Watch Rattle take Birmingham across the centenary canyon

We promised to bring you every concert from the CBSO’s centenary year. He’s Christopher Morley’s review of centenntial night, conducted by the last music director but four:

On September 5 1920 the City of Birmingham Orchestra (as it was then) gave its inaugural concert in the Theatre Royal in Birmingham’s New Street. Exactly a century later it presented a celebratory event — thanks to lockdown, in a car warehouse in Longbridge, the heart of the city’s motorland.

The sheer achievement in mounting this celebration is mind-blowing. After split rehearsals, half the complement at a time, the orchestra eventually came together in carefully socially distanced spacing (and with sanitising buffers between the brass and the woodwind in front of them) for this joyous performance under the conductor who brought them to the world-class status they continue to maintain, Sir Simon Rattle.

Where was their current musical director? Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, home in Salzburg (lucky girl) on maternity leave, paid several filmed tributes to her orchestra as well as determined hopes for the future, and there were other contributions from her predecessors, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons.

Other luminaries popped up too: Simon Halsey, Stephen Hough, Roxanna Panufnik, CBSO alumnus Alpesh Chauhan (now doing great things as a conductor in his own right), as well as many members from all parts of the CBSO family, players, chorus, and supporters. The orchestra’s Patron, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, was an eloquent, generous presence as well. Elgar’s Enigma Variations purred along as a background to these contributions. Adrian Lester was the urbane presenter.

Sound from this venue was boxy and confined, even more so when filtered through a computer, but camera-work was revealing, with lovely close-ups of the players, and sweeping visual perspectives of the ensemble. And it was good to see Rattle in full-frontal expressiveness. There were also scenes of Birmingham and Elgarshire which were occasionally distracting, but which added to the context of the CBSO’s history.
The musical content reflected aspects of the orchestra’s history: Schumann’s Genoveva Overture, with some stirring horn-playing: Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, perhaps lacking a little in open-air abandonment; Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto no.1, Sheku Kanneh-Mason the shapely, committed soloist: Hannah Kendall’s coruscating The Spark Catchers; AR Rahman’s glorious Slumdog Millionaire Suite, Roopa Panesar the mesmerising sitar soloist, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Elspeth Dutch the evocative horn soloist as the finale approached.

The last offering brought memories of when the CBSO and Rattle opened Symphony Hall with this very music. What a contrast now in venues! And in access, as well: I was reviewing elsewhere when this performance was originally given, so have had to see it on YouTube, interrupted by advertisements — including one for a famous brand of contraceptive.
Christopher Morley

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      • There was no audience! The applause you heard was from the orchestra members and the backstage crew. We did our best but we were not able to have many people present.
        As to the sound: we are working to improve this (the YouTube compression doesn’t help) – there should be an improved version up early next week.

        • I am lacking clarity on why it should be necessary to improve the sound after the fact. I understand that there were three days of rehearsals in the venue prior to the broadcast. Can you confirm whether this is correct please? If that is not enough time to sort out a decent quality sound, then either the producer was not good enough, or it was unfeasible to get a good sound in the venue. Either way, it points back to the planning.

          Much attention was drawn to the fact that this went out 100 years to the hour since the CBSO’s first concert. Therefore, surely it was of paramount importance that things were right at time of broadcast – the “flagship” event in the COVID-compromised centenary year with the world watching. Sadly, I do not think anyone can argue that the quality was far below that of the rapidly proliferating online content from practically every other U.K. orchestra.

          Please don’t use YouTube compression as an excuse here. If that were a significant factor, orchestras like the LSO would not sound as good as they do on their YouTube channel.

          I was deeply saddened to hear the orchestra sounding so far below their best on such an important occasion. I only hope that lessons can be learned from this that will allow the orchestra to flourish again in the future.

  • That “venue” did not do the orchestra any favours. Add the distance between the players and you end up with a very disappointing concert. It was great to see Sir Simon conduct but it’s been a while since I heard the CBSO sound so poor.

    • Yes, the venue and layout wasn’t going to help the performance or the music.

      At least the CBSO tried to get things going again and they didn’t have access to Symphony Hall.

      Thanks to Sir Simon, the soloists and the presenter, Adrian Lester.

      • Sure, they tried to “get things going”. But so did other orchestras in the UK, in a much bigger capacity and to a much more solid artistic outcome. LSO’s Proms performance (and I realise this is the blog where even mentioning the BBC makes me unpopular) of VW 5th Symphony was sensational. One can naturally have different musical tastes but undeniably that was a top level performance – both in terms of production and the quality of playing. “The sheer achievement in mounting this celebration is mind-blowing” writes Morley. Was it really? That’s basically the only thing the CBSO management has put together since the lockdown, isn’t it? Are there more concerts to follow? Some reduced “online season” similar to what other major UK orchestras are doing? Yes, the Symphony Hall is closed but so are other major venues across the country. What’s wrong with using the CBSO Centre space? I have attended some fabulous BCMG performances there. There’s so much fantastic repertoire which doesn’t require a massive orchestra. I’m not having a go at the CBSO. I feel for the players cause I know they can do better and trust me, they know it as well.

  • “Schumann’s Genoveva Overture with some STIRRING horn playing”?? Are we talking about the same concert?? Dear Christopher, I urge you to press that ‘play’ button immediately and listen again carefully. Once you’ve done that do us all a favour and stop writing such nonsense.

  • I went looking to see if this event got mentioned down under and found only this item in the Sydney Sunday Times of 5 Sep 1920.
    “Birmingham, England, has now, in addition to a municipal orchestra, a resident opera company, whose opening performance of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti was a tremendous success.”
    http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120521530
    Perhaps somebody closer to Birmingham can clarify or expand on this?
    Jim, from Rotorua, NZ

  • Not sure how anyone can still write ‘lucky girl’ about a 34 year old woman and think it’s not patronising? Even in 1989, when Simon Rattle was 34, nobody would have written that he was a ‘lucky boy’ (rather than a ‘lucky man’).

  • I grew up in Birmingham during the war, and would like to mention the brilliant CBSO concerts all during the Blitz when the starlings joined in at sunset. Malcom Sargent gave childrens’ concerts, Myra Hess was a frequent soloist – her brother lived in Brum, Soloman, Clifford Curzon
    and Yehudi Menuhin , Max Rostal etc….and in 1948 Isaac Stern with Beecham, Mishah Elman…..memorable concerts which I still remember well and check my autograph book to confirm the heroic CBSO in the 1940’s !

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