Listening ahead, being not really a retrospect

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We could be talking about Carnegie Hall, and about a concert there in 2007, with Thomas Adès conducting. We could be talking about Pierre Boulez, and about a Saturday morning in 2008 when, leading an open rehearsal of Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ Concerto at the CBSO Centre, the biggest fish in contemporary music seemed completely in his element, completely relaxed. We could be talking about the world premieres of pieces by other big fish, not least Elliott Carter and his On Conversing with Paradise, presented for the first time at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival under Oliver Knussen. And so far we would only have mentioned three years out of the twenty-five, two tours out of the dozens, and five composers out of the hundreds.

When a history of BCMG comes to be written, the big moments and the big names will be there – including, to go back to the early days, spectacular performances with Simon Rattle, some of them documented on record. But much more will have to be said about the group’s regular activity at home, in and around Birmingham, embedding new music in the place: music at the highest international level, performed at the highest international level. We are talking about something extraordinary – music imagined by some of the finest creative minds around, and realized by front-rank performers – finding a home in a perfectly ordinary place, and about this wholly remarkable process becoming just part of how things are. The big events are the icing on the cake. What supports them is the cake, which is also what nourishes.

But music is not, of course, wholly like cake; it’s elusive, and it seems to speak to us from – and of – fantastic realms we cannot reach any other way, and can only get back to when we hear it again. It gives us some of the rarest experiences of our lives, and connects us to something very much larger than ourselves, whether we want to identify that as the presence of the divine or as what is most deeply human. What it ain’t is brummagem (OED: ‘counterfeit, sham, tawdry’). And yet BCMG, making a connection of its own, has created a place for music – or, rather, a network of places and tendrils, spreading out from the CBSO Centre – in this city. More than that, BCMG has created a musical function that is definably Birmingham’s, matched to the city’s nature and needs.

How is this so? Radio, recordings and the internet have made music part of the texture of our domestic lives, a polyphonic stream of consciousness into which we can tune whenever we like. But a concert – especially a concert in which outstanding performers are involved – is still an unusual event, and a concert of new music is rare among the rare. What BCMG has been saying to its audiences for twenty-five years is very simple and at the same time, within the often rarified world of new music, revolutionary. It is this: Here is something very, very special, and it is yours.

Something happens at a BCMG concert that does not happen anywhere else. The podium is levelled. Composers and visiting soloists are there like everyone else, for though they are, to be sure, the authors of magical scores and the magicians who will make the magic sound, they are also partners with the audience. And the audience, feeling that partnership, responds with the closest attention. Yes, we seem to be saying in our silence, this is ours.

BCMG has encouraged such a sense of participation in all kinds of ways. In twenty-five years, many who first heard a spark of Stockhausen or Steve Reich when they were schoolchildren will have become regulars at concerts. Others will have kept coming simply because the concerts are so good, and so varied, and so unlike anything else you are going to hear, and so exciting in offering direct contact with the liveliest composers and performers around. But certainly no less important is the Sound Investment scheme, which allows any of us, for the price of an hour at the supermarket, to be part of the team commissioning a piece – and which allows composers to feel they are creating music for real, identifiable people, eager to hear. The scheme has been widely imitated, as it deserves to be, but wherever it goes it takes with it a little bit of Birmingham, for it is so much in the spirit of this democratic, forward-looking, making city.

In the late eighteenth century, in and near Birmingham, a group calling itself the Lunar Society met on the evening of every full moon (hence the name) to discuss matters of science and philosophy – a group that included the businessman Matthew Boulton, the engineer James Watt, the physician-botanist Erasmus Darwin and the discoverer of oxygen, James Priestley. Guests would attend as well, including distinguished guests from overseas. And though the group’s advocacy of free thought and its sympathy with the French Revolution did not please everyone (there were riots in 1791), the ground was laid for Birmingham’s growth as a manufacturing capital.

Many of the factories are silent now, of course, and the canals filled with pleasure craft. The smog has gone, and the soot-blackened buildings. Birmingham has another future awaiting it – and another Lunar Society helping to prepare that future.

© Paul Griffiths

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