Birmingham can be maddening – but culturally it has a lot to teach London

27 August 2016 9:00 AM

Grand visions: Birmingham’s Bull Ring shopping centre in 1965, a year after completion

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. World-class cultural infrastructure like Symphony Hall is definitely nice to have (and many of London’s reservations about a new concert hall could be addressed by a good look at the major European city 120 miles up the road). But the real story behind Birmingham’s revival in the 1980s and ’90s was the forging of the bond between Simon Rattle, the CBSO and the local audience — most of which took place in the (then distinctly faded) 19th-century Town Hall. Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company, too, doesn’t sit around waiting for urban renewal. It dives in and puts on a show: Tippett’s The Ice Break in a derelict factory, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in a sticky-floored nightclub and, breathtakingly, the world premiere of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht in a colossal Digbeth warehouse, complete with helicopters and live camels.

At the root of Mittwoch — as of all BOC’s productions — were performers drawn from the community. Don’t groan: this is no box-ticking exercise. Participation is the whole purpose of Birmingham Opera Company, and Brummies have repeatedly shown that they’re up for it. ‘They’re visionary, they work hard, they commit,’ Vick has said, and the artistic results make no concession whatever to their amateur status. ‘BOC continues to be one of the glories of English cultural life,’ wrote Michael Tanner in these pages. It’s probably the most spectacular current example of Birmingham’s knack for cultivating artistic success from the grass roots — an internationally recognised vindication of the principle that local doesn’t have to mean parochial.

That ethos crops up a lot here: in the way David Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet has become part of the fabric of West Midlands life, and in organisations like Birmingham Contemporary Music Group — whose Sound Investment scheme was crowdfunding new commissions before the term was invented, and which makes the process of supporting avant-garde music feel as sociable and fun as a wine-tasting class. Two recent novels, Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are and Clare Morrall’s When The Floods Came, both evoke that sense of place and people: embracing Birmingham’s messiness and changeability, and finding amid the wreckage of grand visions a poetry that speaks with a quiet but unmistakable Brummie burr.

So will Grazinyte-Tyla become the figurehead of yet another urban renaissance? In a way, the question’s irrelevant. Over a 96-year history, the CBSO has evolved its own, very Birmingham, collective culture — in which the musicians, though not self-governing, nonetheless have near-total control over the appointment of their chief conductor. With Simon, Sakari, Andris and now Mirga (it’s always first names in Brum), they listened to their instinct. Grazinyte-Tyla’s appearances in Birmingham so far have revealed intelligence, intuitive musicality and a spirited rapport with both orchestra and audience. And while there are wealthier UK orchestras than the CBSO — and more established conductors than Grazinyte-Tyla — there are few cities in which artistic commitment is more loyally supported.

Long, often frustrating, experience has taught Birmingham not to worry unduly about what the rest of the world thinks. Once again, it’s decided what feels right — and just gone for it.