CBSO heads to Spain for a concert with a Birmingham connection. Terry Grimley reports.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will join forces with the Berlin Radio Choir (Rundfunkchor) for the first time on Saturday for a concert in Spain.
Although they have never performed together before they are linked by Simon Halsey, who is chorus director of both organisations.
He and the Berlin choir recently celebrated winning their second Grammy Award in two years, for a recording of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The same team took the corresponding award in 2008 for Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem.
Halsey will conduct Saturday’s concert at the 48th Semana de Musica Religiosa in Cuenca, a festival of religious music held in this small, historic city two hours’ drive north of Madrid.
The CBSO makes its debut at the festival tomorrow night, when music director Andris Nelsons conducts a programme of music by Schoenberg, Messiaen and Strauss which the orchestra played in Birmingham last month.
The centrepiece of Saturday’s concert is the major commission in this year’s festival – Messages by Jonathan Harvey, who coincidentally was born in Sutton Coldfield.
Messages, a 25-minute piece which sets a text made up entirely of the names of angels, was jointly commissioned for Halsey and his Berlin choir and the Cuenca festival.
It had its first performance in March last year in Berlin, with the choir and the Berlin Philharmonic.
In Saturday’s concert it is flanked by Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, an award winner for Rattle and the CBSO when it was released on CD in the early 1990s.
Jonathan Harvey, who celebrates his 70th birthday early next month, is one of Britain’s most respected living composers and enjoys a particularly high reputation in mainland Europe. A CD of his music won the contemporary section of last year’s Gramophone Awards, including a piece called White as Jasmin which featured Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, wife of former CBSO music director Sakari Oramo.
Harvey is noted for the religious or spiritual inspiration of much of his music and for his extensive use of electronics. One of his best known pieces, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, produced at IRCAM, the sound-research institute in Paris in 1980, mixes the electronically-treated sounds of an ancient bell from Winchester Cathedral and the treble voice of his son, who was then a member of its choir.
CBSO chief executive Stephen Maddock remembers singing Harvey’s early anthem I Love the Lord as a student chorister.
“We haven’t played a great deal of Jonathan’s music but he’s a Birmingham-born composer so it’s very appropriate for us to be doing this,” he said.
“He is one of a number of British composers who have a bigger reputation outside the UK than within it.
“In France and Germany, certainly, he’s seen as a very, very significant figure.
“We played his music in France in 2003 when we went to a festival of contemporary music.”
The Semana de Musica Religiosa, established in 1962, is the fourth oldest music festival in Spain.
This year’s event consists of 22 concerts held in a theatre, the cathedral and various churches in this ancient city which enjoys world heritage status.
As well as its appearance with the CBSO, the Berlin choir is joining early-music orchestra Europa Galante for a performance of Haydn’s Stabat Mater.
Other artists taking part this year include The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ars Nova Copenhagen and Concerto Copenhagen, Accentus and Il Complesso Barocco, Les Talens Lyriques and the Spanish National Youth Orchestra.
“It was a very nice invitation for us,” says Stephen Maddock.
“As the festival is a co-commissioner of Jonathan Harvey’s piece the original invitation was for the choir to do that, but they needed an orchestra for it and it just so happened that it was early enough and we were able to arrange it.
“When they explained what the festival was and we were talking about doing a second programme, we said we were doing this one in Birmingham with the Schoenberg,
Messiaen and Strauss and asked if any of that was appropriate, and they said actually, we like the whole programme – we’ll have it all.
“So it was one of those occasions when you find other people thinking along similar lines.”