Christopher Morley reflects on the rise of the Birmingham Chamber Music Society and the factors leading to its demise after 60 years.
A major chapter in the book of our city’s musical life is brought to a sad close on Saturday when Birmingham Chamber Music Society presents the final concert in its 60-year history.
During all this time the BCMS has brought top-class chamber-music provision right into the city centre, supplying what was then a perceived need in 1952; but that void has gradually been filled in during subsequent years as other organisations have stepped up to the plate.
Since 1946 there had been a well-established series of chamber concerts at the Barber Institute, bringing internationally-renowned artists to the Birmingham University campus.
Only members of the university were allowed to apply for tickets (which were free), with the result that there arose a feeling that the Barber Concerts were constituted an exclusive club for privileged individuals.
Perhaps reflecting his responsibility towards the world outside the groves of Academe, Wilfred Mellers, Staff Tutor at the University’s Extramural Department, assembled a group of enthusiasts (including the pathologist, clinician and poet, Dr Edward Lowbury) with the aim of forming a society to bring music away from the province of the “gown”, right into “town”, performed by artists of the highest international calibre.
The enterprise took off spectacularly. Within a few years BCMS had become over-subscribed, with the creation of a waiting-list for subscriptions, and there would be lines of people queuing in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for returned tickets. The concerts took place in the rather overheated room at the end of the gallery leading right out of the central hub. When, many years later, the concerts had to be moved away from there (the room was about to be refurbished into the popular restaurant we know today), and into the less appropriate surroundings of Birmingham Cathedral, that was perhaps an early nail in the society’s coffin.
But before that move happened Birmingham Chamber Music Society went through a long sunlit period of glory days, bringing performers such as the Amadeus String Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio, the Nash Ensemble, and the Smetana Quartet, playing from memory, as Margaret Handford remembers in Sounds Unlikely, her invaluable book chronicling the history of music in Birmingham.
Birmingham Chamber Music Society also holds a special place for me personally, as my first-ever review for the Birmingham Post was of a BCMS promotion in the 1969-70 season, when the Prague Quartet played works by Haydn, Beethoven and Ravel, to what I noted was a “capacity audience” at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The enforced move away from the intimate, comfortable (if stuffy) and upmarket Art Gallery was one certainly one factor contributing to the society’s long and determined struggle to keep afloat. For all its gracious elegance, Birmingham Cathedral did not prove a congenial venue for chamber-music, and its proportions dwarfed an audience which would have appeared full in BCMS’ previous home.
1987 saw a further relocation, this time to the new Adrian Boult Hall within Birmingham Conservatoire, acoustically and physically comfortable, with excellent sightlines and front-of-house facilities, but again too large for the size of audience that BCMS was now attracting. It could also be said that the society had moved into the lion’s den, Birmingham Conservatoire being one of the organisations whose own concert series were poaching potential BCMS audiences.
The establishing of chamber music concerts at the BBC Studios in Pebble Mill (plus the excitement of being present at a live broadcast), at the spectacular new Symphony Hall (and later in the refurbished Town Hall) combined further to dilute BCMS audiences.
Possibly another crucial element was the decision made at the Barber Institute to make admission to its concerts, hitherto the uncharged privilege of university members, available from 1992 onwards to a paying audience, thereby making its promotions available to all and sundry and further diverting audiences from BCMS promotions. Circumstances had changed since 1952. Forty years on, increased car ownership now enable town indeed to come to gown.
And transport developments meant another obstacle to the continued survival of Birmingham Chamber Music Society. The virtual pedestrianisation of Birmingham city centre, and the less-than-splendid isolation of the Adrian Boult Hall, only approachable by foot through Victoria Square or Paradise Forum, or via less-than-welcoming underpasses, made trips into the area on Saturday evenings far from an enticing prospect.
The society’s heroic committee tried all kinds of initiatives to keep it afloat: a showcase for young performers; a link-up with Birmingham Conservatoire with a composition competition; an extra summer concert in a different location; and, a significant development, a move away from wall-to-wall string quartets now to feature mixed ensembles as well.
But economic reality has prevailed, and Saturday sees the curtain being drawn down on Birmingham Chamber Music Society. How fitting, though, that this final concert should have at its heart a contemporary work (BCMS has always been instrumental in encouraging new music), one by its much-loved past chairman of 25 years sitting, John Joubert, previously such a presence in the music department at Birmingham University.
In Joubert, “town and gown” were united. With the demise of Birmingham Chamber Music Society, the town will be greatly diminished.
* BCMS presents the Enesco Quartet in Haydn, Joubert and Dvorak at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham on Saturday (7.15pm). Details on 0121 245 4455.