As the CBSO marks its 90th birthday, Christopher Morley celebrates its past, present and future.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is 90 years old this autumn, and though next Wednesday’s gala concert won’t be celebrating the actual anniversary of its founding, it will mark two important events for British music either side of the First World War.
On November 10, 1920 the City of Birmingham Orchestra performed its first concert in Birmingham Town Hall, with no less a luminary than Sir Edward Elgar conducted. On that same date 100 years ago, Elgar conducted the premiere of his Violin Concerto, soloist Fritz Kreisler white as a sheet, at London’s Queen’s Hall.
The entire programme at the Town Hall concert was devoted to the music of this greatest and best-loved composer in the country. Elgar opened his programme with his Symphonic Study Falstaff, continued with the Cello Concerto with Felix Salmond (who had performed the premiere in the Queen’s Hall just over a year before) as soloist, and concluded with the Second Symphony.
In Crescendo!, his indispensable and meticulously-researched history of the CBSO, Beresford King-Smith quotes from the Birmingham Mail’s review of the evening: “The work of the orchestra bore witness to the careful preparation and frequent rehearsal on which its performance was based. Its playing was a credit to the city.”
Nothing has changed here in 90 years, then.
That successful concert launching the orchestra’s 78-year Town Hall residency was followed by a remarkable sequence of programmes gracing the inaugural season: Hamilton Harty conducting Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, Vaughan Williams conducting his own London Symphony, Adrian Boult conducting Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (probably cut, if his recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra of many decades later is anything to go by), and Landon Ronald conducting Brahms’ Second Symphony. Appleby Matthews, who had done so much to assist in the founding of the orchestra, conducted Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, bringing along his own choir.
Towards the end of that first season the CBO made a return to the Theatre Royal in New Street, where Jean Sibelius, possibly the world’s most feted composer living at that time, conducted his own Third Symphony, dedicated to Granville Bantock, who was both Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University and Principal of the Birmingham School of Music.
It was, in fact, at that very Theatre Royal that the newly-founded City of Birmingham Orchestra gave its first-ever concert, on Sunday, September 5. Bizarrely, smoking was allowed at Sunday concerts, and no item usually lasted longer than five minutes, but Appleby Matthews was determined to change all that, routinely foisting a symphony on the unsuspecting captive audience – and the ruse obviously worked.
There had of course been orchestras in Birmingham in the past, with those presided over by William Stockley (in which Elgar had played second violin as a young man) and George Halford the most prominent. Great conductors such as Thomas Beecham and Henry Wood had tried their hand (Beecham even conducting Stravinsky’s notoriously difficult Petrushka a mere handful of years after its premiere), and it was not only the local newspapers who were coming to the realisation that the second city of the British Empire (as Birmingham was then regarded) needed a full-time professional orchestra.
In a spirit of regeneration after the First World War, Birmingham City Council took soundings from the artistic great and good, as well as private sponsors, about the creation of a new Birmingham. At the heart of these plans, as Crescendo! tells us, was the intention to build a spanking new Civic Centre, with municipal offices, a public library, and a 5,000-seater concert-hall. None of those dreams came to fruition, at least not then, but the orchestra that everyone knew was needed to grace that much-desired concert-hall did indeed come into existence, thanks to the enlightenment of the city council, an attitude which thankfully persists even to this cuts-ridden day.
The orchestra also benefited from the support of a charitable trust set up in the name of John Feeney, the philanthropic son of the founder of the Birmingham Post, which was set up in his name to benefit the promotion and cultivation of art in the city.
Appleby Matthews, who worked tirelessly to promote musical activity in Birmingham (he even played the piano at tea-times in the restaurant at Lewis’s department store in Corporation Street), was very much involved in the creation of this orchestra, and also enlisted the unlikely musical co-operation of the City of Birmingham Police Band. He in fact rehearsed the City of Birmingham Orchestra for the very first time at 9.30am on Saturday, September 4, 1920 – in the Band Room at Steelhouse Lane Police Station.
Matthews, the first regular conductor of the CBO, would regularly call upon members of the Police Band to stiffen the ranks of the orchestra when extra scoring demanded, something which often ruffled the orchestral players, who would rather have seen properly-trained musicians making up the numbers.
Adrian Boult took over as principal conductor, bringing the orchestra to a huge level of expertise, and not least in contemporary music. He was one of the earliest champions of Mahler in this country, and the CBO played its part.
But there was also an unfortunate episode when Boult antagonised Elgar, proposing to conduct the composer’s Dream of Gerontius with reduced wind forces, for economic reasons. The composer and Boult, now revered as one of Elgar’s chief advocates, didn’t speak for years.
In 1929 the BBC persuaded Boult to leave the CBO and become its own musical director as well as principal conductor of the newly-formed BBC Symphony Orchestra. Boult took a few CBO players with him, the most illustrious being Paul Beard, leader of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, and now to become the long-serving and much-revered leader of the BBCSO.
The CBO was still a part-time orchestra, engaged for only part of the year. During the summer many of the players eked out their income playing in orchestras in spa towns, or at the seaside (even the great composer Gustav Holst had had to do the same in more impecunious days, playing his trombone in ensembles by the briny).
It was several years before the players were given permanent contracts, involving a great deal of work away from the Birmingham base, which obviously raised the profile both of the orchestra and its home city.
And by now the CBSO (as it became in 1948) was already relishing its roll-call of illustrious principal conductors: Boult, Leslie Heward, taken away from Britain’s musical life so young, George Weldon, Rudolf Schwarz, Andrzej Panufnik, Boult back again for a brief interim, Hugo Rignold, Louis Fremaux, Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo.
Nor should we forget the continuous thread of support the orchestra received from Harold Gray over many decades as associate conductor, and the lifeline Erich Schmid gave them in a very dark period at the end of the 1970s, holding the fort in important concerts after the unfortunate departure of Louis Fremaux.
During Rattle’s 18-year tenure (something of a long-term partnership in these jet-set days), the CBSO moved from its venerable old Town Hall home to the state-of-the-art auditorium which is Symphony Hall, where it now resides as the envy of the world.
And another envy of the world is its young Latvian music director, Andris Nelsons, whose programme for the celebrations is the Rosenkavalier Suite by Richard Strauss, Haydn’s Symphony No.90, and the Elgar Violin Concerto, James Ehnes the soloist.
Helen Berry, a long-term fan of the CBSO, and whose aunt, Gwen, played in the cello section for many years, has vivid memories of so much that has gone on in the orchestra’s history, and she will recount many of them during pre-birthday concert reminiscences on the platform at Symphony Hall.
Among them are memories of the orchestra giving concerts during wartime at the old West End cinema in Suffolk Street, of the three week-long series of Promenade Concerts over several decades, of a concert in Dudley Town Hall (April 14, 1948) where the audience had voted for the make-up of the programme, and rambles for members of the CBO Club (founded in 1945), led by double-bass player Reg Whittaker.
Despite these heady birthday celebrations, CBSO chief executive Stephen Maddock is down-to-earth and realistic about the challenges facing the orchestra in the next few years.
“We are having to face the difficulties in the economy both in the public sector and in the private sector, like everybody else, so we’re not immune to the real world.
“The Arts Council now knows its situation for the next four years, we know our funding from them for next year only, the same cut, 6.9 per cent, as everybody else, and we now have to apply for funding from 2012 onwards.
“It’s all about making the best case for your own organisation over the next few years,” he adds. “And that’s the same with Birmingham City Council, where we submit an application in September and the city will decide in December what it’s able to fund for the arts for the next three years.”
This short-termism has a marked effect upon forward-planning, as Stephen confirms.
“With a degree of caution, we just have to plan the main orchestra activity, as if it’s more or less business as usual. We have Andris with us until 2014, and we hope beyond that, so we carry on doing his programmes, and we carry on booking programmes with guest conductors, and I suppose the practical outcome is that I’m just having to be a bit more cautious than in happier times.
“But you can’t spend your entire time looking over your shoulder at these things, otherwise you’d never get anything else done, and I’m already talking about bits of planning going into 2013, 14, 15 , and you can’t stop working on it!”
* The CBSO’s 90th anniversary concerts are at Symphony Hall on Wednesday, November 10 (7.30pm) and Thursday, November 11 (2.15pm). Pre-concert reminiscences chaired by me with veteran players and supporters at 6.15pm and 1.15pm respectively. Details on 0121 780 3333.
CBSO: A brief history
* November 10, 1920. The City of Birmingham Orchestra performs in Birmingham Town Hall for the first time, Elgar conducting a programme devoted entirely to his own music.
* February 1948. At the request of its then principal conductor George Weldon, the orchestra adds another word to its name and becomes the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
* January 1966. Principal conductor Hugo Rignold conducts the orchestra in its first-ever LP recording: Music for Strings and Meditations on a Theme by John Blow by Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Music.
* June 1970. Louis Fremaux leads the CBSO into a distinguished recording career with EMI, beginning with a disc accompanying Birmingham-born David Hughes, a heartthrob pop star who had at last achieved his ambition of becoming an opera singer.
* October 3, 1973. Fremaux and Gordon Clinton, principal of the Birmingham School of Music, preside over the formation of CBSO Chorus. Simon Halsey is its current director, having been appointed in 1982, and who is one of the most highly-regarded choral trainers in the world – including in Berlin, where he works alongside Sir Simon Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic.
* 1980. Simon Rattle begins his 18-year tenure as principal conductor, taking the orchestra to the heights of world acclaim.
* 1991 Symphony Hall opens, and the CBSO is now able to programme works which Birmingham Town Hall would never have been able to accommodate, such as Schoenberg’s massive Gurrelieder.
* 1998. After Rattle’s departure – to the Berlin Philharmonic – Sakari Oramo, a young Finnish conductor enthusiastically endorsed by the CBSO players, becomes principal conductor. During his 10-year tenure English composers (Elgar, John Foulds, Britten and Frank Bridge among them) come very much to the forefront, not least with performances of Elgar’s three great oratorios (Dream of Gerontius, the Apostles, the Kingdom) on consecutive evenings.
* In September 2007 the CBSO plays for a private sound-check prior to the reopening of Birmingham Town Hall after its brilliant refurbishment. The relatively unknown Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons is on the podium, and an instant love-affair ignites between him and the orchestra, which immediately appoints him principal conductor and music director from September 2008.
Nelsons said he hopes to be with the orchestra at least until its centenary in 2020, “if they still want me!”. I think they will.