Norman Lebrecht

Prepare to be amazed: the story of Birmingham’s Symphony Orchestra

Richard Bratby celebrates a century of the CBSO

Those who conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra may not be aware that musicians fill in a form after they leave marking them out of ten, sometimes with an acerbic comment on their performance. Industrial democracy is alive and well in the West Midlands, along with a Red Robbo urge to biff the bosses, as Richard Bratby’s centennial history of the CBSO entertainingly reveals.

Democracy can foster great leaders and, in this sphere, the CBSO is the envy of the world. Three of its last four chief conductors, chosen by the players, have gone on to the highest peaks — Simon Rattle to the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Nelsons to Boston and Leipzig, and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to the forefront of a new wave of women conductors who are wresting the baton away from male grip.

If Rattle’s successor, Sakari Oramo, proved less explosive, it may be that he reflected an alternative streak in the orchestra’s character, a quirky appetite for Nordic and English eccentrics. Be that as it may, no nation state in modern times has chosen great leaders so unerringly well as the CBSO.

That the symphony orchestra can survive at all in blunt-spoken Birmingham is a minor miracl

Birmingham kick-started an orchestra after Edward Elgar grumbled for several years that the heart of England lacked a musical engine. Founded in 1920 with Appleby Matthews as first conductor, the CBSO was shaped by Adrian Boult, who left in 1930 to head the BBC’s new symphony orchestra.

Leslie Heward and George Weldon looked after the 1930s and 1940s; Rudolf Schwarz promoted English composers in the 1950s; there was a gentle interregnum with the Polish exile Andrzej Panufnik, followed by a decade of Hugo Rignold. A French affaire with Louis Frémaux ended when a players’ rebellion got the manager sacked by the board.

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