No Simon Rattle, and no new concert hall for London ... but we will survive

Britain is losing star conductors, plans for a glittering venue have been dumped, Brexit is hurting. But our orchestras will play on

Realism has prevailed. The City of London Corporation has zipped the cash back into its roomy pockets and cancelled the proposed £288m Centre for Music. No one is surprised. To proceed after this past year would have been folly.

Simon Rattle, as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra and one of the few recognisable faces of classical music, was its chief figurehead. He neither came to London because of a hall, nor is he departing because he can’t have it. That he was appointed in 2015, a year before the Brexit vote and its unravelling, may be more pertinent.

Yet he put his enthusiasm and clout behind what had seemed an exciting plan. Post-pandemic, post-Brexit, the world has changed. The money isn’t there.

Rattle, who lives in Germany, is going to a job in Munich, a city also trying to get a new concert hall yet in possession of a world-leading orchestra nonetheless. Musicians make music, not halls, though a nice one always helps.

What now? The arrow has swung. Grandiosity is out, sustainability and renewal are in. The corporation’s solution is that the Barbican Centre, approaching its 40th birthday, should be reconfigured for the 21st century. Those who love the Barbican, and many of us have learned to, will be overjoyed. It is a favourite haunt of the young who like the easy drift from cinema to theatre to concert hall to gallery and who, with GPS, have never struggled to find the place.

The building has had many surgical facelifts, some disastrous. Remember when nine Vegas-style gilded glass fibre muses adorned the entrance, leading us into a maddeningly dotted interior? The changes of 2001 made a radical improvement. The sums being whispered for this latest makeover are serious: £100m or more. That’s a full body lift.

While there’s no point rehearsing would-have-beens, a few points need stating. Despite assurances, the proposed venture risked favouring the capital and one well-oiled orchestra (it was to be home to the LSO), at the expense of the rest of the country and the other main London orchestras, who struggle to retain their identities in an un-shiny south bank home. There are fairer ways to determine whether London needs all its orchestras.

The biggest public loss is the music education facility the new venue promised. That said, institutions have proved nimble in achieving digital miracles during the pandemic. Anything can be streamed into a classroom. The Centre for Music may already have been outdated.

Is there any light in all this swirling gloom? It has been an incomparably tough time for musicians, with the simultaneous devastation of Covid-19, as well as the expensive, if not ludicrous, travel permit chaos caused by Brexit. Never has the need for musicians to unite – classical, pop, rock, jazz – been more acute. A single voice may be the quickest way to secure action from a dilatory government.

With Rattle’s departure, as well as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla quitting Birmingham, and Esa-Pekka Salonen and Vladimir Jurowski leaving London after long stints, we’re losing our most glittering figures. Conductors shouldn’t hold thrall in this way, but until the world has gone through a few more catastrophes, they still do. It feels like a disaster – not because there aren’t brilliant younger ones coming through, but because we admire them and they will be sorely missed. We must maintain our capacity to attract the world’s best musicians, as visitors or permanent fixtures, before it is too late.

Yet the nationwide classical scene has countless riches, from tiny festivals in churches to extravaganzas in car parks to operas in country idylls. Resourcefulness and quality are formidable. Without ceremony, in the past year Scottish Opera has created powerful opera on film; so too has Welsh National Opera, battling against the stringent Welsh lockdown. In the north of England, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Opera North in Leeds and Manchester’s Hallé all produced online gems. In Birmingham, the CBSO kept loyal audiences engaged. To the east, Aldeburgh’s Snape Maltings missed no opportunity to put on concerts; likewise Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, covering a swathe of the south and south-west.

Just writing this list stirs emotions, without even mentioning the individuals making music in kitchens or on rooftops or singing close harmony into smartphones. Once we’ve pushed through the present mire, we could be in a brave new world. At first it might seem smaller, more parochial, unnerving. Yet it may prove more ample and exceptional than ever.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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