Amidst all the doom and gloom surrounding UK music education, Birmingham City University has done a remarkable thing. By investing fifty-seven million in a new purpose-built building for Royal Birmingham Conservatoire the University has completely bucked the trend. Judging by this splendid Royal Gala Opening Concert (attended by HRH Prince Edward, the conservatoire’s Royal Patron) its far-sighted investment is already paying dividends. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla led a programme both challenging and intriguing.
Yet the very first music did not augur well. A lacklustre play-through of the British National Anthem was immediately followed by a spirited rendition of Lithuania’s, as March 11 marked twenty-eight years of independence from the Soviet Union.
The first work, Elsewhereness’, by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Head of Composition, Joe Cutler, is a cracker and brilliantly orchestrated – including a Hammond Organ and a tree branch – and fizzles with energy and wit, superbly dispatched. The soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 was Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Belarusian student Andrei Ivanov, whose appearance reminded me of the young John Ogdon. Ivanov’s performance was scintillating – poetically delicate yet powerful when needed. Chopin’s notoriously problematic orchestration was given the most sympathetic treatment.
The second half began with a real rarity, Čiurlionis's In the Forest (1901). Delivered with complete conviction, the orchestra made the best possible case for it and Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with obvious affection for the work of her fellow countryman. In The Forest was accompanied by a slide-show of Čiurlionis’s paintings which ended dramatically with orchestra and conductor faded into darkness while the composer’s painting remained in view. The evening’s climax was yet to come – a ravishing account of the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the players able to display remarkable solos, especially flute. Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Chorus also came into its own to bring the work to an unforgettable, dramatic conclusion which truly revealed this new concert hall’s stunning acoustic. Birmingham City University should be proud!
- Recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday March 12 at 7.30 p.m. (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)