FREE LUNCHTIME RECITALS AT BIRMINGHAM CATHEDRAL
By Christopher Morley
There is an oasis of calm at the heart of Birmingham’s pulsating Business Quarter, and that is St Philip’s Cathedral. Stressed office-workers relax on its lawns eating their packed lunches, and twice a month they have the opportunity to enjoy high quality music-making within the gracious baroque building itself.
Ashley Wagner, Head of Music at the Cathedral, tells me about the history of the lunchtime series.
“I’m not entirely sure how long the recital series has been going for but certainly for much longer than I have been associated with Birmingham Cathedral (I joined as Organ Scholar in 2016),” he begins.
“It’s a great chance to showcase high-level music making by emerging and established artists playing all sorts of instruments (and all free to attend with an optional donation). The recital series used to be on Mondays, alternating with the Town Hall Organ Series, but they are now on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of each month (apart from our Summer Organ Series, which runs every week throughout June-August).”
The depradations of the Covid pandemic obviously brought a pause to the recital series, but Ashley explains how the phoenix is being reborn from the ashes.
“[As we emerged from lockdown we made the decision just to have organ recitals given by local organists, and giving more ourselves internally, as the cathedral has 3 organists.”
“We are now at the stage where we are resuming our links with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and with other instrumentalists. Our first instrumental recital this term (Friday 23rd September) is being given by Lana Trotovsek (violin), Boris Bizjak (flute) and Maria Canyigueral (piano), three talented young international artists performing an ambitious programme of Prokofiev, Beethoven and Halvorsen.”
Tell me about the audience?
“The audience is made up of a small but faithful core of regulars and people who just wander in. Many people came in during the Commonwealth Games and we had large audiences, with the main space of the cathedral being pretty full. Some people stay for the whole recital and some people just sit and listen for a bit.”
Ashley then goes on to tell me about some the series’ most memorable presentations.
“There is usually something in every recital that I enjoy! I always look forward to Camp Hill Girls’ School’s annual recital, usually around May time. They have a great music department there and lots of talented kids are involved. They usually bring a choir and several instrumentalists and present an eclectic programme. I love listening to contemporary music or any music that is new to me, so recitals with that are onto a winner for me!”
This new season of lunchtime recitals is crammed with highlights, as Ashley details.
“For the remainder of 2022 we will be completing our series showcasing the organ works of César Franck, as a celebration of 200 years since his birth. Franck is probably best known for his choral piece Panis Angelicus but he is also one of the most important composers of solo organ repertoire.
“His 12 main organ pieces are real gems, so each organ recitalist this term will be playing a piece by Franck so we will have presented all of his major works during the course of 2022. We are excited to be welcoming back students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, with whom we have had a long-standing relationship (their historical performance department has a recital on the 14th October). In 2023 I’m hoping to start a Great Sacred Organ Music series, where once per term/half-term we feature a major liturgical piece of organ music (e.g. Messiaen’s L’Ascension to correspond with Ascension Day).”
Finally I ask the obvious but humiliatingly stupid question. Does Ashley get his leg pulled about his surname? He grins and bears it.
“I do get asked whether I am related to Richard Wagner. Sadly I am not, though I do have some loose and distant German ancestry. I believe it’s quite a common name in Germany and the US (such as a recent gymnast, with the identical name!). I used to belong to a Facebook group of people with exactly my name and it had over 500 members!”
And Ashley ends with a great plug for Birmingham Cathedral’s Friday lunchtime series.
“Anyone who hasn’t been to a recital here before (or indeed anyone who has) should come and give it a try! Great music, atmosphere and it’s all free! What’s not to like!”
*Birmingham Cathedral’s Friday lunchtime recitals begin at 1.10pm, ending around 2pm. Admission free, but donations for the upkeep of the cathedral are welcomed.