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‘We need joy … and an audience’: The return of Simon Rattle and the LSO

·11-min read

The musicians arrange themselves – distanced, mostly masked – on the stage the London Symphony Orchestra has called home for 40 years, but from which it hasn’t played for 14 pandemic months. After all this time without live music, just the sound of tuning up sends a shiver down the spine.

This is the LSO’s rehearsal for the last of many concerts streamed around the world during Covid, before welcoming its first live audience on Tuesday. “And now, here we are,” says principal conductor Sir Simon Rattle, “the LSO returning to the Barbican, and our public. And we all keep saying: ‘Oh my God, how we have missed this.’”

Related: ‘Help us or LSO fails’: Sir Simon Rattle’s plea over Covid and Brexit

For this concert, the orchestra plays Mahler’s shattering Das Lied von der Erde – The Song of the Earth. For Tuesday’s emergence from coronavirus, though: “We need pure joy,” says Rattle – it’ll give Dvořák’s effervescent Slavonic Dances.

But it has been a hard road. The last time the LSO played this stage was March 2020, for Vaughan Williams’s desolate wartime symphonies Nos 4 and 6; Britain locked down that night.

The orchestra was initially silenced, then based at its own space in a converted church, LSO St Luke’s, the venue for the beginning of the end of isolation last week, with the Observer a grateful audience of one.

On its night, this orchestra is probably better than any in the world, selling out tour dates across the planet. At LSO St Luke’s there’s a new kind of announcement from stage manager Nathan Budden: “Covid protocol please: wash hands, wear masks, distancing and a one-way system.”

Rattle – “Simon” to the players – sets to work on a Symphonic Synthesis by Leopold Stokowski of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. For an initial run-through, he ascends a spiral stair to the gallery to listen, annotating his score accordingly.

Then Rattle navigates the players through two days of this colossal music. He secures what he wants with collaborative charm. During the duet between forbidden lovers: “Quieter! – it’s like, ‘We’re down here – let all this be secret.’”

The oceanic heave of Isolde’s Liebestod, Love-death, inhales and exhales the piece towards climax and completion – Rattle’s movements surfing its waves – a beguiling, ravishing sound.

Rattle and I savour a cappuccino outdoors at his preferred cafe. The conductor reflects on what has led to this moment. “Everyone has their own reaction to this pandemic, and for musicians, there’s a particular one, I think, given how much of our identity is bound up with our work … music is part of our nervous system. And among the many effects of this pandemic is the fact that none of us in the music community will ever take a single note or chord for granted again.”

Yet there are new musical obstacles: “We play differently, separated,” says Rattle. “Everything is a fraction of a second late – we have to deal with space in an orchestra, space between musicians. People are sending signals to the person still next to them, but further away; I think people are looking at one another much more.”

However: “We’ve gone from a pandemic – people dying, people on ventilators – to rehearsals for a concert that welcomes back the public. I’m amazed at the speed with which the LSO has put themselves and all this together; these people are always ready for the next challenge thrown at them, but there have been few – if any – like this. It’s almost like the members of your family you’ve not been able to visit, because that is what the LSO is.”

Lilac-haired Maxine Kwok of the first violin section reflects: “The hardest thing was to be without the orchestra,” she says. London-born to a family from Hong Kong, she adds: “I’m someone who if they cut me in half, would look like a stick of Brighton rock with the LSO logo through it. When it was taken away, I realised the degree to which the orchestra is in my blood.”

Rachel Gough, principal bassoon, wonders: “If there is such a thing as epigenetics, which I believe there is, we’ve all had our DNA changed by being part of the LSO. It’s part of our lives and our being.”

But there’s a range of reactions to lockdown among the musicians.

“I live in the Barbican,” says Kwok. “Every day I looked at the hall, wondering: when will we be back? I played in the garden of St Bartholomew’s church in Smithfield; residents listened from their windows and someone said to me that her mother had passed way from Covid; they were unable to play music at the funeral, and I’d played that music instead. We became friends over that.”

“I learned to ride a motorbike,” says Gareth Davies, principal flute, from Wales. “Something I’ve always wanted to do. The bikers were knowledgable about classical music, so we had a deal: if I passed my test, I’d play to them. I found myself on a racetrack, giving my first solo concert of the lockdown: Syrinx, by Debussy, wearing leather trousers – my Jim Morrison look.”

Among the orchestra’s longest-serving members is cellist Noël Bradshaw, who recalls how “as I left for the country, I picked up a great pile of music I’d copied years ago but never had time to play. I found myself every evening, getting out my cello, playing this music for no one else but myself – and enjoyed that. I found it cathartic, and a relief for a while.”

Gough reacted differently: “I felt completely disconnected. Not just from the orchestra, but from my whole identity, my raison d’être. So much of what we do is playing those notes together and weaving that web of music between us, and to have that taken away is just not possible. I started to question what we do: does it matter? We’re not healthcare workers or doctors. There was a stasis; I pretty much put my bassoon away – I didn’t see any reason to get it out.”

LSO operations manager Alan Goode from Dublin cut his teeth as road manager for the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan. He says: “When it all shut down, I thought: I’ve got four kids that need feeding. So I retrained.” Goode produces a lanyard from inside his sweater reading “police officer”. “Yes,” he says. “Metropolitan police special constabulary – part-time, with the option to become full-time if the arse falls off the music industry. I’ve learned a lot on the frontline of real life.”

The LSO’s singular playing derives in part from being a self-governing collective which elects officers and selects its conductors. But this also means that LSO musicians are freelance – “we don’t get paid if we don’t play”, says Davies.

“Immediately,” deduced managing director Kathryn McDowell, “we knew there had to be a way of sustaining the orchestra. This is their livelihood. I wanted to reassure everyone that somehow we’d come through, not knowing then quite how we would achieve this.”

From July 2020, the orchestra began a revelatory experiment, music-making into cyberspace: symphonic, chamber and experimental concerts from LSO St Luke’s to a worldwide audience. “The LSO had found a thread to drag us through this,” says Gough. “The first chords resounded through me; it was just so moving to play together again, working together, even at a distance.”

“We had the basis for it all,” says McDowell of digital platforms and partnerships operated for years. “But in terms of adapting to the crisis, we accelerated three years in three months.”

“The pandemic gave us time to reflect on things we can do,” says the orchestra’s chairman David Alberman, of the second violin section. “We’ve always known that an orchestra can be used for limitless permutations. Now, Covid will force us into opportunities like never before.” Accordingly, young composers’ work is further highlighted, diversity prioritised, more experimental pieces premiered.

But convening the orchestra created inevitable problems, principally for Goode. “The first thing was to keep people safe, Covid-wise. And I’m proud to say that we’ve operated in LSO St Luke’s for 10 months now, and no one has caught the virus from anyone else in the orchestra or staff – that was our most important job. But it was demanding – every time Boris made an announcement, trying to decipher what he was saying. It’s been about changing risk assessment. Are there too many people? Are there enough people? Is it within budget?

“And now we’re back at the Barbican. When the orchestra came in this morning – wow, it was like putting on a favourite old pair of shoes.”

A sign of the zeitgeist, the LSO plays an arrangement of The Song of the Earth for reduced orchestra, by Glen Cortese. No one could miss the cogency of the programming: soon after the orchestra was last here, death stalked the land just as it burst to life in spring – and that is what Das Lied is about. “A piece about human life and human mortality in nature,” says Bradshaw. “We return to nature, we die with nature, and we have to be at peace with that.”

“Make of it what you will,” Rattle said. “What music means to us is slightly different after all this. There has been so much death, and this is about death, but also about nature renewing itself, about how there is a beyond.”

“Why that programme?” asks McDowell. “In some ways, perhaps, a look back at what has been a very challenging year for everyone. And to move forwards. What’s that piece about? We die, but as part of some natural cycle. And perhaps we have to be more mindful of each other, mindful of our existence and the way we live.”

So, over 72 hours of rehearsal and performance, the LSO’s Das Lied von der Erde becomes a redemptive requiem for – and resurrection from – the ravages of Covid-19.

Rattle repairs to row M of the stalls, lamp over the score; his wife, Magdalena Kožená, who will sing mezzo-soprano, sits across the aisle.

Then both take the stage for the finale: Abschied – farewell – and its haunted opening three-note motif, played like an incantation by Juliana Koch on the oboe. Rattle is meticulous – to the strings: “Can you just make that note 3 or 4% longer, so it sends a message?” Kožená reaches the devastating final passage, wherein Davies on flute accompanies the mezzo, scored “morendo”“dying away”.

Next day, it’s dress rehearsal: Kožená wears a shawl which spreads with her arms to look like a magpie’s wings; her crystalline song splinters the air in an empty hall. The playing of Mahler’s tapestry of sound is almost painfully beautiful, and finally the mezzo’s dialogue with flute fades … “It all comes down to a whisper,” Davies said, “as close to silent as we can get.”

Musicians talk about alchemic occasions when some inexplicable spell falls, and Mahler last Saturday was one such night. Why?

Cellist Bradshaw reflects: “I thought it was a concert for us. I think we connected with what’s happened over the past year, a catharsis, working through that piece together, back in the Barbican at last … An exorcism of the pandemic and its hardships.”

Related: Antonio Pappano to replace Simon Rattle at London Symphony Orchestra

Who’s to judge? At the end, stage lights dim to pitch dark, and when they come back up, Rattle tells the orchestra: “This is my 45th year doing this music, but that’s the most beautifully I’ve ever heard it played.”

On Tuesday, the public returns. “A musician without an audience is not complete,” says Rattle. “We play for ourselves, and for one another – and we feel what we feel. But we play differently for an audience, and that difference constitutes a performance, and is part of what we do.”

For Alberman, the public “has been like a missing limb. We’ve prepared concerts for streaming to huge audiences. But what we don’t get are those phantasmagorical, unreal but real, intangible but tangible things that happen with an audience.”

It is McDowell’s job is to remind everyone: “We’re back in the Barbican with an audience for the first time in a long, hard time. But we’re not out of the woods. We already had the basis for what was needed to survive the lockdown – now we have to find a way to stay together, doing what we do, and continue at the level of quality we want to produce.”

Kwok adds: “Ultimately, we do this because we want to share this music. When the public arrives, it will have felt like a hell of a journey. I’ll probably shed a tear.”