THE REVAMPED CBSO EXPERIENCE

                                           By Christopher Morley

I  first reviewed the CBSO in 1969 (I began listening as a newly-arrived concertgoer in 1966), and since 1988 have reviewed this brilliant orchestra from my position as chief music critic of the Birmingham Post. From that year onwards it has been my privilege to tour with them, to hold pre-concert interviews with guest performers, to chat with them over post-concert subscribers’ teas, and to marvel all the time at the size of its fan club, not only in the Midlands, but also abroad, as far as Japan.

So I am surprised and dismayed that the CBSO’s new backstage leadership seems to be ignoring the wise axiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and is proposing to revamp every aspect of the concert-going experience. My colleague Norman Stinchcombe forensically analysed almost every detail of the orchestra’s initial testing of these waters in the December 13 concert at Symphony Hall, and he was not impressed (www.midlandsmusicreviews.co.uk). My comments on chief executive Emma Stennings’ mission statement follow, interjecting upon some of her “Five Points”.

1. A NEW ‘CBSO WELCOME’.

  • There will always be an explicit welcome from the stage (by a member of the CBSO or a visiting artist).  Okay, but do we need this?
  •  
  • We will develop the pre- and post-concert experience in every venue, centring it around the audience and creating a joyful and welcoming environment. Hasn’t there been one before?
  •  This could include:
    • Curating playlists which enhance the experience and are relevant to the performance. What actually does this mean, and what have we been missing up to now?
    • Briefing front of house staff to be welcoming and informal.This is an insult to Symphony Hall’s fantastically helpful stewards and bartenders.
    • Having a strong CBSO presence to allow audiences to connect with staff and players. Hasn’t there always been this?
    • Further developing and curating talks and events in both style and content. A nebulous, vapid statement.
  • Introductory material will always be designed to help the audience listen clearly to the programme.Oh ye gods, how have we managed up till now?
  • We will commission a pre-show film (ideally mapped for Symphony Hall) which communicates the identity and character of the orchestra. How much is this going to cost? Perhaps we don’t know if the Arts Council of England has provided information as to which boxes to tick.
  • The removal of any perceived ‘rules’ of a traditional concert, clearly inviting audiences to:
    • Bring drinks into the auditorium. Not next to my seat they don’t, and Andrew Jowett, founding and much-loved Director of Symphony Hall, would be appalled.
    • Clap whenever they like. Ditto.
    • Wear whatever makes them feel comfortable.Haven’t we always?
    • Take photos or short snippets of film (and to share them with us). See above.
    • Be mindful of everyone’s experience. Doesn’t that go without saying?

2. AN ENHANCED MUSICAL EXPERIENCE. We will use theatrical and creative techniques including lighting, movement, staging, live video mix and elements of movement, to allow audiences to use their eyes as well as their ears, celebrating and showcasing the individuals on stage, enabling the audience to see who is playing what and to see the personalities within the orchestra.

One very experienced audience member has already told me how distracting he found all this was at the innovative experimental concert on December 13.

I would also add that such distractions take away the imaginative element, imposing one interpretation upon the listener, and destroying the fantasy of musical experience.

3. EMBRACING THE WORLD AS OUR STAGE.

We will find ways to share our performances to audiences beyond the concert hall and across the world. Building on existing relationships with Radio 3 and Classic FM, and by finding new audio and visual partners, eventually concerts will be streamed live. Inspired by the legacy of Paganini, Liszt and the pioneering orchestras of the nineteenth century, our concert “shows” will be toured nationally and internationally and grace the stages of festivals across the world.

Yeah, right. How much is it going to cost to tour all this razzmatazz to venues who already value the CBSO for what it is?

I now return to a normal font, to declare that I find the whole tone of this mission-statement patronising, disrespectful of everything the CBSO has achieved in the past, and risking the alienation of hundreds of already-confirmed supporters – in the nebulous hope of attracting a trendy young audience.

Audiences evolve as their life evolves. We go to concerts as students, then we marry and raise families, and those exigencies prevent us from attending concerts. As we get older, and family and financial responsibilities get easier, then we return to the concert-hall. That is how it works.

No-one cares more passionately than me about the CBSO, an orchestra I have loved for well over half a century. I can count its principal conductors amongst my friends, connected via text and email, and so many of the players over the years have trusted me to be on their side – we all care about music and spreading its message.

Chief Executives Edward Smith and Stephen Maddock  took the orchestra huge strides forward on the world stage, thus enhancing the CBSO’s stature back home. Simon Rattle and Ed Smith even managed to get the EU to combine with the City of Birmingham to build one of the world’s greatest concert-halls.

Is all this achievement to be overlooked in a misguided attempt to be more “woke”?

Christopher Morley

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