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Britain’s best-known conductor is off to Germany. But he’s not going quietly

Unintentionally adding salt to the wound, Sir Simon Rattle revealed that he has also applied for German citizenship
British conductor Sir Simon Rattle stands in front of members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Berliner Philharmoniker) after conducting his last symphony concert as the orchestra's chief conductor on June 20, 2018 in Berlin. (Photo by Annette Riedl / dpa / AFP) / Germany OUT / LARGER VERSION (Photo credit should read ANNETTE RIEDL/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Conductor leaves orchestra’ is not usually a hold-the-front-page news story – except, of course, when the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, and the orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). Britain’s best-known baton wielder has just announced that he is to leave the LSO in 2023 to take up a position with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.

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Much was made of Rattle’s return to the UK in 2017, following a lengthy stint leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle’s homecoming was accompanied by controversial support for a new concert hall in London. (The conductor reportedly said of the Royal Festival Hall, “The will to live slips away in the first half-hour of rehearsal.”)

The LSO’s home at the Barbican is a brutalist rabbit warren with a relatively clean acoustic but, like the Royal Festival Hall, its distinctive architectural design hasn’t aged well. Initially championed by former UK Chancellor George Osborne, plans for a new multimillion-pound 17-storey music centre – with accessible open foyer – were unveiled in 2019.

As the music world grapples with the continued complications caused by Brexit, and the ongoing struggles of the pandemic, the idea of building a new concert hall in London right now – even through private donations – seems laughable. The Guardian’s chief culture writer Charlotte Higgins wrote that “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”.

Adding salt to the wound, Rattle revealed that he has also applied for German citizenship

Much as I would enjoy the odd visit to a sparkling venue in the heart of ‘The City’, is it really acceptable to build an elite hall when thousands of musicians around the country have lost their livelihoods? And, will there be anyone left to visit the architect’s intended ‘education pods’ – glazed rooms where school children are imagined to look in on rehearsals – if music education continues to be marginalised?

Unintentionally adding salt to the wound, Rattle revealed that he has also applied for German citizenship. His new passport will allow him to work freely around the EU, something that the conductor deems a “necessity” for musicians. This announcement comes amid uncertainty surrounding touring post-Brexit.

Although industry groups have lobbied tirelessly for various exemptions for musicians, as the UK has now left the EU, most musicians will require a work permit to perform in each member state. For large ensembles, this is an enormous blow. According to the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), in 2019, UK orchestras generated £14.4m of earned income from foreign touring – of which £8.4m came from tours in the EU.

“It is fair to say that this will make multi-country touring significantly more complicated and expensive,” reads an official ABO statement. There’s an added, little-reported complication regarding road haulage: current agreements limit this to no more than two laden journeys before the operator must bring their vehicle back to the UK. This makes the standard touring model of moving musical instruments by truck from the UK to venues in multiple countries impossible. The UK’s orchestras will need to look at hiring in European road haulage operators at additional expense – and environmental cost.

Rattle is not the only conductor with a surprise announcement. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who has been music director of Rattle’s alma mater the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) since 2016, has decided to step down from her position in 2022, moving to the role of principal guest conductor. Gražinytė-Tyla, the first female CBSO music director and first female conductor to sign with record label DG, will leave an impressive programming legacy in Birmingham.