Friday, 2 November 2018
Two Thursdays in Birmingham
Three cheers for Chiltern Railways, is the first thing to note. Leaving from one small and charming station, London's Marylebone, travelling in comfort through pleasant countryside and arriving in another gem, Birmingham's Moor Street, is a much needed easing into the concrete jungle that is the centre of the city. The original building could so easily have been lost, but it's had a nostalgic face-lift, which includes the signage, and it has a very good coffee shop. Turn left and you hit the insoluble mess of the Bull Ring, but if you cross the road and head up the hill, you can be in the square around the Cathedral in minutes.
On my first visit, I was looking for a bite to eat before heading to see the final rehearsal of friend Susie Self's new opera, Quilt Song, at the Old Rep Theatre where her grandfather John Drinkwater's play Abraham Lincoln had been premiered 100 years ago to the day of her own first performance. The extra prompt to go and lend support came from Nina Stemme, to one of whose children Susie is a godmother, who when I met her in Stockholm and mentioned Susie, immediately asked 'when are you going to Quilt Song - 19th or 20th?' (she went on the Saturday, between performances in the Royal Opera Ring. Quite a friend).
More on that in a moment, but I should add that next to the rather stylish old pub opposite the Cathedral I'd visited before there had opened a Syrian eatery, Damascena, rather like our own beloved Jaffa Bake House on the North End Road in that it evokes similar such establishments in Syria and Lebanon. I returned the following Thursday for an early lunch, and it was just as good and even livelier.
Quilt Song is an ambitious project. Quite apart from the fact that Susie is composer, singer, co-director, conductor (of all those scenes in which she doesn't appear) and video artist, the work itself runs the gamut of styles in its inclusivity.
There are pop songs for the 'Universal Choir' and students from Birmingham's Ormiston Academy, incorporating some rather portentous words from Drinkwater's play,
some intricate instrumental music for the core ensemble of 12 players and the loveliest writing, I think, for the Alma Guitar Trio, working for their degree at the Birmingham Conservatoire by performing together.
Maureen Brathwaite sings Rosa Parks, chief subject of the opera's motto 'we have more in common than that which divides us' - epitomised also by another great woman who gave expression to it, Jo Cox, "drawn" as the Muse of the Poet (John Drinkwater, no less, embodied by Susie). She's sung by soprano Elizabeth Cragg, already pursuing a successful career. Brathwaite and Cragg pictured with members of the chorus on the 'bus' below.
The other solo voice belongs to James Blake, the bus driver who ordered Rosa Parks to move from her seat to make way for white people, sung by tenor Tristan Stocks, who also doubles as the Jo Cox figure's murderer.
He's allowed his transformation in a very Tippettesque second part where as Charon he rows souls across the river Styx to a street party.
Bear in mind that I only saw the final rehearsal. It did, though, allow me to send Susie a string of notes which I hoped would be helpful. Clearly as it stood - and I had to leave shortly before the end to catch my train back to London - the show was about 15 minutes too long, and Susie did in fact make a cut before the first of the two official performances where I thought it should be, in the 'Street Party' sequence. I hope she also got the other singers to clarify the text more; she herself, a superb mezzo, is always exemplary in that respect. She puts much of this down to her teacher, Josephine Veasey. As she wrote, 'I literally speak on the pitches rather than employ a singing mode. This is totally radical and for some singers too controversial an approach. They like singing too much!'
Otherwise, bravi tutti for giving so professional account of a big and at times complicated work. I thought Susie's videos especially striking and though I wasn't too sure about co-director and dancer Marina White Raven's later interjections - as the bird of death? - I found her physical expression in the opening sequence striking.
A week later, I returned to Birmingham - this time arriving before noon - to give a pre-performance talk at Symphony Hall on Sibelius and his First Symphony, taking a journey around it and the works that led up to it. I was amazed by the crowd assembled on the second foyer level (rehearsal was ongoing in the auditorium so the usual venue wasn't available, and I much preferred the alternative). Sitting on chairs and on the floor, standing, looking up from below (the microphone made it all audible from other foyer spaces), they were amazingly attentive and asked interesting questions. I told one or two that we don't get this level of attendance in London, probably because we have five orchestras and thus a less loyal following; the response was that the audience feels part of the CBSO family. Splendid.
As was the first half of the concert: to hear the orchestra in that best of venues is always like encountering music with the lid off, and Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture as conducted by Vasily Sinaisky made a superb start. Then Benjamin Grosvenor (pictured below by Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia) in Mozart's C major Piano Concerto, K467. He has it all - the most elegant trilling after Paul Lewis, a crisp, beautiful treble and a rich bass in perfect counterbalance, originality but never eccentricity of phrasing, an ear for what the orchestra's doing.
Alas, I couldn't stay for the Sibelius; I had to get back and prepare for the next day's start of talks around Shostakovich's fifteen quartets. Which took me back to Birmingham, this time Grand Central, and on to Bromsgrove. But that's another story, due a post soon.