Simon Halsey doesn’t look old enough to be marking his 30th anniversary.

But he was even more fresh-faced at 24 when he first arrived as the chorus director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The first work he conducted was Britten’s War Requiem, then considered to be difficult, very modern music.

Tomorrow he is inducted into the CBSO Hall of Fame, alongside such greats as Sirs Edward Elgar, Adrian Boult and Simon Rattle, at a unique choral concert to mark 100 years to the day since Britten’s birth.

For the first time in 10 years, the family of CBSO choirs – the Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus – will come together to perform without the orchestra in a main season CBSO concert. And they’ll be joined by two choirs from University of Birmingham, meaning 400 singers will gather at Symphony Hall.

It’s only fitting, as it was Simon who founded all these extra choruses.

“When I first joined, it was just the adult choir and we didn’t have any education programmes,” remembers Simon, now 55.

“We only had a few administrators at the top of a building in Margaret Street. Now we have Symphony Hall, all the choruses, offices in Berkley Street and the reach of the operation is enormous in comparison.

“I don’t feel a day older than when I joined, though I am just about beginning to get the hang of the job!

“In those days the furthest we played was Sutton Coldfield and Bedworth. Now we tour to Australia, America, Canada and all over Europe. In a few weeks, we’re off to Helsinki.”

Simon is also Professor of Choral Activities at University of Birmingham, a post he was given a year ago after a chat with the Vice-Chancellor. He founded a Master of Arts course in choral conducting to train the musicians of the future.

But then Simon is used to being a trailblazer. Born in Surrey, he was a cathedral choir boy at New College Oxford and won a music scholarship to Kings College Cambridge.

Then he was a student on the first course for conducting at the Royal College of Music.

“It’s amazing to think that there weren’t any formal courses in Britain before then – I was the first.

“If I was German or American, I would have done a masters in choral conducting and emerged at about 28 looking for my first job.

“As it was, at 22 I became director of music at Warwick University. Incidentally, on the Masters course at Birmingham University now are three students whose parents I taught at Warwick.

“When I joined the CBSO, it was an extraordinary time. Simon Rattle was also in his twenties and Thomas Trotter was our organist at just 23. We all had to find our way into the jobs. Simon and I were just learning as we went along.

“I got by on enthusiasm, personality and love for the music. But I passionately believe in equipping people with the tools to do the job, which is why I was so keen to work with both Birmingham and Cardiff Universities on training the conductors of the future.

“The very first thing I recorded with the CBSO was Britten’s War Requiem in the Great Hall of Birmingham University with Simon Rattle.

“Back then, it was just 20 years old and considered very modern, and people found bits of it very difficult. Now it’s a standard piece of music. We performed it 19 times last year, 15 times in Europe with three different orchestras.

“We used to do just six concerts a year, now we do between 20 and 30.’’

He adds: “My blood runs cold when I remember my low point with the CBSO. About a year in, the standard of singing started to slip and it was my fault. I remember Simon Rattle telling me to pull my socks up, which I did.”

Now Simon is looking forward to conducting his 102nd to 105th CBSO Christmas concerts. This year they are joined at Symphony Hall by Birmingham-born actor Mark Williams for carols, seasonal stories and humorous tales.

Simon says: “We used to just do two Christmas concerts at the Town Hall, now we do four for about 10,000 people.

“We have had fabulous guests over the years, such as Juliet Stevenson, Angela Rippon and Arthur Lowe. We just adore Alan Titchmarsh but I am particularly looking forward to Mark Williams as I am a massive Harry Potter fan.”

Father-of-two Simon, who lives in Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire with his wife, Radio 4 producer Lucy Lunt, is in the middle of two of the busiest years of his life, as he tries to split himself into three.

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle
 

His main commitment will always be Birmingham, but at the moment he is also chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Choir and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Youth Choral Programme, frequently collaborating with his old friend Sir Simon Rattle.

But last year he also took over as choral director of the London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus.

“It was too good an opportunity to turn down,” he says. “In an ideal world I would have finished in Berlin and started in London. At the moment I’m doing both jobs, but winding down in Berlin.

“I spend a lot of time travelling between Birmingham and Berlin. Thank goodness there’s now a direct flight – I used to have to change at Frankfurt, four times a week. I often take 200 flights a year. I must be Birmingham Airport’s best customer!

“In 2015 my travelling will be mainly up and down the Chiltern railway line.”

So what does Simon make of choirmasters like Gareth Malone, who have helped to make singing popular with his hit BBC2 series The Choir, this time featuring Birmingham City Council?

“It’s wonderful that he is riding the crest of a huge wave of enthusiasm for choral singing. I went to a conference 26 years ago where we pondered how we were going to revive choral music. That’s when I founded the youth choirs.

“Now I’m delighted to see the results of that.

“The CBSO is my musical family that has nurtured me and I will stay as long as they will have me.

“At the moment I am on the committee to find a replacement for CBSO director Andris Nelsons. We were very lucky to strike gold three times in 30 years, now I hope we can do it again.”

* Simon Halsey conducts the CBSO and Mark Williams in Festive Favourites at Symphony Hall on December 19, 22 and 23. For tickets ring 0121 345 0600 or go to www.thsh.co.uk.