Arts: Music That Moves along on Shifting Sands; Avant-Garde Ensemble or Broadway Pit Band - Will the Real Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Please Stand Up, Asks Terry Grimley

By Grimley, Terry | The Birmingham Post (England), August 9, 1999 | Go to article overview

Arts: Music That Moves along on Shifting Sands; Avant-Garde Ensemble or Broadway Pit Band - Will the Real Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Please Stand Up, Asks Terry Grimley


Grimley, Terry, The Birmingham Post (England)


Listening to Birmingham Contemporary Music Group playing two pieces by its music director Thomas Ades and Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town on two recent CDs, you might well wonder if this can be the same group.

The small classical chamber ensemble on one disc has been mysteriously transformed into a swaggering, brassy big band on the other. Is BCMG, an offshoot of the CBSO which still draws most of its players from the orchestra, essentially little more than a musician booking agency when a project like the Bernstein comes along?

Well, no. It's true that a pool of extra players with specialist skills has been built up over the last few years, and a jazz project means phoning a different group of saxophonists to those who will get the call for Mark-Anthony Turnage's Kai.

But the photographs of recording sessions at Abbey Road inside the Wonderful Town booklet reveal a number of faces that will be familiar to BCMG and CBSO regulars. And, for example, that really is CBSO principal clarinettist Colin Parr playing the bluesy solo on Ballet at the Village Vortex.

"When people say was Wonderful Town really BCMG, the answer is 'yes it is', because that's how it operates," says artistic director Simon Clugston.

"The smallest group we've had has been four people and I think the largest was about 60. It has the ability to enfold people who come as guests and by the time they leave they feel they were entirely part of it."

Tomorrow night's BCMG Prom at the Royal Albert Hall features a complete performance of the music from Wonderful Town conducted by Sir Simon Rattle with soloists Kim Crisswell, Audra McDonald and Thomas Hampson. In the first half of this all-American concert Thomas Ades conducts music by Charles Ives and the world premiere of Study for Orchestra by the late Conlon Nancarrow, completed as recently as 1992 and hitherto regarded as unperformable.

Wonderful Town will also feature in Birmingham's second Artsfest free festival on September 11. Kim Crisswell will be there in Centenary Square to sing her numbers from the show, with New Yorker Kevin Farrell taking over as conductor from Simon Rattle.

This year's Artsfest will have a live television link to the Last Night of the Proms, and the Wonderful Town excerpts will be seen by millions of viewers during the interval.

The relative neglect of Wonderful Town would be less surprising if it had been a flop on its premiere in 1953, but in fact it was a big hit which ran for 559 performances, despite Bernstein having only six weeks to write the music.

Simon Rattle really wanted to conduct West Side Story for the Towards the

Millennium festival in 1996. If the rights had been available the excerpts from Wonderful Town would not have formed part of a "Bernstein in the 50s" concert and the recording would never have materialised.

Following the success of last year's Gershwin centenary concert, it raises the question of whether music from the shows is going to become a regular BCMG sideline.

"I can sense a line I don't think we'll step over," Simon Clugston says. "I don't see us doing Rodgers & Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber. …

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Arts: Music That Moves along on Shifting Sands; Avant-Garde Ensemble or Broadway Pit Band - Will the Real Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Please Stand Up, Asks Terry Grimley
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