CBSO Centenary Celebration


PRG Live Stage Studio, Longbridge, Birmingham ****

On September 5 1920 the City of Birmingham Orchestra (as it was then) gave its inaugural concert in the Theatre Royal in Birmingham's New Street. Exactly a century later it presented a celebratory event -- thanks to lockdown, in a car warehouse in Longbridge, the heart of the city's motorland.
The sheer achievement in mounting this celebration is mind-blowing. After split rehearsals, half the complement at a time, the orchestra eventually came together in carefully socially distanced spacing (and with sanitising buffers between the brass and the woodwind in front of them) for this joyous performance under the conductor who brought them to the world-class status they continue to maintain, Sir Simon Rattle.
Where was their current musical director? Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, home in Salzburg (lucky girl) on maternity leave, paid several filmed tributes to her orchestra as well as determined hopes for the future, and there were other contributions from her predecessors, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons.
Other luminaries popped up too: Simon Halsey, Stephen Hough, Roxanna Panufnik, CBSO alumnus Alpesh Chauhan (now doing great things as a conductor in his own right), as well as many members from all parts of the CBSO family, players, chorus, and supporters. The orchestra's Patron, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, was an eloquent, generous presence as well. Elgar's Enigma Variations purred along as a background to these contributions
Sound from this venue was boxy and confined, even more so when filtered through a computer, but camera-work was revealing, with lovely close-ups of the players, and sweeping visual perspectives of the ensemble. And it was good to see Rattle in full-frontal expressiveness. There were also scenes of Birmingham and Elgarshire which were occasionally distracting, but which added to the context of the CBSO's history.
The musical content reflected aspects of the orchestra's history: Schumann's Genoveva Overture, with some stirring horn-playing: Elgar's Serenade for Strings, perhaps lacking a little in open-air abandonment; Saint-Saens' Cello Concerto no.1, Sheku Kanneh-Mason the shapely, committed soloist: Hannah Kendall's coruscating The Spark Catchers; AR Rahman's glorious Slumdog Millionaire Suite, Roopa Panesar the mesmerising sitar soloist, and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Elspeth Dutch the evocative horn soloist as the finale approached.
The last offering brought memories of when the CBSO and Rattle opened Symphony Hall with this very music. What a contrast now in venues! And in access, as well: I was reviewing elsewhere when this performance was originally given, so have had to see it on YouTube, interrupted by advertisements -- including one for a famous brand of contraceptive.
Christopher Morley

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