CBSO and Rattle streaming from a car warehouse

by Christopher Morley

It will be a strange experience for members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when they assemble on Saturday September 5 for their first live performance since lockdown in March.

There will be no audience, no reviewers, and the comforts and acoustic wonders of Symphony Hall will seem very far removed from the car warehouse in Longbridge, once the heart of Birmingham's motorland, where the event is going to happen.

And the players will be socially distanced, two metres apart. No cosy desk-sharing between string-partners, no synchronised breathing between woodwind, no quips muttered along the brass phalanx. Perhaps only the percussionists will be the less discomfited performers, as they are used to scattering about in splendid isolation.

Rehearsals at the CBSO Centre have had to be split, half the orchestra at a time, and Michael Seal, preparing the CBSO for the performance, has tweeted how much the unusual movements of conducting these distanced performers has put a strain on his right arm. I have witnessed that happening with amateur conductors in normal circumstances; for it to be afflicting such an experienced conductor as Seal is quite significant.

This will not be the way the CBSO was planning to celebrate the exact centenary of its first-ever public performance as the City of Birmingham Orchestra (at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, Appleby Matthews conducting) but all the stops have been pulled out to make this jamboree happen. It will celebrate the CBSO's long history and look to the future through a mixture of live music, pre-filmed interviews and projected imagery.

The Birmingham-born actor Adrian Lester will be the presenter for the ground-breaking performance, which includes guest appearances from Sheku Kanneh-Mason in Saint-Saens' Cello Concerto no.1. and sitar player Roopa Panesar featuring in A.R. Rahman's Slumdog Millionaire Suite, reflecting a brilliant concert the CBSO gave of the composer's music a few seasons ago.
And the icing on the cake is that Sir Simon Rattle will be returning to the podium to conduct the orchestra of which he was music director for 18 years, raising it to the heights of worldwide awareness.

Other works on the programme are Schumann's Genoveva Overture, Elgar's Serenade for Strings, a new piece by Hannah Kendall, the Spark Catchers, and the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky's Firebird ballet.

Pre-filmed video interviews with past and present music directors will explore what it means to be part of the CBSO Family, as will interviews with musicians, supporters, young people involved in the orchestra's Learning and Engagement programme, and other special guests who have helped contribute to the CBSO's great history. The event will mark the start of the public launch of an ambitious £12.5m fundraising campaign, The Sound of the Future, designed to ensure the orchestra's recovery post-Covid and drive its longer-term renewal for its second century. It will be streamed on the CBSO's YouTube and Facebook Channels #CBSO100, free until the end of September.

CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock is realistic about the constraints of the enterprise.

"Alas we have no guests at all at the actual filming because of the strict Covid requirements of the venue and crew etc. It wouldn't be much of an experience actually – much of the most interesting material is on videos between the pieces which you wouldn't see there, the presenter will be talking to camera not to any audience, and the acoustic is by no means that of a concert hall (it will sound marvellous online thanks to the wonders of digital technology!). So watching it from home will be a much better experience!"

He then goes on to tell me about the amazing planning of this event.

"We have certainly had to achieve a great deal very quickly! We always planned to have a Centenary Gala at Symphony Hall on 5 September, which would also have been the moment that the hall's foyers, newly enlarged reopened, after its capital project. That project got delayed by Covid, and until very recently it didn't look like audiences would be allowed at live events at all by then. But we couldn't let this red letter date in the CBSO's history go past without a celebration, so we hatched the idea of going to a completely different space where we could have a big orchestra spread out and stream the resulting performances.

"Since deciding to go ahead at the end of June, it has been a huge team effort, unlike anything we have ever done before. We have been working with the brilliant Caroline Davis (OPUS) and John Adkins (JA Productions), who are very experienced in this kind of unusual event – they have produced our concerts at Sutton Park, and events such as Birmingham Weekender. Craig Bush (Takt Productions) has been creating some amazing video content to tell the story of the CBSO and also go on the big screen that will be above the orchestra. The team at PRG warehouse have been outstanding, and we have also hired one of the most experienced TV directors of orchestral music – Jonathan Haswell to direct."

Stephen explains the selection of the works in the programme.

"Everything is there for a reason – of course! The Elgar Serenade came first, because that was in the very first concert 100 years ago to the day.

"Sheku Kanneh-Mason is one of our favourite soloists, and had always been held for this date – he suggested the Saint-Saens concerto, which is also a nice connection with Birmingham as the composer visited the Triennial Music Festival here in 1879, and the CBSO has been playing this piece since 1922.

"That first concert 100 years ago started with music by a living composer (one of our founding fathers Granville Bantock) so we had wanted to have something recent - Hannah Kendall's The Spark Catchers fits the bill perfectly, as it is inspired by Lemn Sissay's poem about 19th Century factory workers – and Birmingham had a lot of those!

"Schumann's Genoveva overture (Simon's suggestion) is also ideal as it was the first Schumann the orchestra played, in 1924. It's a lovely romantic opening for our concert.

"The Slumdog Millionaire Suite is there because we wanted to reflect the way in which our horizons have broadened so much in recent years – film music is an important part of our programme, and we were the first orchestra anywhere to give a whole concert of Bollywood music back in 2004 – with the legendary composer A R Rahman, who won two Oscars for Slumdog.

"And finally Stravinsky's Firebird was the first music played in Symphony Hall – with Simon – in 1991. We wanted something big and rousing to finish, and this suite is just a few months older than the orchestra!"

How have the players been coping during lockdown? Have they been furloughed? And the back-office staff?

"Yes, the players have been furloughed most of the time since March. It's been tough, but there has been lots of music-making going on – see the Stay Tuned area of our website for loads of amazing films made in gardens, music rooms and all kinds of unusual places. A couple of weeks ago we came back to the CBSO Centre for some rehearsals, and there was this great sense of relief for everybody, and great joy too.

"Some of the staff have been furloughed but lots of the work of managing the orchestra has carried on unabated – from raising money, creating and sharing the digital content, future planning and a massive amount of work related specifically to Covid, there has been plenty to do. And understanding the ever-changing government guidance – and contributing to it – is also a full-time job!"

How will rehearsing and performing be affected, respecting social distancing? I do worry about ensemble, and section empathy, I add.

"All the musicians will be two metres apart, and the whole warehouse is laid out to allow individual rest spaces, staggered entry and exit, etc. This will be the biggest orchestra heard or seen in the UK since March, but luckily we have a very big space and plenty of rehearsal time so I hope people will get used to the new layout as the week goes on. Sir Simon has already done a few concerts under similar conditions in Germany and elsewhere, so he is used to solving the challenges."

It's such a coup to secure Simon to conduct this momentous event, given Mirga Grainyte-Tyla's maternity leave.

"Simon had always promised to come and give a concert this year, and we were just thinking that our original plan might not work, when this opportunity came up. He had a Prom with the LSO the previous weekend so the timing was actually perfect. He said yes immediately!"

Will we ever hear Gurrelieder, or Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand in Symphony Hall again -- or even a Bruckner symphony?

"Absolutely – but it may be a little while. I treasure those Mahler 8s from January – at least we managed to start our Centenary year in style! It now feels like a different world.

"We have absolutely no idea how many people will log on to watch next Saturday but it should equate to Symphony Hall many times over. And it will remain free until the end of the month. It's our gift to the world, and we hope people enjoy it!

And the last word of course has to go to Sir Simon Rattle himself.

"It's a wonderful surprise to find myself back in Brum so soon, the last-minute nature of it typical of our weird times. And in a conductor's life where so much is written in stone three years in advance it's refreshing to improvise what we hope is a satisfying programme under these ever-changing situations.
"Of course there is no live audience yet, but that has to come in the next months,and we will all fight to make that achievable as soon as it is possible..It is more than a little surreal that, as I write ,we can all go to the pub in the UK ,but to attend a piano recital is much too dangerous. Depends who is playing, I suppose...
"I am so proud of what the CBSO has achieved in these last 22 years since I left (can it really be that long?) The finesse and the colours that are their birthright seem only more powerful and distinctive as time goes on, and I am thrilled to be making music together with them once more. Making a programme with Stephen Maddock is always like a tennis game, an immensely pleasurable one however. He allowed me to cheat in pretending that 1919,the year of the Firebird suite, was close enough to our centenary, and we are praying that the British premiere might have been 1920! But along with Sibelius, Stravinsky has been at the centre of the orchestra's heart for the last 40 years, and as Firebird was the first music heard in Symphony Hall,it seems ever more appropriate. As does the music from Slumdog Millionaire, reflecting the CBSO's ever-widening connection with the city around it. And Hannah Kendall's brilliantly effective piece is part of the orchestra's unwavering commitment to the future.

"And finally ,as I was stunned to conduct the Berlin Phuilharmonic's first-ever performance of Dvorak's Carneval,so I'm equally amazed that the CBSO has never performed Schumann's Genoveva Overture in its history: a ten-minute summing up of the entire romantic movement, one of my personal favourites, and a magnificent way to celebrate the birthday of this band that I love so much."

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