CBSO Centenary Celebrations


by Christopher Morley
It began its existence rehearsing in the band room at Steelhouse Lane police station and giving concerts in the Theatre Royal in New Street and the Futurist cinema in John Bright Street, both a dolly stone's throw from Birmingham's New Street railway station. Today its home is in one of the world's finest concert-halls, Symphony Hall in Birmingham city centre, a venue which was built expressly to accommodate the great world-renowned ensemble the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has become.
And this autumn the CBSO begins two years of concerts celebrating the centenary of its founding, originally as the City of Birmingham Orchestra (it added the "Symphony", at principal conductor George Weldon's behest, in February 1948) , with funding from the City Council which continues to this day, a wise munificence which we should applaud and never take for granted.
What we can take as the landmark inaugural concert was that given on November 10 1920 in Birmingham Town Hall, conducted by no less than the Midlands' greatest-ever composer and at that time indeed the country's greatest (and possibly still is). Sir Edward Elgar directed a programme of his own works: Falstaff, the new Cello Concerto (Felix Salmond the soloist) and the Second Symphony. The Birmingham Mail reported that the orchestra's playing was "a credit to the city".
That credit to the city has grown in stature day-by-day, and the orchestra's recent roster of principal conductors -- Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo, Andris Nelsons, and now Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla are currently the hottest properties on podiums worldwide.
The CBSO is about to launch a two-year celebration of its golden century, revisiting some of the works which have studded its history, and premiering new ones.
We begin on September 26 with an absolutely amazing programme, Mirga conducting Britten's searing, ultimately consolatory Sinfonia da Requiem (Rattle and the CBSO were permitted to give one reading of its original version, the music preserved in Tokyo, and I still have the markings in my score from that performance), and Tippett's pacifist oratorio A Child of Our Time.
This was the first work the CBSO commercially recorded (Collins Classics) in Symphony Hall in the late summer/early autumn of 1991, with the composer conducting. It was an amazingly emotional occasion, the near-sightless Tippett conducting from an enlarged and specially marked-up score, and I was privileged to be the only non-participant present.
Many other great choral works provide highlights of these centenary celebrations, all displaying the brilliant talents of the Simon Halsey-coached CBSO Chorus and its many ancillaries. Mahler's Symphony no.8, the "Symphony of a Thousand" which was planned very, very early on in the City of Birmingham Orchestra's existence (until it was realised there was not a venue to accommodate these forces -- we had to wait for Symphony Hall to provide the ideal performance space for a professional performance);Mendelssohn's Elijah, premiered under the composer's baton in 1846 in the Birmingham Town Hall which was actually built to entice this world superstar to Birmingham; Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, premiered in that same Town Hall in 1900.
And, of course, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, premiered at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in May 1962, when the CBSO and a specially-formed Festival Chorus were conducted by Meredith Davies, director of the City of Birmingham Choir. Even if there had been nothing else of moment in this orchestra's proud 100 years, its participation in the premiere of such a masterpiece will have guaranteed its reputation for all eternity.
All these huge works, and more, will figure in the two years of celebration which await us, but nostalgia is not the only element in these festivities.
The CBSO has long held an enviable reputation for the commissioning of new works, thanks largely to the generosity of the Feeney Trust, a reminder of the artistic philanthropy of a past owner of the Birmingham Post. And there will be 20 new commissions figuring in the orchestra's programmes over the next couple of seasons, including works by Thea Musgrave (whose new Trumpet Concerto is a current gem in the CBSO's crown), Jorg Widmann, and Unsuk Chin.
Two composers with strong past associations with the CBSO are also featured: Julian Anderson with what has been described as a "ravishing" new Cello Concerto, and Thomas Ades, whose long-awaited First Symphony will be premiered under the baton of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.
And Mirga, Osborn Music Director of this great orchestra, concludes.
"Leading the CBSO is a great honour for me, and I could not be more excited about the journey ahead of us as we continue to set the standards for orchestras around the world."

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