In 2002, the streets of Berlin were hung with banners reading, “Welcome, Sir Simon!” It was the year Simon Rattle took up his job as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. This was big news in the UK, too: he was our lad, a proper scouser. As a young man he had made the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra glitter like something magical, and now he was going to take on the most celebrated orchestra in the world. It was like when Gareth Bale was swept off by Real Madrid. The Sun ran a rapturous editorial.
Cut to 2015, and there was more big news: Rattle was coming home to be music director of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). It was his “last big job”. There was an enormous sweetener, too: the prospect of a brand-new concert hall, a “centre for music” in the City of London, backed by the then chancellor, George Osborne, who’d seen the point of the project after “speaking to the likes of Sir Simon Rattle”. These were exciting, optimistic times. “This has all moved so fast, it’s like going down Niagara Falls in a barrel,” Rattle told reporters at the time. He would, it was said, be at the centre of an architectural project as culturally transformative as Tate Modern.
That barrel got stuck. Although glamorous plans were unveiled in 2019 , the new hall is looking more and more like a fantasy. And now it is losing Rattle, its champion: it’s a kick in the teeth for London, a negation of that proud homecoming. It was confirmed on Monday that when his initial contract in London runs out in 2022 he’ll stay on for only another year, rather than go on indefinitely, as expected. Instead, he’s taken a job at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. It turns out that running the LSO is not so much Rattle’s “last big job” as his second-last big job. Munich also lacks a great auditorium, though the Bavarian orchestra all-innocently noted in a statement this week that it “looks forward enormously to developing the artistic concept” for a new concert hall in the city, “together with Sir Simon”. Rattle will remain the LSO’s conductor emeritus, working with them for a month a year, a quarter of his current commitment.
Rattle told LSO colleagues in a Zoom call on Monday that his decision is largely personal. He lives in Berlin, his wife is Czech, their young children are rooted in Germany. In a way, he hardly arrived in London at all. The past year of enforced absence from the endless, exhausting global concert circuit has given him a taste for home; Munich is four hours from Berlin by train, a short commute by an international conductor’s standards and a pleasant ride compared with the plane to London. The well-funded German orchestra has a civilised work schedule, unlike the brutally hardworking London bands.
His stated reasons are less interesting, though, than the wider backdrop. The concert hall feels like a pre-Brexit, pre-Covid project, one conceived when Osborne and David Cameron were entertaining fantasies about London’s future as an ever-expanding, ever-shinier global and European financial hub. But the plan always exemplified the capital’s dislocation from the rest of the UK. It looked decadent to an austerity-hit world beyond the M25, rather like the way that Crossrail looks enraging to anyone attempting to commute by train to more or less any other British city.
Then there is the big European rupture. In 2017, Rattle told the Guardian that he would have been “extraordinarily wary” of taking the LSO job if he’d known Brexit was on the way. I don’t suppose the current row about visa-free travel for cultural workers – that is, whose fault it is that there isn’t any – is making him regret his decision.
He’s not alone among City workers of various kinds: 10,000 jobs have already slipped away from the Square Mile. Chancellor Rishi Sunak may be talking a good game about a bright post-Covid, post-Brexit future for London as a financial centre, but euro share-trading has already tilted towards Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. The future of the City and the new hall are, of course, inextricably linked. The project is supposed to cost £288m, funded from private donations. Running costs are meant to be supported by the rental of office space within the building. Even if workers flood back to offices in the medium term, all this looks uncertain at best.
The concert hall – its architect Liz Diller of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, who designed New York’s Shed and High Line – is also snarled in delays that have nothing to do with Covid or Brexit. It’s supposed to occupy the site of the Museum of London, in turn meant to move to Smithfield Market – which is occupied by traders with leases that don’t expire till 2028. Would losing the hall be terrible? I’m not sure.
The rhetoric that London, by sole virtue of being London, deserves a “world-class concert hall” never seemed convincing. If Birmingham, or Gateshead, or Manchester have better halls than the capital, that is surely a good thing. The visionary architect Cedric Price (after whom the bar in the Shed is named, incidentally) once told a client to consider the idea that building a house wasn’t necessarily the answer to his problems. Perhaps, he suggested, the client would be better off getting a divorce. “Build a new concert hall in London” feels like the wrong answer to pretty much any question at the moment. Perhaps Rattle has it right: a quieter and more modest existence, one that’s more sustainable and less frenetic, is what London needs – and what it will probably get, like it or not.
Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer