Sir Simon Rattle describes the work of the London Symphony Orchestra

In a backstage area of ​​London’s Barbican Hall, members of the London Symphony Orchestra gather in a small cafe, sipping tea, chatting and managing to look the least like a group of the world’s finest musicians. Their musical director Sir Simon Rattle – a distinctive character thanks to his all-black outfit and crown of silver curls – moves between them with an easy familiarity.

Rattle, 67, likes to describe the LSO as a “pirate ship” — a go-anywhere, play-anything unit with a work ethic unmatched by competing orchestras. That’s partly because it’s self-managing; Members are not employees, they are stakeholders who have a say in everything from concert dress codes to tour schedules.

Sir Simon Rattle in action at London's St Paul's Cathedral.

Sir Simon Rattle in action at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.Credit:Markus Alan

In less than an hour, people in the café will change into monochromatic robes and take the stage to perform Janacek’s opera Katya Kabanova. Sibelius and Bruckner are in Paris tomorrow. A short tour of Germany will be followed by the British orchestra’s first visit to Australia since 2014.

Most musicians lead itinerant lives, but the LSO is in constant flux. It plays almost 110 concerts a year at the Barbican Hall, its London headquarters, and at nearby LSO St Luke’s, its chamber-sized educational and community centre. Up to 50 concerts are held in cities outside the UK each year. Rattle, who has captained the “pirate ship” since 2017, says “the way they have to work to survive would have most other international orchestras hospitalized within a month”.

“Somehow they survive and somehow, as exhausted as they are, they play at 110 percent intensity.”

Members of the London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Luke's, its educational and performance venue.

Members of the London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Luke’s, its educational and performance venue.

A good example of this. Rattle’s last concert as musical director of the LSO – he is changing at the end of the current season to take over the baton of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra – should have been The Last Night of the Proms in September. Berlin asked if the orchestra would play Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 the next day, and Bucharest made a similar request. So, Rattle’s time as the full-time director of the LSO [he will still work with them as Conductor Emeritus] ends in the Romanian capital.

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“Given the way the LSO must operate – the almost brutal schedule it follows to survive – the way it plays is even more extraordinary,” he says. “When you hear them live, you immediately see that this is not anyone’s job – in concert everyone gives maximum energy and intensity. This band has a long and colorful history, but the only time they speak about the past is to tell funny stories. They always ask, “What can we do differently? What can we do new?’ There is an energy and idealism here that I find incredibly touching.”

Rattle’s final concerts as musical director of the LSO – including dates in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne – will be emotional, he admits. “We’re very close and many of us have known each other for years.” But the Liverpool-born maestro, who first conducted the LSO aged 22, is a realist. Most of the musicians he worked with in Britain’s National Youth Orchestra have retired – “as any sane person would do”.

The appeal of family contributed to his decision to leave. During his 16 years as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin became his home. He bought a house on the outskirts of town, where his wife, the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, and their three children Jonas, Milos and Anezka still live today. He adjusted to cooking for them during the pandemic and the opportunity to enjoy family life while still leading a world-class orchestra was too good to resist.

Sir Simon Rattle says the London Symphony Orchestra's schedule ″⁣would have most other international orchestras hospitalized within a month″⁣.

Sir Simon Rattle says the London Symphony Orchestra’s schedule ″⁣would have most other international orchestras hospitalized within a month″⁣.Credit:Getty Images

For the LSO’s Australian performances, Rattle has selected music he loves for three different programmes. Highlights include Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 – “a piece with precisely the kind of intensity and complexity that characterizes the LSO” – and sun poema new work by the young British composer Daniel Zidane.

The most ambitious work, at least logistically, is harmony theory by the American John Adams. A minimalist piece written in 1985 begins with a volley of 39 E minor chords and calls for a notoriously large percussion section; an armory with marimbas, tubular bells, vibraphones, gongs and chimes. The LSO has never attempted to visit the work – until now.

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Enter Alan Goode, the LSO’s Operations Manager and the man responsible for moving tons of orchestral equipment around the world. In another life, the slim 47-year-old Dubliner was a tour manager for rock acts including The White Stripes and Shane MacGowan. Working with an orchestra, he concedes, is more “civilized.”

Civilized maybe, but anything but relaxing. Look at the numbers. The LSO is bringing its largest orchestra to date – a 120-strong touring group – to Australia at a time when air freight costs are skyrocketing. Goode says: “Post Covid we had issues with the availability and cost of cargo space. Obviously the war in Ukraine means planes have to travel longer distances and fewer planes are available.”

Money is not the only problem. Gone are the days when musicians circled the globe without paying attention to their impact on global warming. Even Coldplay got this email.

“We had to figure out how to get a little more nimble,” says Goode. “We’ve always been a pretty lean machine, but we’re evolving into an exceptionally sleek, green travel machine.”

A new approach was tested on the LSO’s recent tour of Japan and South Korea. Simple in theory, more difficult to implement. Instead of filling wide-body transport planes with all the equipment a touring orchestra needs, the LSO borrows equipment – the heavy percussion instruments needed to play harmony theory especially – by sister orchestras. In the case of Australia, that is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which signed a formal partnership with the LSO in November last year. Loans include marimbas, vibraphones, glockenspiels, tam-tams, bass drums, harps, and a celeste (or bell-piano).

Goode says, “Traditionally, this type of program has required the shipment of about six tons of equipment. [By borrowing equipment] We got it down to about four tons.”

For some musicians, playing a different instrument is a bit like asking Lewis Hamilton to drive a different car in a race.

Alan Goode

Of course, not every top musician enjoys playing someone else’s instrument, so the approach needs to be used with care. “For some musicians, playing a different instrument is a bit like asking Lewis Hamilton to drive a different car in a race,” says Goode. “It’s about finding the balance between saving and having the right tools in the right hands.”

Borrowed equipment is not the only measure that the LSO uses to slim down its air freight. Many of the orchestra’s violin and viola players have agreed to take their instruments on the plane as hand luggage. This may not sound revolutionary, but it’s remarkable when you consider that 90 percent of these instruments are normally shipped as cargo.

LSO violinist Belinda McFarlane is excited to be collaborating with Ensemble Dutala - Australia's first ensemble for classically trained First Nations musicians - in Melbourne.

LSO violinist Belinda McFarlane is excited to be collaborating with Ensemble Dutala – Australia’s first ensemble for classically trained First Nations musicians – in Melbourne.Credit:Tina Korhonen

Belinda “Bindi” McFarlane is an Adelaide-born violinist who joined the LSO in 1991. She clearly enjoys the Orchestra’s efforts to do things differently and plays a leading role in its charitable work in the UK and elsewhere.

As a member of the LSO’s Discovery team, McFarlane, 57, leads workshops with musicians of all ages and abilities. She looks forward to working with players from regional youth orchestras when she visits Sydney and with members of Ensemble Dutala – Australia’s premier ensemble for classically trained First Nations musicians – in Melbourne.

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“It’s the breadth of our work that I love,” she says. “From recording the soundtracks of Star Wars movies to collaborating with superstars of classical music and young people. I’ve worked with all these great conductors and a group of colleagues who are all so top notch. It’s a pleasure to be on stage with them.”

No more than Rattle, a conductor whom she describes as “a musician’s musician”; a man of strong ideas who still retains the ability to listen and contribute. “What I find most interesting about him is his insatiable appetite for all music and the integrity with which he approaches each piece,” says McFarlane.

“I think if a kid would draw him a picture and ask him to play it, he would give it the same intensity as Mahler 7, and I absolutely love that.”

The LSO is April 28th and 29th at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane; Sydney Opera House May 1-3; and Hamer Hall, Melbourne, on May 5 and 6. Tickets available now.

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Jaclyn Diaz

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