Simon Rattle says Barbican hall can't fit in a fifth of LSO's repertoire

Orchestra’s musical director in waiting says new major venue is needed but acknowledges challenges of building one

Sir Simon Rattle has expressed optimism that a new world-class concert hall will be built in London and said it was very much needed as the London Symphony Orchestra’s current venue, the Barbican, was not able to accommodate about a fifth of the entire orchestral repertoire.

Rattle, who takes up the baton as the LSO’s music director in September, said a new hall was “an if not a when” but he acknowledged that the mooted cost of £278m was too high in the current climate.

The concert hall proposal, for a site currently occupied by the Museum of London, sharply divides opinion. It had been in danger of being derailed when the government last November withdrew £5m that George Osborne had committed to pay for a business plan. Last Thursday the Corporation of London said it would plug the gap, providing up to £2.5m.

That was perfect timing given Rattle was due to announce the first stage of his plans for the LSO’s future.

On Tuesday he revealed that every season in the Rattle era would open with a celebration of British music, while 2017-18 highlights would include concerts featuring the music of Bernstein, Debussy and Shostakovich; and an ambitious staging of Stockhausen’s Gruppen in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

But questions surrounding the planned concert hall hung heavily at the season launch.

Rattle was blunt about the limitations of the Barbican. “It is very clear we can do a lot of wonderful work at the Barbican, but it is also clear there is about 20% of the repertoire that we can’t,” he said. “In my wishlist of pieces there is so much which simply would not work there.“The stage was beautifully designed for a certain size orchestra. It was not designed for a very large orchestra and it was certainly not made with a chorus in mind.”

He said modern masterpieces such as Boulez’s Rituel and Henze’s The Raft of the Medusa could not be performed on the Barbican’s stage. Nor could Berlioz’s Requiem, and then “there are pieces which we play at the Barbican which we probably shouldn’t for health and safety reasons.

“If you can imagine the amount of sound that comes out of a small stage with an orchestra crammed on too close to each other. It may be fun to listen to the Alpine Symphony in the Barbican but I don’t think the RSPCA would allow it … and sometimes you need some space and air for the sound to expand and develop.”

Rattle acknowledged that the example of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, which opened last week six years late and, at €789m, 10 times over budget, was not a good one.

The Herzog and De Meuron-designed hall is “unearthly beautiful” but “not a terribly good advertisement for what we are trying to do,” he said. “We are all aware that we are in straitened times and straitened circumstances ... and we will have to raise an enormous amount of money.”

The original estimate to build a new concert hall, called the Centre for Music, was £278m. “The figure is, realistically, too high,” said Rattle. “There is work to do. We have to see what is possible, everything has to be on the table and that is a long process.”

He added that “anyone with half a brain, even a conductor” could appreciate the arguments when people said there were better things for the government to spend considerable sums of money on. “It is very important that we are looking at other ways of funding it.”

The Barbican stage
The crowded Barbican stage. Photograph: Mark Allan

The issue of a new concert hall for the capital is a contentious one. Detractors argue that there are first-rate concert halls in Gateshead, Edinburgh and Birmingham, home to Rattle’s former employer, the City of Birmingham orchestra, which was last month told that the city council is proposing a 25% cut in funding.

But should not the capital also have a world-class venue, argue supporters who say that neither the Barbican nor the Royal Festival Hall are in the top league of world-class halls.

“Of course there are wonderful arguments for the project and there are wonderful arguments against the project,” said Rattle.

“What we have now is the opportunity to explore more and find out what this can be. There are so many questions ... it is an if not a when. But in every way it will be terribly important for the LSO, for London, and for orchestras in the country to have something where we can explore [music] in a different way.”

Rattle begins as music director in September and completes his tenure at the Berlin Philharmonie in 2018 – an “ insane” situation of running two orchestras at the same time, he admitted, and something “I promised myself I would never do in my life”.

His first decision was to open the season with a celebration of British music in a programme including works by Adès, Birtwistle, Knussen, Elgar and a new commission for rising star Helen Grime.

The British opening was a “no brainer” he said. “The LSO has been at the vanguard of supporting British music since it was founded and it seemed perfectly obvious to me that this should be the way to start the season and it will be the way to start every season.

“Here we are in this country with maybe the most gifted group of living composers in any country in the world. Not to celebrate it would be idiocy. It is a goldmine to explore.”

Asked if he was responding to Ukip, he joked: “I have a whole mailbox full of Ukip begging for a Harrison Birtwistle cycle.”

The Rattle era will also include more baroque works, more Schumann and more getting the LSO out and about in London.

The performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen at Tate Modern would be an “event”, he said. “This is only the start. There are many spaces where we can have wild and wonderful adventures.”

The aim of all orchestras is to engage better with new and younger audiences and to that end the LSO also announced a new £5 ticket scheme for under-18s, and a “half-six fix” programme of one hour-long concerts at 6.30pm.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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