with an orchestra that has an extraordinary 115 years history, but absolutely will not admit to the idea of looking back to anybody. They look forward. They say, ‘What’s next, what can we do that’s new?’ And this is the most extraordinary refreshing and moving thing.

What piece of music do you never tire of?
Where to start? Well, let’s just say that the LSO’s 2022/23 season which is my final one as Music Director has given me the chance to explore some of the works I particularly wanted to revisit and also some new pieces, which are so stimulating. We announce at the end of March, so you’ll just have to wait and see what’s in store.

London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Simon Rattle performs at Bath Forum on 14 March, 7pm. Sir Simon Rattle will take up a lifetime role as Conductor Emeritus from 2023 onwards.

Photography credit: Mark Allan