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New CBSO season sees Mirga busy with Debussy

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has unveiled an exciting programme for 2017/18. Its music director talks to Christopher Morley

CBSO musical director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducts the orchestra(Image: Benjamin Ealovega 2016)

The morning after a concert commemorating Louis Fremaux, its principal conductor who in the 1970s really put the orchestra on the world map, the CBSO has announced its plans for the 2017-18 season.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the forthcoming programme, one of the most exciting and imaginative I can remember in many years, is the revelation that Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – whose appointment as the CBSO’s Osborn music director has attracted the attention of the whole world – is conducting so many concerts.

During the present season, arranged mostly before Mirga was confirmed in the post, she is conducting literally only a handful of concerts, but in the season to come she will be on the podium for no fewer than 26 programmes involving the entire CBSO family of the main orchestra and its choruses.

“Birmingham is my new musical home and the CBSO is my new musical family,” Mirga tells me. “The actual life together starts now, in the season 17/18”.

Carolyn Sampson(Image: Marco Borggreve)

There are so many themes running through the season, such as both Elgar concertos (Mirga conducting, Vilde Frang violin, Johannes Moser cello), all four of Brahms’ concertos (the two for piano – Paul Lewis, Martin Helmschen – combined with highlights from Prokofiev’s two most famous ballets, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella), and three Mahler symphonies (1,4 and 6).

But at the heart of the offering lies a two-weekend Debussy Festival next March, commemorating the centenary of the great French composer’s death. Various aspects of his work will be put under the microscope, both his own compositions, but also his subsequent influence on composers such as Pierre Boulez, Messiaen, Takemitsu, George Benjamin and Tristan Murail, and many members of the CBSO family – main orchestra, Youth Orchestra, Chorus, Youth Chorus, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group – as well as Birmingham University Singers, Birmingham Conservatoire students, and performers at the CBSO Centre will be brought into play.

And an aftermath of this Debussyfest will be a concert-performance (the CBSO’s first-ever) under Mirga of his enigmatic, haunting opera Pelleas et Melisande, with a starry cast including the bass-baritone Matthew Best in the pivotal role of King Arkel.

Mirga bubbles over as she tells me how this celebration of the composer has been prepared.

“Overviewing one composer’s work is a very special experience and privilege. I am expecting a sense of richness and broadness out of it.

Violinist Baiba Skride. Picture by Marco Borggreve.(Image: Marco Borggreve)

“In our festival we will perform the majority of Debussy’s works as well as different works by other composers. The choices of the ‘context pieces’ were made to reflect different aspects of Debussy’s opus and trying to get closer to his secret – the secret of his creative mind as well as his personality.

“Since all the members of the big CBSO family – as well as many friends – will be participating at the Debussy Festival, and since the amount of pieces we all will be performing is huge, it gets us the big season direction: for about a year (of preparation until the festival itself) to focus altogether on this specific composer and to discover him deeper. This is already leading to an inspiring and enriching exchange within our big family.

Alisa Weilerstein

“Through all the discoveries and musical pieces there is one essential point Debussy was talking and writing his life long: beauty. What is it? How to find it?

“In the last duo Pelléas sings to Mélisande: ‘I was restless, I searched everywhere in the house, I searched everywhere round the countryside, and I could not find beauty. And now I have found you... now I have found it.’”

I ask Mirga to pick out other highlights for her of this upcoming season.

“I am incredibly glad that we were able to win Jörg Widmann as our artist in residence. The intensity of his music making, the versatility of his musical genius as well as the incredible warmth and simplicity of him as a person are all great gifts to look forward to.’’

Jorg is not only a great clarinettist (he will be playing Mozart’s Concerto for the instrument), he is also a composer and conductor, and all his talents will be in evidence during the season, with BCMG as well as the CBSO.

Mirga continues by referring to Haydn’s great oratorio The Creation, with which we begin proceedings.

“To start the ‘first real’ season with Die Schöpfung feels like another symbolic project. I love the idea of creation. It also connects my main musical home till now - Germany/Austria - with the new one.

‘‘The Boulanger - Fauré project will be another important moment, for me extremely exciting not just because of the great and so rarely (especially in case of Lili Boulanger) performed music, but also because it’s another opportunity to work closely together with our great choruses.

“Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, with Lithuanian folk songs, will finish our artistic rite of the next season.’’

British violinist Tasmin Little.

The Boulanger-Faure concert to which Mirga refers takes me back 50 years, to when I was a first-year music undergraduate at the University of Birmingham. Our beloved Prof, Anthony Lewis, had been a student of the formidable Nadia Boulanger (who had taught many of the great names in composition for two-thirds of the 20th century) in Paris, and he invited her over to Birmingham to conduct the University Chorus in the ineffable Requiem by Faure – and she herself had been a student of Faure. We were being touched by greatness.

The performance was given in Birmingham Town Hall in the spring of 1967, and we were accompanied by the CBSO, no less. And the concert began with choral works by Boulanger’s equally talented sister Lili, who died after a long illness in her mid-20s in 1918 (the same year as Debussy). Mirga’s concert will come so close to replicating that unforgettable occasion under the direction of a tiny woman with such titanic strength.

After perhaps a dip in recent years, this new season will show a strengthened commitment to new music, with several premieres and a range of other music by living composers. We will hear the world premiere of Gerald Barry’s Organ Concerto, a CBSO co-commission, Thomas Trotter the soloist, Thomas Ades the conductor in a brilliantly organised programme framed by two symphonies of World War II (Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements), and there are UK premieres of works by Kaija Saariaho, Onute Narbutaite and Simon Holt.

Jeffrey Skidmore conducts his Ex Cathedra in an all-Bach programme, culminating in the gloriously compact Magnificat, as well as directing the CBSO and Chorus and a starry array of soloists led by soprano Carolyn Sampson in a concert entitled “Mozart’s Women”. Jane Glover, whose book on the subject is by far one of the best pieces of writing on Mozart in recent years, will give a pre-concert interview.

We can welcome the return of conductors close to the heart of the CBSO family (which of course includes us in the audience): Edward Gardner, in concerts featuring the Verdi Requiem (imagine the CBSO Chorus in that!) and Sibelius’ Second Symphony, John Wilson in an all-Bernstein programme starring the wondrous Kim Criswell, the much-loved Jac van Steen conducting the CBSO Youth Orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (I wonder which order of the inner movements he will choose?), Michael Seal (conducting Elgar’s First Symphony among much else) and CBSO alumnus Alpesh Chauhan, now with his own orchestra (the Arturo Toscanini, Parma) in Italy, conducting the all-Brahms CBSO Benevolent Fund concert early in the season.

Edward Gardner

Among returning soloists are Tasmin Little, Baiba Skride, Simon Trpceski, Freddy Kempf, Rudolf Buchbinder, Alisa Weilerstein and soprano Sophie Bevan.

There is so much else one could mention, not least the events reaching out to parts of the community who would not normally think of coming to a concert hall: family concerts, educational projects designed for KS 2 and 3 little mites, and so much else.

But let’s end with a concluding quote from Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, who has set a whirring programme for the CBSO into motion.

“Through finding each other towards finding beauty will be the journey of our first full season.”

* All details of the forthcoming CBSO season available on www.cbso.co.uk or 0121 616 6500.

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