Royal Birmingham Conservatoire -Opening Festival by Christopher Morley

Though Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has recently launched its year-long Opening Festival, in fact ever since the magnificent new building opened its doors to the current academic year last September it has been adding further jewels to Birmingham's cultural crown.

In March the CBSO's Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducted the RBC Symphony Orchestra in a Royal Gala concert attended by the RBC's patron, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and a couple of weeks ago the first concert of the festival featured a genial Peter and the Wolf narrated by Birmingham City University Chancellor Sir Lenny Henry, accompanied by the expert RBC Pops Orchestra under Christopher Houlding  That event was recorded and broadcast by Classic FM.

RBC Principal Julian Lloyd Webber shares my enthusiastic reaction to that concert.

"Yes, Sir Lenny’s performance was brilliant," he says, "and both the BBC and Classic FM have really taken to RBC’s beautiful concert hall because it is completely sound-proof, no outside noise at all, which makes it ideal for recording."

And RBC achieved another triumph just two weekends ago, when 16-year-old Lauren Chang from King Edward's High School for Girls, Edgbaston, and a Saturday student at the Junior Conservatoire, won the BBC Young Musician competition with a stunning account of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, accompanied by the CBSO conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. Julian expands on the significance of this event.

"The Conservatoire’s recent success with Lauren really demonstrates the depth of Birmingham’s classical music scene. Firstly Lauren herself is a phenomenon – one of the finest young talents I have ever heard. Then the final itself was held in the city’s magnificent Symphony Hall and the orchestra on the night was the wonderful CBSO!"

Among the attractions of this term's segment of the Opening Festival are a visit from the legendary pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, a pupil of the great Edwin Fischer (June 12 7pm), a two-day celebration of the music of Sir Arnold Bax (June 18 and 19), and a lunchtime recital from saxophonist Jess Gillam, a finalist in the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition.

And there will be a happy return of the conductor Barry Wordsworth, whose Verdi Requiem, which he took over at the eleventh hour, closed the old Conservatoire's Adrian Boult Hall with such style and colour two years ago. This time round he presides over A Queer Concerto for Nine Saxophones and Orchestra by RBC deputy head of composition Michael Wolters, and ballet repertoire, including Stravinsky's Firebird (June 29 7pm).

"We are planning exciting events all the time," Julian enthuses. "Our Department Heads for individual instruments have great personal contacts so we have a constant stream of top visiting musicians. Without giving too much away I know that we will be having a return visit from the soprano Danielle de Niese, and composer John Rutter will be conducting a special Easter concert of his music."

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire now has its own professional orchestra-in-residence, with Orchestra of the Swan's first concert on May 28 (2.30pm, pre-concert talk with me at 1.30pm), with Julian on the baton. 

"I'm  really looking forward to it," he beams, "especially as I will be conducting my fellow-cellist wife Jiaxin and her brilliant Chinese compatriot, Jian Wang in lovely pieces for cello. And the Elgar works are also great favourites of mine. I have worked with the Orchestra of the Swan many times as a soloist so I know the players really well. It’s always a brilliant feeling of mutual collaboration in concert!"

 With EastSide still something of an unknown quantity for some concertgoers, how are attendances? And is there any possibility of a taxi-rank being established?

"Our attendances are steadily building – and many of our events are sold out. As a Londoner for many years I find it extraordinary that people think twice about walking for fifteen minutes - I lost count of the number of times it took me an hour trying to find the Barbican! Regarding the obviously essential ‘pull in’ for taxis, etc, you’ll have to ask the Council who I have written to many times without receiving a reply….

We conclude by discussing something really important: the Conservatoire's own special beer blended to Julian's own cultured and experienced taste. Can we look forward to quaffing it into the future, and what did His Royal Highness Prince Edward think of it? Julian smiles.

"Wye Valley Brewery’s wonderful Conservatoire Ale will certainly be continuing. We are having to order three times the number of barrels originally predicted! The Principal’s Ale was widely available at the post-concert reception following our Opening Gala, and HRH was certainly made aware!"

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