Having given 18 world premieres, Birmingham Symphonic Winds show no sign of letting up. Christopher Morley speaks to a loyal band.
Pre-concert drink, free programme, post-concert reception... Birmingham Symphonic Winds are really pushing the boat out for their 20th anniversary concert on Saturday evening at the CBSO Centre.
It’s all a world away from a cold November night in Halesowen College in 1992, when the ensemble held its first rehearsal, as founder and music director Keith Allen explains.
“Back in December 1991, the BBC, then at Pebble Mill, had invited me to record a number of pieces for wind orchestra by Guy Woolfenden (then Head of Music for the Royal Shakespeare Company). Based on some current and many ex-players from Birmingham Schools Wind Orchestra, whom I conducted at that time, we undertook a two day recording session of Gallimaufrey, S.P.Q.R., Deo Gracias and many more – all recently composed by Guy.
“The general feeling was that a more permanent ensemble should be established to play at the highest standard possible, so on a cold night in November 1992, with the assistance of an ex-colleague Fred Deveraux and with as many ex-players from BSWO as we could contact, Birmingham Symphonic Winds met for the first time in a classroom in Halesowen.”
Founder member Simon Purkess, still going strong with BSW, continues the story:
“Having been in Birmingham Schools’ Wind Orchestra, and for a time received clarinet tuition from Keith, I jumped at the opportunity to turn up for the fledgling rehearsal one wet and foggy Thursday November evening at Halesowen College.
“At the time, I was a couple of years out of university, a newly qualified accountant with no playing opportunities, and I was so busy at work that there was a real chance that my playing days would be over.
“Which would have been a real waste as I’d been playing clarinet since the age of 10, done all the grades and was principal clarinet with BSWO in my final school year. As it is, I would say that my playing has improved immeasurably, as has my musicianship.”
Simon goes on to explain why he has stuck with BSW.
“I enjoy it too much! In fact, my fellow partners at KPMG might suggest I prioritise BSW over work. My ex-wife certainly would! It’s very challenging, keeping up the high standard with limited rehearsal and practice time, but it’s very sociable and each CBSO Centre concert is a rush.”
Birmingham Symphonic Winds rehearse monthly at Greswold Primary School in Solihull, where “we work in partnership with the school, supporting each other’s activities,” says Keith.
“We first performed in joint concerts at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall and the George Cadbury Hall in Bournville, and also in the National Concert Band Festival with great success.
“Our repertoire was firmly based on original compositions for wind orchestra by British composers – David Bedford, Philip Sparke, Gustav Holst, Philip Wilby, Guy Woolfenden and others in the first instance and to this day we still advance that intention.
“Since 1997, BSW have given 18 world premieres – 11 of which we have commissioned and it is that circle of commissioning, performing, publishing, more performing, which we believe is essential to the endorsement of this medium.
“There’s not another wind orchestra in the UK that has achieved as much in this sphere as Birmingham Symphonic Winds.”
Keith goes on to describe how enlightened sponsorship enabled BSW to make the CBSO Centre, just across Broad Street from Symphony Hall, its performing base.
“Back in October 2001, through a contact from the Birmingham Symphonic Winds president Sir William Lawrence, we were fortunate to obtain sponsorship from Hortons’ Estate Limited, a most enlightened development company based in central Birmingham.
“We are delighted that over the years, Hortons’ have maintained that support and have recently re-affirmed their intention to continue that relationship. It has enabled BSW to mount their annual series of concerts at the CBSO Centre with soloists of international repute – Alison Balsom, David Childs, Craig Ogden, Simone Rebello, and Sarah Williamson among others.”
Simon Purkess is keen to pay tribute to the lasting social aspects of Birmingham Symphonic Winds.
“Absolutely. I’ve known Philippa (co-principal clarinet) for the whole 20 years and we are very close. And a small group, including Keith, came and played an impromptu jazz band/soul backing band for my 40th birthday party
“And my girlfriend plays clarinet and sax with BSW – that’s how we met. We are very close as a group, particularly after our trips - we’ve been to Schladming (Austria), Strasbourg, Chicago, Killarney, and last year the Lincoln Center in New York.”
He adds a hard-nosed financial insight.
“I’ve been BSW treasurer for most of those 20 years, and have always run the finances pretty tightly. Chicago in 2003 was tough, because it cost us about £15,000. But the highlight is the time leading up to Easter 2011 when I looked after a fund raising effort that got us to New York. With no Arts Council or Birmingham City Council funding, we managed to pull it off even though the trip (excluding band member contributions) cost us about £45,000… I still don’t know quite how we managed it!
“The only other thing I’d like to add is the huge contribution of Keith to the last 20 years.
“He would say that the four of us (Keith, his wife Jayne, Philippa and I) are the heart of BSW... but in more respects than one, he’s the one that makes that heart beat”.
And Simon neatly sums up the loyalty Birmingham Symphonic Winds inspires, apologising that he doesn’t have to travel far for rehearsals and performances.
“Not really, I’m Birmingham based. My girlfriend lives in Exeter though...”
* Birmingham Symphonic Winds gives its 20th Anniversary Concert (conductors Keith Allen, John Rutter and Guy Woolfenden) at the CBSO Centre, Berkley Street on Saturday November 10 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.