Amid the disaster that has befallen classical music during the Covid-19 pandemic, one longs for a reason to be cheerful, some good news amid the ruin of cancelled concerts and festivals and destroyed livelihoods. Finally there is some. All around the country, orchestras and venues are stirring cautiously back to life, and some are even welcoming back audiences.
The London Symphony Orchestra is among them, offering an autumn season at the Barbican that mixes live broadcast concerts in the evening with chamber concerts at lunchtime, many of them broadcast on BBC Radio 3. From November, the orchestra will return to the Barbican, with socially distanced audiences. The orchestra’s music director, Simon Rattle, is back in town to conduct several of these, leaving his family ensconced in Berlin. How has the lockdown been for him?
“Look, as somebody who lives in a country which has been more successful dealing with the plague than this one, and lives in a house with a large garden, I realise I truly am one of the lucky ones,” he says. “Anyone who can say, ‘There have been real benefits from this time’ must be among the privileged few.” Nevertheless, Rattle believes the pandemic will force orchestras to rethink deeply ingrained habits of mind. “We’ve been asking ourselves, ‘How must we change in the future?’ For instance, this season we had 99 days on tour. Under any circumstances that’s bordering on insanity. Remember these are tours that for the players begin at 6am in Stanstead – it’s not a leisurely trip in business class!
“I think travel is going to be much harder and we will have to find revenue streams that aren’t touring, which is a challenge because that’s how we’ve always survived. It’s not absolutely over, but it will be enormously diminished. Orchestras will have to become more local, and so every orchestra will have to cultivate its own patch more intensively, and take care not to tread on other people’s patch.”
Are we behind Europe when it comes to reopening? “What’s been clear is that performing institutions have really had to push our politicians. Of course no one wants audiences to feel unsafe, and we have to make sure players are confident in being safe to go into work, but within those limitations we’ve been creative, I think.“We put up a big tent outside LSO St Luke’s to act as a state-of-the-art filming and recording studio. We got involved with a wonderful start-up company which has allowed all the players to be tested. But it is frustrating to be always behind Europe.” He says the arts world as a whole is grateful for the Government’s “generous and unexpected” support package, which was announced in July. But the devil is in the detail.
“As we expected, the money due in September is only going to institutions which are about to go bankrupt,” he says. “So, of course, organisations like ours which have funds in reserve have to spend them. This is completely understandable. But this situation will come back again in March, and it’s very alarming that there may be not a levelling up but a levelling down, that we may only be able to apply for any future help when we are nearly dead. This is seriously worrying.”
Right now, Rattle is busy preparing for a concert due to be broadcast tomorrow, and as we speak has on his desk something that will be a first for the orchestra: a symphony by George Walker, the remarkable African-American composer and pianist. For the conductor, it’s the culmination of a process of discovery that began some years ago. “He’s a name I just knew by hearsay, and I was spurred to look deeper into his music by a [newspaper] article which sang his praises. Until then, I am ashamed to say I knew none of his music at all. When I looked closer I discovered this really astonishing multitalented musician, with an extraordinary story. He was first in a number of ways; the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, the first African-American to play major piano concertos with big-league American orchestras.”
When Rattle tracked down some scores, he discovered something he wasn’t at all expecting. “It doesn’t fit into one’s picture of what American music could be, it doesn’t belong to any school. What struck me first of all is that it’s wonderfully written, with great finesse, but also it’s really tough modern music. It doesn’t follow the rule so many American pieces follow, which is that it must be accessible, work well on relatively little rehearsal, and not frighten the horses. It is really extraordinary music by a really wonderful composer.”
Rattle was all set to give the UK premiere of Walker’s large-scale Fifth Symphony at this year’s Proms, conducting Britain and Europe’s first BAME-majority orchestra Chineke!, but the pandemic put paid to that when the entire season was scrapped. Instead, he’s conducting the smaller-scale Fourth Symphony. “It’s a wonderful piece but it simply doesn’t have a sweet tooth. It is very serious and absolutely symphonic in the way it focuses on just a handful of ideas.” Did he ever meet Walker, who died in 2018 at the age of 96? “Yes, several times towards the end of his life, when he showed me some of his scores. He was this vastly benevolent, rather twinkly gentleman who was calm and in a way above it all, but also desperate for his music to get the public hearing he knew it deserved.”
I ask Rattle whether he feels this could be the first step in a general re-evaluation of Walker’s music. “I certainly hope so. It’s a large output, and there are probably a goodly number of really excellent pieces. The truth is, I’ve only skimmed the surface. And of course this is the time to look into neglected composers, when we’re completely revamping all our programmes. This is the moment when we can do some of the things we’ve been talking about for years. We don’t have to think, ‘What will work for a big audience?’ or ‘What will work on tour?’ We can be quick on our feet, we can explore other things.
“We must do more music by female composers, and in the wake of Black Lives Matter we really have an obligation to look into black composers. Of course, I feel a special responsibility to black composers in this country, and we have some really fine ones. Hannah Kendall and Daniel Kidane are both really interesting in very different ways.”
Is he optimistic in general about the future of his profession? “I desperately want to be optimistic. Knowing the arts scene in this country, I’m aware how resilient it is, how people have done extraordinary things on very little, but there is the danger that without ongoing support the foundations of our cultural life will simply disintegrate. I just hope that over the coming months the Government will stay with us. People really need a helping hand, to show they’re not battling this situation on their own.”
The LSO and Simon Rattle’s performance of George Walker’s Fourth Symphony “Strands” will be broadcast on Marquee TV tomorrow. For tickets, go to: lso.co.uk/whats-on