University of Birmingham’s music department heads to the Q Club for a big concert. Christopher Morley find out more.

The music department from the University of Birmingham moves out of its idyllic Edgbaston campus and back into the very heart of Birmingham for two spectacular concerts this week.

Previously known as the Methodist Central Hall, and latterly a rock venue, the Q Club in Corporation Street (opposite the magistrates’ court) is the venue for a huge presentation of works scored for massive forces – two from the Renaissance period and two from the second half of the 20th century.

Allegri’s famous Miserere, sole property of the Papacy but famously illicitly scribbled down by the teenaged Mozart in the Sistine Chapel, and the 40-part Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis, recently heard at Birmingham Town Hall in a spectacular concert from Ex Cathedra, rub many shoulders with music by Stockhausen and Luciano Berio.

Stockhausen’s Carre, composed in 1959/60, surrounds the audience with four groups of instrumentalists and singers, exploring subtle changes of timbre, and was inspired by the composer’s observations of shifting clouds from an aeroplane window over North America.

And Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II from 1965 will be staged within the vast arena of this historic religious venue turned night-club, bringing to life the work’s implied groupings of narrator, singers, instrumental ensemble – and “an unruly chorus of actors”.

Among the performers are the Birmingham University Singers, the New Music Ensemble, BEAST (Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Sound Theatre) and members of Birmingham Opera Company, who had their initial rehearsals for this project in the Old Joint Stock pub in Temple Row, just opposite St Philip’s Cathedral.

Vic Hoyland, from the university’s department of music, is one of the instigators of this mammoth conception, which he says was originally devised in the 1990s.

“Around 15 years ago my colleague Jonty Harrison, myself, our New Music Ensemble, plus some singers from Birmingham Conservatoire, put on Stockhausen’s Momente in collaboration with the then very youthful Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and it attracted Simon Rattle’s attention,” he said.

“Since those early, heady days, somewhere in the back of my mind, and shared with Jonty, has been a dream to attempt a performance of Carré.

Vic said the work is significantly shorter than Momente but the reason it had been left on the shelf until now was due to the complexities of the performance.

These include the necessity for a large orchestra and chamber choir, split into four teams, with the audience “inside” the performance, surrounded by the four ensembles.

There was also the challenging technical requirements (computer assistance, and amplification of the voices as well as some instruments), the need for four conductors plus a large and essentially empty arena in which to realize a performance.

Vic says: “Two research areas in our music department and new blood composers/conductors at last made us dare to take on the challenge of this extraordinary work and create a whole evening around it. The once-in-my-lifetime opportunity to have a go presented itself, so Scott Wilson and Lee Differ now find themselves as conductors three and four.”

Vic describes how, with the input of Mary O’Neill, director of the university’s Centre for Early Music Performance and Research, it seemed a natural idea to sandwich “spatially conceived masterpieces from an earlier age” between Carre and Berio’s Laborintus II, the latter taking advantage of the performance space for “a more theatrical presentation than usual for what is already a highly musically dramatic work written in the same period of lively experiment in new music in the early 1960s”.

Vic and his colleagues worked long and hard to seek out a venue for the presentation.

“We searched Birmingham for three years, trying to find somewhere appropriate and affordable.

“Birmingham Opera had acquired a semi-derelict site by the canal-side in Ladywood, the Rubber Factory, and their artistic director Graham Vick kindly offered it to us, free of charge, for our project but it would have cost us an arm and a leg to transform the space. Unfortunately we don’t carry the same clout as Graham in this city.

“So the search went on for the appropriate place. The venue had to tie in with my ideas for Laborintus II.

“The old Methodist Central Hall is a very proud and grand old building. I had no idea it was a night club. However, some older students from our university frequented this night spot in their student days and expressed a genuine fondness for the place now called the Q Club. Rock concerts take place on a regular basis throughout the summer months.

“It was magnificent in its heyday, but it’s now a bit battered and showing its age. The current manager, Billy, is looking to diversify. When we walked up the imposing staircase and saw the place for the first time with its spectacular arena, we just looked at each-other and exclaimed: this is it! Billy responded with enthusiasm and a willingness to help find a way for this venture to take place.”

This project marks the last big undertaking in which Vic Hoyland will be involved before he retires from the university, though he admits to having found the whole business “invigorating”.

“I just love hard work. Still, as I approach 65 very soon, I think we need a reality check. I hope people can agree that I’ve made an important contribution to musical life in this university and to the city of Birmingham.

"The strong link with the CBSO Centre and BCMG is established and must continue to flourish. Our most recent research rating was amongst the highest in the country and there is every expectation that composition might expand within the university and that I could be replaced with two new composers.”

And Vic plans to spend much of his time in his beloved Sicily when he retires. “I have a flat in Palermo: the climate, the food, some of the people, the history and its remains (some of the most glorious Greek temple sites to found anywhere, especially Segesta), the great wines, and the sea...

“I hope to spend six months of my year there. The long hours of sunshine encourage a certain focusing of the mind, perfect for composition; my recent years have been very productive.”

He’s already planning new work. “A large scale piece for voices and ensemble, a sort of prequel to Laborintus II, based on the Sicilian poetry that inspired Dante to take the leap and write in the vernacular his love poetry and, eventually, The Divine Comedy. A new work needs a new commission,” he says.

Squares – Circles – Labyrinths at the Q Club, Corporation Street, Thursday and Friday (7pm). Details on 0121 414 7333.