Brexit will curtail orchestra touring warns Sir Simon Rattle

Rana MOUSSAOUI
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Brexit nightmare: Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle still can't believe that what he calls the "terrible mistake" of Brexit is actually happening.

Britain's biggest classical music star returned from the Berlin Philharmonic to lead the London Symphony Orchestra, his country's greatest and arguably most European orchestra.

The irony is not lost on the great conductor, who has made no secret of the fact that he would not have returned had he known Brexit might turn his homeland into a "self-built cultural jail".

The LSO "was always a European orchestra right from the start 100 years ago," Rattle told AFP, with its founding fathers mostly European and its first conductor, Hans Richter, a German.

Now with Brexit happening Friday, Rattle sees no way around having to curtail European tours.

"The practical difficulties will be immense because there never was any planning for Brexit," said the conductor, whose infectious passion for classical music and usually armour-plated optimism has won him fans across the world.

"Whenever we ask (government officials) what the situation will be with taking instruments from country to country, the answer is, 'Sorry? we have no idea.'

"We have three or four contingency plans for every tour now," said the conductor, who is taking the LSO to the renowned Aix-en-Provence festival in southern France in July.

"Last Friday we played in Frankfurt, and we were in Paris on Saturday. If all the instruments have to be inspected... there is no way they would have got from one country to another."

- Customs take 15 hours -

The customs checks and form-filling "takes 15 hours on average, which means our touring life is completely different," Rattle insisted.

While Sir Simon said that these "were small problems compared to what the delivery of food and medicine will be", two out of three of the LSO's concerts abroad are in Europe.

"We are one tiny business among hundreds of thousands who depend on Europe," he said.

Then there is the problem of the status of the LSO's musicians, who come from 26 countries -- 18 of them European.

Indeed, its principal guest conductor, Francois-Xavier Roth, is French.

Rattle -- who made his name at 25 when he powered the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra into the international big league, officially took the baton of the LSO in 2017, a year after the Brexit referendum.

"As it happens, I was with the orchestra on the day of the vote in 2016 and people were in tears.

"We actually couldn't start the rehearsal before we had had a big discussion, the older British musicians were the most emotional about what has happened to our country -- that we are willing to cut ourselves off."

With musicians Brian Eno, Rita Ora, Damon Albarn and Bob Geldof, Rattle signed an open letter to former British prime minister Theresa May in 2018 warning that Brexit would cause irreparable damage to the UK's cultural influence.

The only silver lining now Brexit is going ahead was the solidarity European concert halls were showing, said the 65-year-old, who is married to the Czech mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozena.

They are "saying we want to do more with you rather than less. But will it be easy? Absolutely not."

- No orchestral concert hall -

Rattle headed the Berlin Philharmonic, widely regarded as the world's best, for 16 years following the legendary Claudio Abbado and Herbert von Karajan.

Europe has always been an inspiration for him as well as his home.

"My kids are European, we lived in Germany, everybody expected to have European lives," he said.

"It will be easier for my children to get in and out of Europe than it will be for me," Rattle despaired.

What keeps him going is a dream of creating a new home for the LSO in the proposed London Centre for Music.

While the new concert hall has been beset with delays over its site and trouble raising the 250-million-pound (297-million-euro) construction costs, Rattle draws inspiration from what he calls the acoustic "miracle" that is the Paris Philharmonie, which had an equally torturous genesis.

"In London there is no good place to play orchestral music," he said. "Why do we have to buy a ticket on the Eurostar (train) to come and hear how good our orchestras sound?" he sighed, referring to Philharmonie in the French capital where the LSO have just played.