Terry Grimley previews a feast of classical music planned for Birmingham's two great concert halls.


After successfully running the newly reopened Town Hall in parallel with Symphony Hall over the last six months, Performances Birmingham has launched an ambitious International Concert Season split between the two venues.

Highlights of the 2008/9 season, which runs from October to May, include the return of Sir Simon Rattle in December to conduct two of Schumann's symphonies with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a mini-residency by the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera, which will perform Verdi's Requiem and Britten's War Requiem on consecutive nights under dynamic young music director Antonio Pappano.

Another of London's bright young conductors, Vladimir Jurowski, will conduct the London Philharmonic in Act II of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde as part of a strand called Ultimate Romantics, which also includes a rare performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia. This lush early work, predating Schoenberg's atonal period, is so vast in the forces it requires that it was used as the template around which the Symphony Hall stage was designed.

All of the above concerts take place at Symphony Hall, where the season begins on October 7 with Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Mahler's Third Symphony.

A week later Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St Petersburg Philharmonic in music by Liadov and Tchaikovsky and also, intriguingly, Elgar's Cello Concerto with Dutch cellist Quirine Viersen.

Other international orchestras visiting Symphony Hall during the season include the Orchester der KlangVerwaltung Munich, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Mitsuko Uchida, the Prague Symphony Orchestra and the Orquesta Nacional de Espana.

The Town Hall continues with its now-established niche of piano recitals, chamber music and baroque music.

Pianists Paul Lewis and Peter Donohoe, the Tokyo and Brodsky Quartets, the Nash Ensemble, violin and piano duo Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt will all be playing the Town Hall, together with a scratch quartet of outstanding young players, including brilliant Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku, who will mark Messaien's centenary with a performance of Quartet For the End of Time, composed in a POW camp in 1941.

Philip Pickett conducts the New London Consort in Purcell's Dido & Aeneas, and Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music perform Handel's Arianna in Creta. One sure-[f_i]re sell-out will surely be the visit of the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, on December 20, days before their traditional Christmas broadcast from King's. The repertoire for this seasonal concert includes music by Birmingham composer John Joubert.

The season culminates in a Bach weekend spanning both venues, with Thomas Trotter playing the Trio Sonatas on the Symphony Hall organ, and the Town Hall hosting Angela Hewitt in the Goldberg Variations and Natalie Clein and Alina Ibragimova in the works for solo cello and violin.

Finally, two concerts by Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra, now embarked on a three-year celebration of its 40th anniversary, are included in the season: Mendelssohn's Elijah, in the original version first heard in the Town Hall in 1846, in October 2008, and Bach's St Matthew Passion next Easter.

Andrew Jowett, director of Town Hall and Symphony Hall, said: "We've had a first season in the two venues and that's worked out well. We weren't quite sure how it would go, but as we hoped the Town Hall has worked extremely well for piano recitals and chamber music.

"The problem with the Town Hall has always been sound leakage from outside, but the double-glazing and acoustic blinds seem to have solved that problem. In Symphony Hall we're spoilt but because there's total silence."

Paul Keene, director of programming, said audiences at the Town Hall had taken off with the visits of the Takacs Quartet - said by some to be the world's finest string quartet - and pianist Stephen Hough.

"The Takacs Quartet said it was their perfect venue in the UK," he revealed. "They even preferred it to the Wigmore Hall - despite the fact that the lights went out on them during their concert."

* A brochure containing full details of the 2008-9 International Concert Season at Symphony Hall and Town Hall is available now. For more information call 0121 780 3333 or visit www.thsh.co.uk