REVAMPED CBSO EXPERIENCE
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
- 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.
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”?