Simon Rattle to Leave the London Symphony for Munich

By Joshua Barone

As Brexit takes effect, Mr. Rattle, a British-born conductor with a family in Germany, said that he would take the helm of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2023.

The conductor Simon Rattle with the London Symphony Orchestra, which he will leave in 2023 to lead the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.
The conductor Simon Rattle with the London Symphony Orchestra, which he will leave in 2023 to lead the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.Credit...Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Joshua Barone

Simon Rattle, the acclaimed British-born conductor, returned to his home country several years ago to lead the London Symphony Orchestra — to fanfare and hopes of a new concert hall. But as Brexit takes effect and the prospects for that new hall remain far from certain, Mr. Rattle announced on Monday that he would leave in 2023 to take the helm of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.

Mr. Rattle, 65, said in a statement that the reasons for his departure were “entirely personal.” His wife, the singer Magdalena Kozena, and their three school-age children live in Germany. But the announcement came as Brexit moved forward, which Mr. Rattle has long warned would do harm to Britain’s cultural life and the fortunes of touring orchestras like the London Symphony.

His pending departure is “a real loss to the U.K.’s music scene,” Nicholas Kenyon, the managing director of the Barbican Center and Mr. Rattle’s biographer, said in an email. “And the emerging joint impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit is a deeply concerning issue for the future.”

The London Symphony said that Mr. Rattle would extend his contract by just one year, until 2023 — a shorter extension than is usually desired by orchestras, which plan their seasons long in advance. Starting with the 2023-24 season, he will be the Bavarian Radio Symphony’s first chief conductor since the death of Mariss Jansons in 2019. (Mr. Rattle will take an emeritus position in London, allowing him to continue to lead projects there.)

“My reasons for accepting the role of principal conductor in Munich are entirely personal,” he said in the statement, “enabling me to better manage the balance of my work and be close enough to home to be present for my children in a meaningful way.” Mr. Rattle’s family is based in Berlin, where he led the Berlin Philharmonic from 2002 to 2018.

Mr. Rattle declined to comment beyond that statement. But he has been a vocal critic of Brexit, which was voted on after he accepted the London Symphony post in 2015. And progress has been sluggish on the Center for Music, the much-desired new home for the orchestra that was conceived alongside Mr. Rattle’s appointment.

Simon Halsey, the choral conductor and a longtime close colleague of Mr. Rattle’s, emphasized in an interview that “there is no doubt that his main decision to go is family,” not frustration over Brexit or the Center for Music.

“He is in the lovely position of having young children,” Mr. Halsey said. “And one of the things that have happened is that Covid has made us think: How do I actually want to live my life? He wants to be at home.”

Mr. Rattle’s arrival in London was a major homecoming: He was born in Liverpool and rose to prominence as the young, galvanizing leader of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for nearly two decades, beginning in 1980.

His return renewed hopes for a major new hall. The London Symphony performs mostly at the Barbican Center, a space that Mr. Rattle once euphemistically described as “serviceable.” Plans were made for the Center for Music, which would house the orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and would be run by the Barbican. It would be built on the site of the Museum of London, which is in the process of constructing a new home in West Smithfield.

Mr. Rattle has been a rallying force behind the Center for Music — designed by the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with acoustics front of mind — but the project has faced difficulties, with unreliable funding pledges from the government and an uncertain timeline.

On the day of the Brexit vote, in 2016, Mr. Rattle was with the London Symphony musicians. Speaking with the Agence France-Press last year, he described their tearful reaction. “We actually couldn’t start the rehearsal before we had had a big discussion,” he said. “The older British musicians were the most emotional about what has happened to our country — that we are willing to cut ourselves off.”

Like many in the arts, Mr. Rattle has been opposed to Brexit. He has drawn attention to the European roots of the London Symphony, an orchestra first conducted by Hans Richter. And he expressed concern over the future of touring after Britain risked becoming a “self-built cultural jail.” While the London Symphony could previously travel to Europe en masse with little bureaucratic headache or delay, it now faces the prospect of long waits for customs, visas and more.

“Our touring life is completely different,” Mr. Rattle told the Agence France-Presse.

In Munich, Mr. Rattle won’t have to contend with those Brexit woes, but he will once again find himself involved in the building of a new concert hall, in the Werksviertel-Mitte area — a modern contrast to the neo-Classical Herkulessaal in the city center. The project, funded and led by the state of Bavaria, began while Mr. Jansons was still alive. Construction is expected to begin in 2022 and will likely last three or four years, Nikolaus Pont, the Bavarian Radio Symphony’s manager, said in an interview.

“The opening will fall into Simon Rattle’s reign as chief conductor,” Mr. Pont said, adding that Mr. Rattle would be involved in its development, particularly its educational programming.

In his statement, Mr. Rattle said that as a teenager in Liverpool, he saw Rafael Kubelik lead the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; the performance “became a kind of benchmark for me, a goal toward which musicians should strive.”

He first conducted the orchestra in 2010, leading the Schumann rarity “Das Paradies und die Peri,” and has returned for a variety of programs and recordings, including of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” and Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre.”

Mr. Pont said he told the orchestra’s musicians — or at least the few dozen who could gather under coronavirus protocols — about Mr. Rattle’s appointment at a rehearsal on Monday. They applauded for two minutes.

“I don’t think they were totally surprised,” he said. “But they were delighted.”