After 70 years the concert hall in Birmingham University’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts was long overdue for refurbishment, and this summer it finally received one.
Friday evening celebrated the event, and we entered the charming, spruced-up art deco auditorium to find very little had changed, apart from newly-upholstered seating (people referred to the improved impact upon the olfactory organs, but my own had never been bothered over more than 40 years).
Air-conditioning remains a problem, however. Not long after the musical entertainment had begun, one gentleman had to be escorted out, and the doors were opened between items to refresh the atmosphere. Sorting this is obviously a priority.
The concert itself was something of a disappointment, a bits and pieces programme performed by comparatively recent alumni (though Judith Busbridge’s viola-playing was a particular delight).
What might have been better would have been for a chamber-orchestra to have been scratched together from alumni of the last half-century, rehearsed on the afternoon by Professor Colin Timms, and to have given us, say, a Handel concerto grosso, a Mozart divertimento, and the Serenade for Strings by Elgar, first Prof of the Music Department.
More memorable than the music were reminiscences by people closely connected with the Barber. Elaine Padmore, now director at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, relived her own experiences as an undergraduate.
Eric Taylor, long-time superintendent of the building (of whose ex-Black Watch discipline we students were all somewhat in awe), regaled us with anecdotes as to the practicalities of running the place.
And Dame Janet Baker reminded us of the wonderful series of baroque operas in which she starred under the wise, unflappable conductorship of Professor Anthony Lewis.
“This is a place where miracles happened. Magic did indeed happen here,” she said. I couldn’t agree more.
Finally my apologies to cellist Eduardo Vassallo and pianist Mark Bebbington, who were giving Birmingham Chamber Music Society a mouth-watering programme of sonatas by Chopin and Rachmaninov, as well as a couple of contemporary works, on Saturday evening.
A police incident which blocked off the Hagley Road at the Kings Head was enough of a delay, but once past that, all should have been plain sailing. It wasn’t, as there were still the queues around the NIA, and there wasn’t a parking place left to be had, so I cut my losses and returned home.
Altogether I sat in the car for 80 minutes in a journey which normally takes 20. Thank goodness for English National Opera’s fabulous Candide on the radio.
If Birmingham city centre doesn’t do something to sort itself out I can see the Barber Institute more than confirming its place as one of our major concert venues.