The first half of 2012 glittered with celebrations of Symphony Hall’s 21st birthday (and chilling reminders that those of us here at its birth are now that many years older). And the year ended with the opening of an amazing new concert venue, blessedly out of the city centre but within easy reach, and with free parking as the icing on the cake.
This is the Elgar Concert Hall within the Bramall Music Building, a brand-new home for the University of Birmingham’s Music Department, slotted into a gap in the Aston Webb crescent which has been waiting for it for over a century. The dial on the Joseph Chamberlain clock tower which presides over it all should well be stuck now on a smiling 10 past 10.
Among the many events held there within recent weeks was a stunning Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Claire Booth the mesmerising reciter. Jeffrey Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra presented its remarkable Consort in “Gaudete”, a fascinating compilation of Spanish and Latin American sacred music.
Ironically, the highly-respected Birmingham Chamber Music Society, which was formed 60 years ago to take high-class chamber music into town out of the gown’s privileged stranglehold, passed away this year, its audience numbers dwindling partly out of reluctance to venture out into the Gomorrah which is the Broad Street area on a Saturday night. The Bramall will rapidly prove the salvation of other such groups.
But before we home in on the cornucopia of memorable events in Birmingham, let’s go on a trawl of memory lane around the region, beginning with Malvern Concert Club, now well into its second century. Early this year MCC promoted a wonderful programme from tenor Mark Padmore, hornist Richard Watkins and pianist Julius Drake, including a couple of Britten Canticles, Beethoven’s rarely-heard Horn Sonata, and his emotional song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte. Shame upon the punters, heads sunk in their programme-texts, who missed Padmore’s value-added body-language.
Tardebigge’s continually rewarding “Celebrating English Song” series brought memorable recitals from mezzo Diana Moore, collaborating with pianist Elizabeth Burgess in a programme of music by women composers, with Lynne Plowman’s world-stopping setting of EE Cummings’ “I carry your heart” at its centre; and from the much-loved baritone Roderick Williams, Susie Allan accompanying, in a recital including Michael Berkeley’s quizzical Housman and Hardy settings, Hollow Fire.
Just up the road, Bromsgrove Concerts presented a well-planned recital by one of this country’s greatest pianists, Leon McCawley, culminating in Beethoven’s many-sided Eroica Variations (a reading which desperately deserves to be recorded), and eclipsing a badly-structured recital from the marvellous Evgeny Kissin at Symphony Hall the previous evening.
Right at the top of our region, Shrewsbury was the venue for the premiere of an important new Cello Concerto by John Joubert, lyrical, communicative and with an imposing presence; the soloist was Raphael Wallfisch, with the Northern Chamber Orchestra conducted by the exciting young conductor Jonathan Berman.
A little further south, Leasowes Bank Farm, perched high above Long Mynd and Stiperstones country, presented its latest festival which, among its colourful mix of musics, brought a programme from the Barbican Piano Trio which included a vibrant new work by James Francis Brown and the art deco-style Cafe Music by Paul Schoenfield.
Further south again, the Arcadia Festival based in the enchanted countryside of Bromfield, near Ludlow, celebrated its third year with the world premiere of co-director Eleanor Alberga’s Shining Gate of Morpheus, a quintet for horn and strings shimmering on the edge of dreams, and which packs far more into its content than you would ever expect from its slender length.
And again further south, Worcester Concert Club hosted an amazing recital by cellist Richard Jenkinson and pianist Benjamin Frith, including a breath-holding account of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata and Ian Venables’ world-stopping Elegy (almost my highlight of the year, this performance of such a passionate, anguished work). Venables also furnished the salvation of a Bromsgrove Concerts’ promotion of the Coull Quartet (shoddy stage-management and clumsy programme-building), when pianist Mark Bebbington stepped up for a captivating performance of Venables’ Piano Quintet.
Bebbington was also the pivot for another near-highlight of the year, when he performed Ian Venables’ Caprice during an all-English recital for the enterprising Gloucester Music Society. Bebbington, Venables and Gloucester - all well worth following.
At last into the Cotswolds, and to Longborough Festival Opera, nowadays established as one of the foremost must-visit opera venues in the land, and poised to promote this country’s only complete Ring cycle in 2013, the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, completed its run up to this momentous event with Gotterdammerung. Rachel Nicholls was an extraordinary Brunnhilde, and Anthony Negus’ conducting was as magisterial as you would expect from someone who’d sat on the podium of the legendary Reginald Goodall.
Longborough also gave us an intelligent, thought-provoking Magic Flute, taking us back to its premiere in 1791.
We land in Birmingham after a detour to the Lichfield Festival, where Paul Spicer’s Birmingham Bach Choir graced proceedings with a Bach B minor Mass delivered with both lightness of touch and an immense gravity. And another detour to Coventry Cathedral, where on May 30 the CBSO, its amazingly well-projecting Chorus and a fantastic trio of soloists (including late-replacement soprano Erin Wall), delivered an emotional and significant account of Britten’s War Requiem, exactly 50 years after its premiere during this same venue’s consecration celebrations. I’ve never known such a long and eloquent post-performance silence as Andris Nelsons gradually lowered his baton.
Another great English choral work, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, was given by the CBSO and Chorus back in Birmingham, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor Edward Gardner stepping in at short notice for an indisposed Nelsons, and bringing so many detailed insights into this well-worn score.
CBSO Chorus director Simon Halsey conducted a wonderfully affectionate account of Elgar’s The Music Makers, Christine Rice the warm-toned soloist, for Symphony Hall’s official 21st Anniversary Concert. We won’t mention Bryn Terfel’s cheesy contributions in the second half.