Shake, Rattle, and roll

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There was a warm frisson at the LSO’s St Luke’s Centre earlier in the week when Simon Rattle made his first appearance at a press conference as the orchestra’s new music director to announce his first season. He was so pleased to be there, and everyone was so pleased to see him there. At last, was the feeling, we’ll see a bit of action.

And will we ever. One of the events ticket touts will go crazy or with none of them having the slightest idea why will be Rattle’s staging of Stockhausen’s gargantuan Gruppen – the Groups. It’s rarely performed not so much because it’s beyond most audiences as because it’s so big: the groups are three orchestras playing alongside each other with completely different scores and instrument set-ups, under three different conductors. Rattle has done it before, ten years ago with the Berlin Philharmonic in Hangar 2 of Templehof Airport in Berlin before it closed. The critic Alex Ross in his seminal book The Rest is Noise, describes the half hour piece as “a controlled pandemonium” and wrote after witnessing that performance, “I had the impression that we had just heard the Big Bang run in reverse”. Rattle believes that three years ago, standing on the bridge inside Tate Modern with his painter son, before he had an inkling that he would be taking on the LSO, he suddenly knew that in the Turbine Hall he has the perfect venue for this extraordinary piece, so that's where it will happen in 2018. He says there are interesting and unconventional spots all over the London that he could make fit the right piece of music. Stockhausen and Rattle have something else in common in that in their youths they both had a certain amount of rock star status: hang on to your crepe soles, the joint is about to be jumping.

Suddenly there seems to be a lurch in expectations. Britain’s best musician who has become the ultimate European at the head of the world’s best symphony orchestra (the Berliner) has come home to take charge of what could be the world’s best orchestra.

As he controversially pointed out a couple of years ago, what holds the LSO back is the limitations of its present home, the Barbican Hall. Or any concert hall in London. He thinks the orchestra is able to perform at maybe 80% of its ability and capacity, and it needs the proposed Centre for Music to give this man’s boundless ambition the scope it needs.

But not, as he told The Guardian, at any price. The tag put on the centre in its initial planning was £278m, the figure that might have led the government to wash its hands of the proposal, and Rattle thinks that’s too much at a time of privation. But the Barbican’s management is now hinting that it could come in at a lot less, now that the business plan is under way with the Corporation of London stepping in where the Treasury used to be.

Rattle will shake things up in this town, there’s no doubt, and in the looming gloom his commitment to the UK deserves the space in which he can let some good times roll.


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