Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I set to writing the essay for my first English homework after I’d moved up to Brighton’s most wonderful grammar-school in 1959. We had been asked to write about ourselves, and our ambitions and mine was to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra (I only picked that one out because I hadn’t then heard of the CBSO).
In a way, that ambition has now been fulfilled, thanks to the “Universe of Sound” installation in the onetime Birmingham Municipal Bank building at the bottom of Broad Street. just across from Symphony Hall in Centenary Square. And this dark, labyrinthine setting is perfect for the Philharmonia’s Royal Philharmonic Society’s award-winning virtual, interactive experience conceived by the orchestra’s Digital Department and principal conductor and artistic advisor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
I experienced the installation last summer at the Science Museum in London’s South Kensington and found it fascinating then. But its move to Birmingham, thanks to the involvement of Town Hall and Symphony Hall, has increased its considerable impact.
Rooms within the building display a 360-degree vision of the 132-piece Philharmonia as Salonen conducts them through what is actually a gripping account of Holst’s The Planets. Here there are conducting pods where we can conduct in front of the orchestra, matching our beats to the outlined graphic, and controlling with our left hand the volume of the orchestra.
As we wander around we can share the sonic perspective of the performance from the ears of each individual instrumental section – and I am grateful that this experience has enabled me to hear new detail which had never occurred to me in over 50 years of allegedly knowing the work.
A music-stand in each room has that instrument’s music lodged on it, whether for a resident professional to play along with the score and answer questions, or for visitors (we are urged to bring along our own instruments) to try their hands.
And in the percussion room there are instruments provided (plus genial tutor) to persuade us to contribute. This is paradise for anyone, but for children it is amazing.
The press had been preceded at the recent preview launch by pupils from Birmingham City Road Primary School, attending at breakfast-time to enjoy everything on offer.
“One little lad told me at the end how he couldn’t wait to come back with his family and go through it all again,” Town Hall and Symphony Hall press officer Fiona Fraser told me.
And this is truly an enthralling offering, and admission is free!
But to give Holst and his Planets their due: let’s remember that this traditionally “English” work has become a vehicle for international conductors (and Holst himself was of Swedish descent) – Herbert von Karajan’s recording of very long ago lives in the memory – so here we have the Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting on this installation, and the Russian Vladimir Ashkenazy, who conducts the live performance from the Philharmonia which features on June 13 at Symphony Hall during the project’s concluding weekend.
Ashkenazy, who famously came to well-deserved prominence when he defected to the West from the Soviet Union as a pianist in the early 1960s, is now one of the world’s best-loved conductors. Among his many posts is that of principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and it was after a concert with that ensemble that I recently spoke to him late at night from his Australian base.
I comment upon Ashkenazy’s long involvement with British music.
“What is important to me is to try to express the gift of the composer, and his abilities to communicate something essential,” he responds.
“In that sense the music of your country affects me very deeply. I have a very strong feeling for people like Elgar, Walton, and some of Britten’s music, of course.
“And Holst’s Planet’s Suite! I like this extremely; it’s a wonderfully intimate self-expression of his philosophy of life. He’s a very gifted composer, and it’s a wonderful cycle of pieces which are quite unique, I think.”
I refer to an unforgettable account of Walton’s Second Symphony Ashkenazy directed at Warwick Arts Centre many years ago.
“Ah yes, well I like it very much, but personally for me I prefer the First Symphony, which I’m doing next week in Sydney.
“I think it’s a fantastic piece, especially the end with the trumpet solo and then the coda. The harmonies of the orchestra and the end, it’s just fantastic. It kills me!”
And Ashkenazy agrees with me that this is the greatest British symphony, even better than both the magnificent Elgar examples.
And we end with his delight at coming back to Birmingham. “I love your wonderful city. I always enjoy being there.”
And from a world-class conductor back to me. In the conducting-pod at the Universe of Sound installation I notched up a very impressive accuracy score (though how one can be accurate in merely following another conductor’s beat is open to debate).
“You’ll probably be the highest throughout the event!” flattered Fiona Fraser. I left reassured.
* Universe of Sound runs until June 16, with concerts at Symphony Hall on June 14 and 15. All details on www.thsh.co.uk/universe-of-sound and 0121 780 3333.