Birmingham Conservatoire Principal David Saint is in understandably relaxed mood, now that he knows at last where the institution’s new home is going to be.
“I remember George Caird, who was Principal in those days, saying to a group of new students sometime around 2001 ‘you will be the first cohort which will end its course in a new building’,” he says.
“And obviously that’s what we believed in those days. But it’s obviously when the plans for Paradise Circus began to take shape that the move became a reality.”
And since that time it’s been a given that the Conservatoire, founded in 1886 as part of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, now music faculty of Birmingham City University and therefore the largest university music faculty in the country, was going to have to vacate its Paradise Circus premises right in the heart of the city, freeing-up the site to be demolished for lucrative property developments.
Ironically, the building was less than half-a-century old, rather like the Central Library just across Chamberlain Square, which is already under the crushers’ cranes, and possessed two very fine concert-halls.
Refurbishments, painting and re-carpeting, and acoustic tweakings have been carried out every summer, even while the cloud of eviction has hung over the place.
Various proposals to re-site the Conservatoire have been in the frame over the years, including the depressingly vacant Palladian-style Birmingham Municipal Bank building in Broad Street, just opposite Symphony Hall, and just round the corner from the CBSO Centre in Berkley Street.
Then there was Louisa Ryland House, right next door to the magnificent Birmingham School of Art in Margaret Street/ Edmund Street.
But now we know where the Conservatoire’s new home will be, at Eastside, just beyond the Bullring, and which Birmingham City University is already bustling to redevelop as the city’s “learning quarter”, relocating all its various faculties currently stretched across the city in seven places into one venue.
The superbly elegant elephant in the room is the neoclassical Curzon Street Station, the railway terminus to which Mendelssohn arrived when he graced the Birmingham Triennial Festivals, and which he famously sketched in pen and ink.
Curzon Street was once destined to be the new home of the Royal College of Organists, thrown onto the streets from its Kensington base in London, and Birmingham Conservatoire was to curate its library. I was there when the Queen came to plant a rose-bush in the tiny garden to mark this wonderful building’s new status. The rose is no more.
One wonders how this historic edifice will be assimilated into all the new architectural plans.
There has already been criticisms of the forthcoming Conservatoire’s design (by Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios) as Stalinist and brutalist, and, to be honest, the computerised concrete-like projections of the new Conservatoire have failed to reveal that the building’s exterior will in fact be fetchingly clad in warm brick.
There are two important considerations involved. One is to afford the students the most perfect acoustic facilities, whether in practice rooms or in performance areas. This desideratum will certainly be achieved.
“Acoustic engineering and acoustic science have really moved on since the current Adrian Boult Hall was built in the 1980s,” says David. “The ABH is a lovely hall in so many ways, but probably not acoustically. It seems to me it doesn’t really enhance strings or voices; it’s rather nice for chamber music, on the other hand.
“I think there will be much more thought that goes into the acoustics of the new hall.”
The other consideration is to attract audiences down into what has previously been an “iffy” area of Birmingham, making them feel safe and wanted.
An enticing factor will be the proximity of the new Conservatoire to the proposed railway station servicing HS2, though that will come into existence long after the opening of this new building.
“The University will be the first thing you see from the train,” is the idea.
This first new-build UK conservatoire since 1987 will comprise five performance venues, including a public concert-hall with the capacity for over 450 seats and a full orchestra, a 150-seater recital hall, and smaller experimental music space, organ and jazz rooms. There will also be over 70 practice rooms of various sizes, all insulated from each other, and a media room, “purpose-built for the 21st century, and not with wires tacked into the skirting-boards”.
The organ studio has been particularly meticulously designed, as David (also organist and choirmaster at St Chad’s Cathedral) enthusiastically tells me.
“Nothing to do with me!” he modestly adds, “A three-second reverberation is going to be built into the acoustic,” he says, “and it will be a 60-seater room. The architects have guaranteed that that reverberation will be maintained even when the audience is there. And that is the kind of acoustic that the organ needs, as opposed to other instruments.
“We’ve outgrown this present building,” he continues, “there’s no doubt about it. And especially for pianists; you must practice on a grand piano if you’ve got a performance coming up. We’ve already embarked on a ten-year piano plan. Last year saw the purchase of a Model D Steinway, and two Model B’s, and six Yamaha uprights. This year we’re hoping to get another Model D, I think a Model B, and a Fazioli – our Head of Piano is very keen to have not just one make of instrument.”
Building work begins this summer, and is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2017, when the great move from Paradise Circus to Eastside will take place.
There will be some possible downsides to this cross-city relocation.
Many of the Conservatoire students currently boost their finances by stewarding at Symphony Hall, just across Centenary Square from the current Conservatoire building. Another benefit is the way they are able to rub shoulders, gaining valuable experience, with the world-class artists performing in one of the world’s greatest concert-halls.
Perhaps the trek from Eastside, especially when purpose-built student accommodation is constructed in that Learning Quarter, won’t be so congenial.
As well it might not be for players of the CBSO, long-time stalwarts of the Conservatoire’s instrumental teaching staff (just as the Gewandhaus Orchestra serviced Mendelssohn’s Leipzig Conservatoire), who might not relish schlepping a mile or two across the city traffic.
But the mood is determinedly upbeat. David is excited at the way modern science and design will certainly enhance the performing spaces within the new building, and the way the public will be welcomed.
“I think it will be considerably better than here,” he smiles. “There will be a big open space to greet the audience, an interesting space, because Jennens Road where we’ll be is higher than the slope down to Millennium Point. So there’ll be stairs up to the Adrian Boult entrance, and down to the foyer and Recital Hall, jazz studio, experimental music space, coffee bars – and there’s a crush bar in there somewhere!”