Simon Rattle always used to say he’d never want a London orchestra: the working conditions were too tough, the budgets too constraining. He was better off in Berlin, where for 15 years he’s had control of the uniquely privileged Berlin Philharmonic.
But we somehow all believed that Britain’s star conductor would eventually bed down with Britain’s leading orchestra, the London Symphony. It felt inevitable. And last week it happened, when he opened his first season as the LSO’s incoming music director.
To say there was a sense of occasion about this concert would be an understatement: it was like a wedding party, with the maiden aunts in celebration frocks. And if the repertoire wasn’t exactly what a party-goer would expect, it was a statement of intent, proclaiming Rattle’s seriousness of purpose in his new job.
Everything was English. And apart from Elgar, the composers were all living, with the firework flourish of a specially written orchestral fanfare by Helen Grime leading to Thomas Adès’s abrasive modern classic Asyla, Harrison Birtwistle’s epic Violin Concerto and Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony. As programmes go, this was no easy ride: it was demanding, difficult and long. But it was also Rattle saying: “Trust me: I can open up this music, make it worth your time.”
And he’s persuasive. There’s no compromise, he doesn’t fudge the problems or invite you to relax like Classic FM: he rewards hard listening. The Asyla dazzled, the Concerto (soloist Christian Tetzlaff) had a knife-edge potency that took you through the score anxious at every turn to know what happened next. Only the Elgar disappointed slightly, by comparison with the supremely cultivated Elgar that Daniel Barenboim brought to the Proms the other month. But it was warm and passionate, delivered with the loving care that Rattle readings guarantee. Care was a missing factor under Valery Gergiev’s regime at the LSO. Thank God it’s back.
For more than 40 years the Royal Opera ran the same John Copley staging of Puccini’s La Bohème; it was much-loved but in dire need of replacement. Now we have a new one done by Richard Jones, a Bohème for our times. The fussy, fading opulence of old has given way to something fresh, clean and chiselled, with the close-to-cartoon boldness Jones is known for. It works perfectly.
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