Christopher Morley's "Confessions" reviewed by Richard Bratby

reviewed by Richard Bratby

At every meeting of the Critics' Circle Music Section – when the nation's music scribblers gather behind an unmarked door in the West End to drink weak coffee and grumble about fees – there's a ritual. The Chair opens the meeting, moves to the first item on the agenda, and someone pipes up: "Apologies have been received from Christopher Morley". The old guard chuckles, and the newer members have it quietly explained to them that Mr Morley has never attended, and never will – until the Section agrees, even once in a decade, to hold a meeting somewhere other than London. So far, it never has. So far, Christopher has never attended. The secretary makes a note and the meeting moves on.

For the Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post, it's a matter of principle. Some might call it quixotic. I call it magnificent, even while I hop obediently onto the Pendolino to pay my dues down south. Chris is old-school in the best possible way. Supremely professional, staggeringly knowledgeable, huge fun to be around - but rightly insistent on the dignity and indispensability of the critic's art. In his seventh decade on the job, he remains unshakable in his belief that where Birmingham leads, the world follows – and that the musical life of the Midlands is as vital, and as important, as anything that happens in the capital.

That pride (and that principle) animates every page of his new memoir. So too – it goes without saying - does his sense of humour (I'll bet he knew exactly what he was doing when he called it "Confessions of a Music Critic"). Here's the truth of his youthful journey from Brighton to Brum; the wartime love story of his Italian mother and his soldier dad, and the tale – still barely fathomable to anyone who can't imagine Birmingham's music scene without him – of how he was sacked by The Birmingham Post within months of starting.

He'd misremembered the name of a soloist – the kind of mistake that's swiftly pounced upon these days by every armchair blogger with logorrhoea and a Wikipedia habit. It's more understandable when you read his description of working conditions back when the Post published daily and every concert in Birmingham ended with the sight of its critic leaping, spring-loaded, for the nearest telephone – there to dictate a concise, word-perfect appraisal of the evening's performance within 30 minutes of the final cadence. And not just in Birmingham, either. There are tales here of trips to Italy, to Japan, to most of Eastern Europe. There's a twinkle in his eye as he recounts the time he accompanied the Birmingham Bach Choir to the Communist Bloc, and phoned in his column just the same:

"'This is Christopher Morley, speaking from behind the Iron Curtain, and there's not much time. This is a review of the Birmingham Bach Choir in St Thomas's Church, Leipzig'".
'How'm yow spellink LOIPZIG, Chrees?' came back the lovely girl's measured tones. But the review was in the paper next morning…"

That's just one incident in a story that embraces half a century of music in the Midlands – whether it's Simon Rattle opening Symphony Hall, or a village choral society going out of its way to make Christopher welcome (he's a passionate champion of amateur music-making). Susana Walton, Karlheinz Stockhausen and (unforgettably) Leonard Bernstein make cameo appearances. Two myths are shattered along the way: that critics are frustrated musicians (I can attest that Chris is pretty handy with a baton) and that the Birmingham Post has tended to give the "home team" an easy ride. He's unsparing on the episode in 2013 when Andris Nelsons's agents scented dollars and tore him away from the CBSO for a shotgun marriage with an affluent but inferior US orchestra.

To be honest, there were moments when I wished he had been even less discreet, though it's not hard to guess the identity of the un-named Green Room bore with the "plummy Nicholas Parsons-sounding voice" who spitefully attempted to skewer Chris's chances of a BBC career. But that would be untrue to the fundamental generosity of a man who's probably done as much as any musician to identify and support new talent (again, I write from personal experience), to fight Birmingham's corner, and to uphold the integrity of his role – recruiting a fiercely loyal team of colleagues who continue to fill the Post with first-rate classical music coverage long after the newspaper ceased to pay for it. Christopher Morley inspires that sort of loyalty, and this book shows you why.

Richard Bratby

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