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It’s hard to think how the centenary of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) in 2020 could be better served in print than this. Forward is a well thought out, imaginatively designed and lavishly illustrated history put together by someone whose heart and soul are very much in the enterprise – Richard Bratby was for many years employed by the CBSO. We observe that he studied History at Oxford and there’s an air of authority about the narrative, aided by a lucid style that makes Forward never less than an engaging

At the outset, it was good to be reminded of how much the fledgling ‘City of Birmingham Orchestra’ and the city’s music-making in general owed (for more than three decades) to the larger-than-life Granville Bantock. His varying roles within Birmingham’s musical culture deserve far better recognition. The backbone of the narrative thereafter is the succession of CBSO principal conductors/music directors, each of whom is granted dedicated space. Plenty of familiar names here, of course: Boult, Frémaux, Rattle, Oramo, Nelsons, Gražinytė-Tyla and the like. The 18-year Rattle Revolution is imaginatively outlined via a sequence of 10 works which exemplify his contribution – from Sibelius 7 and Mahler 2 to the Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie and Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes.

However, what of characterful Appleby Matthews, who at the time of his appointment as the CBO’s first principal conductor was director of the Birmingham Police Band? (Don’t knock him. He once conducted the Berlin Philharmonic. Once, I said.) Then there are the all too easily forgotten Leslie Heward, Hugo Rignold and George Weldon, he of the movie star looks.

Within that conductor framework, Bratby entertainingly covers a string of individual subject areas: the CBSO’s legacy of recordings and long commitment to music involving young people; its development of overseas touring, its choirs and the embracing of new music. And more. As a part-time professional oral historian my heart was warmed by the inclusion of plentiful eye-witness material from orchestra members, stretching well back in time; not least, fascinating accounts of trips behind the then Iron Curtain, complete with arrests and the archetypal story of one player using part of his fee (paid in the local non-convertable currency) to buy ‘all the Mozart string quartets for about threepence’.

Those in the administrative engine-room are part of the story, most vividly in the modern era through the redoubtable contributions of chief executives Ed Smith and (currently) Stephen Maddock. The spiciest character is nonetheless Arthur Baker, general manager from 1962 to 1978 – a man not averse to calling orchestra players ‘musical bricklayers’ to their faces. The colourful story of how he was sacked, consequent upon a ballot of largely highly disgruntled players, gives the lie to the idea

Forward is bound to be nothing but a backslapping, celebratory affair. For good measure in that regard, Bratby offers frank descriptions of the orchestra’s periodic financial woes. Yet here the CBSO stands proudly at its 100th birthday, looking forward.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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