Birmingham Conservatoire hosts a musical tribute to a number of familiar faces, writes Christopher Morley.
It is an end of an era at Birmingham Conservatoire this week as several senior members of staff step down from their positions after many years of distinguished service.
Celebrations of their work began with a programme of music and eulogies to mark the retirement from the full-time staff of Peter Johnson, head of research, and an occasional conductor of some esteem (he directed a memorable Verdi Requiem here many years ago).
Peter arrived at the Conservatoire from Kingston-upon-Thames in 1990, when “there was no formal research”, although certain staff were publishing in their own time, mainly Stephen Daw and Tony Cross.
“Stephen and I set up the research degree programme in 1993, working to a capped intake of four students per year, but demand from well-qualified students has always exceeded this,” he said.
“Since 2005 we’ve allowed the intake to rise in a measured way, so this year we accepted eight. It’s been my role from the outset to manage these students. Our student research is focused in two main areas, composition and performance-studies.”
And I know from my own personal teaching-experience how important historically-informed performance studies are, the students exploring the contexts of the music they are about to present to the public.
Thanks to Peter’s efforts, the Conservatoire has been able to award formal research leave to selected staff, which has resulted in a huge increase in book publications – which gives the Conservatoire, music faculty of Birmingham City University, a great deal of reflected glory.
Since January 2008, Conservatoire staff have five monographs in print, two edited books contracted, with a further four in the pipeline; at least 20 book chapters published or contracted; and a large number of internationally performed compositions – including Radio 3 broadcasts – and performance events by staff. Research income earned since January 2008 stands at £864,000.
And after all this academic success, Peter is looking forward to indulging himself: “Get back to my books, finish my long-awaited book on performance, and when the sun is shining, develop my rambling garden on the edge of the Malverns. And get to more concerts.
On Thursday Birmingham Conservatoire hosts a “MalcolmFest”, marking the work of Malcolm Wilson, retiring after many years as head of Keyboard Studies, and whose involvement with the institution goes back since he began as an assistant piano tutor 40 years ago.
Supplementing performances from himself and colleagues, there will also be the launch of a new CD of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, recorded on two pianos by Malcolm and his illustrious colleague Philip Martin.
This is not totally a farewell from the Conservatoire for Malcolm, however. He will return as a visiting tutor twice a week and continue to play as principal pianist for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
Contemplating his fond memories of his career, he lists some of his best students
“There was David Quigley, who has developed a flourishing performing career, and who also instigated the Birmingham International Piano Academy. Jonathan French – an outstanding pianist and accompanist – and, like David, also a member of the Conservatoire staff now. I have a particularly fond memory of Jonathan’s exceptional performance of the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody with the Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra.
“And teaching has been such a privilege. There have been so many moments of inspiration and joy in overseeing the education and growth of young musicians, and the pleasure of seeing some students come into the institution at a lowish level but to go out as good musicians and, more importantly, good and rounded personalities. Meeting George Caird shortly after his appointment as principal and realising that just occasionally appointment panels get it right – that was a special moment.”
He also takes pride in the “huge improvement in the stock and quality of pianos in the Conservatoire, and, even more so, the involvement of Peter Donohoe as vice-president of the Conservatoire and more particularly as consultant to the Keyboard School.
“It’s had a tremendously beneficial effect on the international standing of the school. His contribution has been incalculable over the last 20 years and he has been an outstanding advisor both to the department and to me personally, as well as a very good friend.”
On Friday, the internationally-renowned conductor Lionel Friend presides over his last concert as conductor-in-residence of the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, directing the students in nothing less than the massive Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. How does he feel the orchestras have developed under his tutelage?
“The Conservatoire’s orchestras vary of course from year to year according to the intake of students. However, over my seven years as conductor-in-residence I have sensed a developing interest among the students for orchestral participation and discipline.
“I’ve been ambitious in programming challenging repertoire – Bartok and Lutoslawski, for example – and there’s always been a splendidly enthusiastic response to such projects. I am sure our Mahler will be similarly exciting. Also, I’ve been able to explore examples of operatic and choral works, as well as the accompaniment of concertos, and those are equally important experiences for an orchestral player.”
Mahler 6 seems an imposing choice for Lionel’s farewell concert.
“I chose and planned Mahler 6 for this concert realising that I would be retiring. It seemed time to tackle a work of this magnitude and difficulty, and I’m thrilled that we are able to play it in Birmingham Town Hall.”
Lionel is passionate about the importance of orchestral work for conservatoire instrumental students.
“I maintain that, equally with playing chamber music, orchestral playing – and contemporary music – is a vital part of an instrumentalist’s education. Not only is it a preparation for a possible career, but both the value of making music with others and the intimate contact with the huge repertoire of orchestral masterpieces are essential for a broad understanding of music’s power and significance.”
* MalcolmFest begins at Birmingham Conservatoire at 6pm on Thursday, admission free. Details on 0121 303 2323.
* Lionel Friend conducts the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra at Birmingham Town Hall at 7.30pm on Friday Details on 0121 780 333.