A GLITTERING era in British classical music ends tomorrow night when Sir Simon Rattle conducts his last concert as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Over the past 18 years, the wunderkind conductor, still only 43, has put not just the orchestra but the city of Birmingham on the international map, taking the orchestra into the world league, and helping to mastermind the building of the Symphony Hall in the city.
Sir Simon now becomes one of the hottest properties on the international transfer market. Desperate as London's symphony orchestras are to have him as a figurehead in their eternal power struggle, he has told friends he will not take another music director's job in Britain. His name has been linked with both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, but he maintains he is staying free lance for the time being.
Sir Simon's shock of dark, curly hair (now slightly greying) on the podium in Birmingham and guesting at the Proms and the Royal Opera House has long since been a familiar sight, with his interpretations of Beethoven and Mahler in particular winning massive acclaim.
He told the Birmingham Post that the man behind the flamboyant coiffeured look was none other than the Liverpool barber, of The Beatles' "Penny Lane" fame. "The house where I grew up was just around the corner from Penny Lane," he said.
Sir Simon has been a public and vociferous campaigner for the arts, particularly for music education and a restoration of the cuts in schools music-teaching.
He was one of those called in by the Prime Minister this summer to a private summit meeting in Downing Street on the state of the arts.
Nicholas Snowman, director of the South Bank Centre in London, paid tribute to him yesterday, saying: "He has amazing spontaneity with the orchestra. And he listens to the old conductors, privately attending their rehearsals to learn from them."
Rattle's prowess and the public esteem in which he is held is such that four years ago he was able to hold the funding system to ransom - threatening to leave the CBSO if its grant was not increased by the Arts Council. He won, and the young Finn Sakari Oramo who replaces Sir Simon takes over an orchestra in much better financial health.
Sir Simon warned recently: "Running a British orchestra is wonderful but very hard. We spend our time jumping through hoops trying to prove our right to exist at all."
Under Sir Simon the Birmingham orchestra has toured the world and has made key recordings as well as educational CD-Roms.
And the rave reviews continue. After the orchestra's recent appearance at the Salzburg Festival, the French newspaper Le Monde commented: "Beethoven lives today in Birmingham."
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