Richard Morrison: London’s conductor exodus will bring fresh opportunities to the city

BBC Music Magazine columnist Richard Morrison on the imminent departures of Simon Rattle, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and what they mean for the future of the UK's classical music industry

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - [11 August]: Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO playing Mahler Symphony No9 at The Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh International Festival 2018 on August 11, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images)

Is it coincidence or something more ominous that six top UK orchestras are losing their music directors in quick succession? There was much press speculation when Simon Rattle announced he was quitting the London Symphony Orchestra after six years (barely a third of the time he served in Birmingham or Berlin), acquiring a German passport and moving to the excellent Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Clearly things haven’t worked out as the LSO would have wished.

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We recently named the London Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as two of the greatest orchestras in the world

But his departure is just the most newsworthy of many. A week later, the highly rated Mirga Gražiny-Tyla announced she was relinquishing the music director job at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Like Rattle, she cited ‘personal reasons’. That can mean anything.

Add to that the imminent departures of Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen from the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia respectively, and the expected departures in the next couple of years of Antonio Pappano from the Royal Opera House and Mark Elder from the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. It doesn’t add up to a crisis. But coming on top of COVID, and all the European touring problems British musicians are facing after Brexit, this mass exit of famous conductors certainly adds to a general impression of insecurity and drift in the British orchestral world.

My feeling is that, now more than ever, we need to accentuate the positive. Losing these big names not only gives our orchestras the chance to bring in a younger generation, but also to redefine what role they want their music directors to take. For environmental as well as medical reasons I don’t think we are ever going to return to a world in which famous conductors and orchestras spent a large proportion of their time roaming the globe. Nor do I think that global touring will be replaced by internet streaming – at least, not to the extent that would bring in the same sort of income.

No, we are moving into a ‘think local’ era. If they are to survive, our orchestras and opera companies will be required to embed themselves more in their own communities, engage more with local schools and universities, and expand their ‘offer’ to include therapeutic activity in the mental-health and social-services fields. That means having a music director who is prepared to lead vigorously and with intellectual vision in all those areas, and for many months a year. Not someone who flies in from Europe on a huge salary for a few weeks here and there, always assuming the planes haven’t been cancelled.

A good time to appoint a rising British conductor, then? There are plenty of them around, and the London Philharmonic has already gone down that route, admirably in my view, by picking Edward Gardner as Jurowski’s successor. Who else should be considered? Mark Wigglesworth is suddenly prominent again on the British scene, and conducting brilliantly; he would make a superb music director if he didn’t flounce out after 15 minutes. John Wilson is snobbishly underrated, but his repertoire extends far beyond Broadway musicals, and orchestras play with huge passion for him.

Jessica Cottis is an Aussie but embedded in the British scene where she’s done fantastic work, particularly in contemporary music. Nicholas Collon deserves a bigger British job than conducting Aurora, inspiring though that partnership has been. And Birmingham-born Alpesh Chauhan is making waves in Europe and deserves more prominence here.

This isn’t chauvinism talking. It’s making the most of the huge reservoirs of talent we have nurtured in this country. And it’s also acknowledging that even if the LSO, say, felt that it needed another big international name to replace Rattle, such figures are scarcer and scarcer. Far better to do what the Berlin Philharmonic did with Kirill Petrenko: select a conductor whom you feel will produce marvellous music-making, even if he or she has little public image outside your own country.

Conductors still matter, but the job specification has changed. Pomposity is out; approachability and flexibility much more highly prized. Britain’s musicians have been through an awful year and aren’t in the mood to tolerate the inflated egos and lecherous bullies who used to stalk the podiums. They want to be inspired, not intimidated. There are plenty of young conductors who can do that. We shouldn’t panic about the exodus of older ones. It’s an opportunity, not a disaster. In five years’ time we may be saying ‘Simon who?’.

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Richard Morrison is BBC Music Magazine’s columnist and chief music critic and a columnist of The Times. This column was published in the March 2021 issue of BBC Music Magazine.