Spending cuts may hit the arts hard, but Christopher Morley is heartened that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra can still produce a spectacular season.
A week after the coalition Government’s spending review cuts were announced, so many “pips are squeaking”, to paraphrase ex-Chancellor Denis Healey announcing a much earlier round of austerity measures.
The current belt-tightening extends, of course, to the arts, with the Arts Council of England especially singled out for cuts of 30 per cent. Most of this will come from paring of overloaded administration staff, and it has to be said that, reading through most programmes of any organisation, there does seem to be an awful lot of pen-pushers backstage who might be dispensed with with little detriment.
But many of these backroom boys are responsible for vital work in terms of the ensemble up front. Where would the future be, for example, without the efforts of education officers, developing the profile and activities of their orchestras, choirs, drama groups, opera and dance companies?
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is one such case in point, thanks to the tireless activities of the members of its education department (and several dedicated players in the orchestra itself), carrying out an immense amount of work drawing in young people.
A vivid example of the CBSO’s diversity of activity comes within the next few days, and should silence anyone who still wonders what these players do in their day jobs.
On Friday night they offer Nightmare on Broad Street, a programme of horror-film scores ranging from Psycho to The Omen, and one certain to draw the kind of audience which would previously never consider attending a concert from a classical symphony orchestra in Symphony Hall. The engaging Tommy Pearson – himself a huge film-music buff – is the presenter, and Michael Seal conducts.
On Sunday evening, the remarkable CBSO Youth Orchestra swings into action, making its contribution to the parent orchestra’s season-long Mahler cycle in that composer’s two anniversary years (150th birthday this year, centenary of his death next year).
The birthday boy’s work on this occasion is his dark Ruckert-Lieder song-cycle, mezzo-soprano Katarina Karneus the soloist. And the programme, which begins with Wagner’s spectacular Tannhauser Overture, ends with Shostakovich’s epic, demanding and taxing Symphony no.11.
All of this could never be achieved without the devoted coaching of players within the CBSO itself, nor without the administrative and organisational skills of several members of the CBSO backroom staff.
Next Thursday we get a mainstream concert from the CBSO, when Kari Krikku is soloist in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, conductor John Storgards topping and tailing the evening with Beethoven’s powerful Coriolan Overture and Sibelius’ gripping and disturbing Lemminkainen Suite.
But there is still no end to the diversity of the CBSO family.
The very next day (Bonfire Night), a neatly-named programme entitled Remember, Remember commemorates, not the attempt to blow up the House of Commons in 1605, but instead the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Stephen Bell conducts the CBSO in a programme of wartime favourites, and Juliette Pochin is the soprano soloist in wonderful numbers such as A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and We’ll Meet Again.
And we’re still not finished, for two days after that the CBSO presents the latest in its popular series of Family Concerts. This one, entitled To Infinity – and Beyond!, is an exploration of space-travel music. Michael Seal conducts and the BBC Midlands Today presenter and newsreader Michael Collie presents. There are free craft workshops from 1.30pm, and youngsters are encouraged to turn up in a space-themed costume.
Also among the performers are the CBSO Boys’ Choir, in partnership with Barclays Wealth (and isn’t this kind of enlightened sponsorship now crucially important?) and the CBSO Young Voices, in partnership with Birmingham Music Service. There is a huge amount of outreach here.
All of this comes before the CBSO’s 90th anniversary concerts, about which much more next week. The audiences the CBSO attracts to Birmingham and wherever else it performs contribute so much to local economies. They spend in catering venues, they browse in shops, they pay VAT to the very government which seems to regard the arts as a prime victim for cuts.
In fact, the VAT on ticket sales alone more than pays back any grants arts organisations receive, as David Curtis pointed out before conducting a wonderful concert from the Orchestra of the Swan last Wednesday afternoon (see review opposite).
This concert was given to virtually a full house in the 1,200-seater Town Hall. Coach parties had come in from all over the region, spilling out enthusiasts of all ages who would undoubtedly have been spending money on something or other during their sojourn in the city.
Cuts certainly have to come, and it is good that some departments in this country have been ring-fenced. Personally I think it is a pity the cuts don’t extend to our aspirations still to be considered as a world military and political power.
But there are certain areas of arts provision which it is vital to safeguard, and the educational aspects of their activities are so crucial to the spiritual well-being and quality of life of the future.
* Nightmare on Broad Street comes to Symphony Hall on Friday October 29 (7.30pm)
* The CBSO Youth Orchestra plays at Symphony Hall on Sunday October 31 (7pm)
* The CBSO plays Beethoven, Mozart and Sibelius at Symphony Hall on Thursday November 4 (7.30pm)
* Remember, Remember” plays at Symphony Hall on Friday November 5 (7.30pm)
* To Infinity – and Beyond! plays at Symphony Hall on Sunday November 7 (3pm)
* All details on 0121 780 3333