Magazine article The Spectator

The CBSO and Other Birmingham Innovators

Magazine article The Spectator

The CBSO and Other Birmingham Innovators

Article excerpt

On Saturday night, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra makes its first appearance at the BBC Proms under its new music director, the 30-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. It's all a bit sudden. Grazinyte-Tyla only conducted the CBSO for the first time last July, and she'll have made her debut as official successor to Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the previous night. The programme comprises Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and the London premiere of Hans Abrahamsen's Grawemeyer Award-winning song cycle let me tell you . That's right, the 'London premiere'. It says so on the BBC website. Auntie has blessed the venture; the metropolis is poised to give its imprimatur.

Never mind that the CBSO gave the UK premiere of let me tell you in March 2014: and that you'll never see the words 'Birmingham premiere' on a Symphony Hall programme. Birmingham doesn't really do self-promotion, and when it does it tends to be about the wrong things. The city centre is dotted with shopping precincts that were all at one time hailed as a civic Second Coming. You might have heard about the latest: the gleaming white Grand Central, built above the once-grotty New Street Station and now offering asylum to culture-shocked travellers with branches of Foyles and Square Pie.

Meanwhile, a city that has never stopped mourning the demolition of its Victorian central library in the 1970s blithely ploughed ahead earlier this year with the destruction of John Madin's monumental concrete replacement. The Brutalist revival arrived too late to save it, though locals are now rallying to defend Smallbrook Queens-way, the sweeping 'modernist Regent Street'. It's not even a question of architectural taste: the Grade I listed Curzon Street Station of 1838 -- the northern counterpart to the Euston Arch, and a building of international importance -- has stood empty for years, as ever-less-convincing redevelopment plans ebb around it. (It's currently slated to be the northern terminus of HS2. Let's see how that plays out.)

But that's Birmingham, and if it's maddening that the city that gave us Mendelssohn's Elijah , Dvorak's Requiem and most of Elgar's best choral works; that the city of Bournville and the Barber Institute, whose Museum and Art Gallery holds arguably the world's finest Pre-Raphaelite collection, should be so cavalier about its built environment -- well, the civic motto is 'Forward', after all. Nineteenth-century visitors found it exhilarating. 'I am here in this immense industrial town where they manufacture excellent knives, scissors, springs and files, and I don't know what else,' wrote Dvorak in 1885, 'and beside these, music too. And how well! It's terrifying how much the people here manage to achieve.'

Birmingham's energy comes from a very un-English willingness to live in the moment: and then to push on to the next big thing. New is good. Tastefully repurposed heritage building, or shiny new shopping centre? No contest. Birmingham has always been about commerce, progress, change: the values embodied by 18th-century innovators like Matthew Boulton and James Watt, whose statues, coated in dazzling gold bling, stand across Broad Street from Symphony Hall. It doesn't yell about how tolerant, lively and diverse it is: it just gets on and does it. Birmingham has had three Muslim mayors.

And when, in between bursts of rebuilding, the civic leadership falls into one of its recurring troughs of mediocrity, Birmingham's artists and audiences pick up the slack. …

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