The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra celebrates its centenary – and looks to the future

United KingdomUnited Kingdom CBSO Centenary Concert – Schumann, Elgar, Saint-Saёns, Hannah Kendall, A.R. Rahman, Stravinsky: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Roopa Panesar (sitar), Adrian Lester (presenter), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Streamed live on the CBSO YouTube and Facebook channels from PRG’s Live Stage Studio, Longbridge, Birmingham. 5.9.2020. (JQ)

Schumann – Genoveva – Overture
Elgar – Serenade for Strings
Saint-Saёns – Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor
Hannah KendallThe Spark Catchers (2017)
A.R. Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire Suite
StravinskyThe Firebird – Suite (1919)

On Sunday 5 September 1920, at 7pm, Appleby Mathews, founding conductor of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, began the orchestra’s inaugural concert. Precisely 100 years later, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was able to mark the centenary with a concert. I use the words ‘was able’ very deliberately because, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the orchestra has not been able to play in public since March and it was only with a huge amount of work, imagination and flexibility from everyone involved that this event took place at all. The orchestra’s very first concert took place in the city’s Theatre Royal. The original plan had been for the CBSO to celebrate its centenary in Symphony Hall, their home since 1991. However, that venue remains closed and instead the orchestra took over PRG’s Live Stage Studio, Longbridge, a substantial former warehouse, I believe. Though no audience could be present, the size of this venue at least meant that the full orchestra could assemble.

One might have expected that the CBSO’s Osborn Music Director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla would have been on the rostrum for such a concert but she is currently on maternity leave. Her place was taken by Sir Simon Rattle. In many ways that felt fitting because it was under Rattle’s long leadership (1980-1998) that the CBSO advanced to the stature that it currently occupies in the world of music. It turned out to be a particularly happy choice for another important reason. Unlike many of his colleagues, Sir Simon has conducted quite a few concerts during the Covid emergency, including a fine BBC Prom with the LSO just a few days ago (review),  and so has more experience than most in conducting under the constraints of social distancing.

Wisely, no attempt was made to replicate the programme given in 1920. Richard Bratby detailed the musical bill of fare in his splendid centenary history of the CBSO (review); it was a long programme. However, one piece was carried over from 1920 to 2020: Elgar’s delightful Serenade for Strings.

The programme began with Schumann’s overture to his opera Genoveva. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that Simon Rattle conducted much Schumann during his time with the CBSO but he’s become a keen advocate of the composer with both the Berlin Philharmonic and the LSO. The performance of the overture was a good one. The slow opening was suitably brooding, after which the main allegro was spirited and well played.

The Elgar Serenade received a lovely performance. The first of its three short movements was delicately done; the music had a nice spring in its step. The slow central movement was played with affection and warmth. Rattle moulded the music with great care for the dynamics and he also ensured that the performance flowed. The last movement was happy and smiling. I must admit that I found this account of the Serenade very moving. In part that was due to the music itself and the quality of the performance but also it was the association with that very first concert that tugged at the heart strings.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), & the CBSO

The young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was an ideal choice as concerto soloist on more than one count. He is an exciting talent who has earned a deservedly high profile in just a few years. More than that, though, he has become a favourite soloist for the CBSO and his debut concerto recording – the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto – was made with them (review). Apparently, the Saint-Saëns concerto, which he played, was the first concerto he learned. He gave a fine performance. The first movement was buoyant and engaging, the soloist grasping eagerly the opportunities to display virtuosity. But while I admired that aspect of his playing, for me the most memorable moment came in his exquisite delivery of the subdued bridge passage that leads without a break into the slow movement. Once past that bridge, it was evident from his demeanour that Kanneh-Mason really appreciated the delicacy with which the CBSO introduced the movement. As the movement unfolded his lovely singing tone was a delight. He and Rattle made the music into a courtly dance, which I very much liked. The finale, which also follows attacca, was full of vitality from soloist and orchestra. As heard in this relay, Kanneh-Mason was balanced rather more forwardly than would be the case in a concert hall. That had the effect of masking at times the vivacious accompaniment but it did mean that we could appreciate to the full the solo cello. Sheku Kanneh-Mason was a terrific soloist.

The CBSO has championed new music throughout its history – and especially during and since the Rattle era. It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that the programme included a short recent work by Hannah Kendall. Introducing The Spark Catchers, Ms Kendall explained that it was inspired by the similarly-titled poem by Lemm Sissay. I was not familiar with this poem before hearing the music. The piece divides into three short, continuous sections. It opens with busy, staccato music which was incisively played by the CBSO. In the middle of the piece, the pace slows and quiet mysterious writing for the strings and harp introduces a more pensive episode in which the woodwind eventually join. Fast staccato music then resumes – I’m unsure at first hearing how much this reprises the opening section. In these closing moments, powerful brass writing is pitted against the nimble figurations happening elsewhere in the orchestra. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t really ‘get’ the piece on first acquaintance. However, it is inventively written for the orchestra and Ms Kendall could not have wished for finer advocacy than her piece received from this conductor and orchestra.

Birmingham is a city that prides itself on its diversity and so it was appropriate that the programme should include music that references that aspect of the city’s life.  We heard a suite from A.R. Rahman’s music for Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. For this, the orchestra was joined by the brilliant young sitar virtuoso, Roopa Panesar, Nottingham-born but trained in Birmingham. First, the orchestra gave a big-hearted account of what I think was the Main Title music from the film. (I can’t be sure because I’ve only seen the film once, quite some time ago). That was followed by a lengthy solo by Ms Panesar – was this an improvisation? She began slowly and thoughtfully but gradually increased both the speed and intensity of her playing. Her formidably-played solo led without a break into a vigorous final dance in which she and the orchestra collaborated. This was exuberant, but it seemed to me that Rahman made a little musical material go quite a long way. I’m not sure how well Rahman’s music worked as a standalone concert item divorced from the film, but it was an appropriate choice for this programme.

Finally, we heard the 1919 suite from The Firebird. This earned its place by right since it was the very first music that Simon Rattle and the CBSO played in Symphony Hall back in 1991, even before the hall’s official opening. The music is archetypical Rattle territory; indeed, he made a splendid recording of the complete ballet with the CBSO back in 1986 (review). The Rattle magic was in evidence immediately with a hushed account of the Introduction that was full of tension and promise. The Firebird’s Dance, which followed, glimmered and shimmered; here was vitality and balletic grace. ‘Ronde des princesses’ featured many delightful individual solos before the pleasant mood was shattered by Kastchei’s Dance. This was packed with malevolent energy, the playing incisive. The CBSO’s principal bassoon distinguished himself in the ‘Berceuse’, as did several of his colleagues. There was another bit of Rattle magic in the transition to the ‘Final’; here, the strings laid a barely audible carpet of sound to prepare the way for the horn solo. The orchestra then built this movement thrillingly to achieve a majestic, celebratory end to the suite and to the concert. This was the performance of the evening.

Though the music was the main thing, of course, there was much more to this two-hour celebration of the CBSO’s centenary. In between each of the pieces there were video messages from a wide selection of members of the CBSO family, including Simon Rattle’s three successors, Sakari Oramo, Andris Nelsons and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Naturally, there was quite a bit of congratulation in these messages but as the evening progressed a different theme became ever more evident. This evening wasn’t about looking back; primarily, it was about looking forward with confidence and excitement. The CBSO hadn’t played together in public for nearly six months – though I detected no signs of rustiness on this occasion – and goodness knows when the Covid emergency will allow them to resume concerts in front of audiences. However, the mood seemed to me to be summed up by one contributor, David Gregory, a retired violinist with the CBSO, who referred to the recent disruption as an ‘interruption’ to the orchestra’s history. The CBSO showed great strength of corporate character and a determination – both among the players and everyone else involved with the orchestra – to do great things as an orchestra for Birmingham and the West Midlands in the next 100 years. I thought it was telling how much emphasis was put on the CBSO’s work with and for young people: that’s where the future lies.       

The City of Birmingham Orchestra can legitimately claim that it gave two inaugural concerts. The September 1920 concert was one of what proved to be a very popular series of Sunday concerts. However, there was a distinct series of Symphony Concerts. The first of those concerts was given in Birmingham Town Hall on November 10 1920 when Sir Edward Elgar himself conducted a programme of his own music: Falstaff, the Cello Concerto (with Felix Salmond) and the Second Symphony. I think we can take it as read that the CBSO will be marking that centenary also in some enterprising way. The orchestra has no control over the reopening of Symphony Hall but let’s hope that will be possible very soon.

The evening was presented by Birmingham-born actor, Adrian Lester. I’ll confess that when I saw a presenter was to be involved, I was slightly apprehensive, knowing how gushing and distracting some presenters of televised concerts can be on the BBC. (The recent First Night of the Proms concert was a typical example.) Mr Lester banished any apprehension right from the start. Throughout the evening he was relaxed and completely professional as he introduced the music and gave us some insights into the orchestra’s history. At the end, glass of bubbly in hand, he gave us the toast: ‘To music, community and the next one hundred years’. Ideally chosen words. Happy 100th birthday, CBSO!

John Quinn   

The concert is available to stream free of charge on the CBSO’s YouTube channel (click here) until the end of September.

1 thought on “The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra celebrates its centenary – and looks to the future”

  1. It was indeed a memorable concert and the reviewer does it full justice. Here’s to the next 100 years!


Leave a Comment