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An unconventional guide to the CBSO’s 1949 season – commissioned by Ruth Gipps and published in “Play On”, the orchestra’s short-lived first in-house magazine.

Forward: 100 Years of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is published by Elliott & Thompson on 29 November 2019, and is available from the CBSO website from 14 November 2019. I will be signing copies at the CBSO concert at Symphony Hall on Saturday 23 November.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short article about the writing process for the CBSO’s in-house magazine, Music Stand. Here it is:

It’s January 2018. Stephen Maddock and Abby Corfan have just asked me to write a new centenary history of the CBSO, to be published in November 2019. And I’m sitting there in Starbucks at Symphony Hall: flattered, of course. Excited, obviously. But also, if I’m honest, feeling a little bit like I’ve just been asked to level Barr Beacon with a teaspoon.

I mean, where to start? There’s already one excellent history of the CBSO. Crescendo!, by Beresford King-Smith, was published in 1995 and it’s a tour-de-force – unsurprisingly, since Beresford was on the CBSO staff for more than half of the orchestra’s entire history, and also created (and for many years curated) the CBSO’s archive. I’d be drawing heavily on his work whatever I did, so I headed over to Sutton Coldfield for a chat. Generous as always, Beresford gave his blessing, and encouraged me to use many of the terrific unpublished anecdotes that never made it into the final version of Crescendo!

Still, the question remained: what could a new book bring to the party? Obviously, I’d need to chronicle the 25 years (a quarter of the CBSO’s existence) that have elapsed since Crescendo! appeared. As a staff member from 1998 to 2015, I’d witnessed many of those years at first hand, but if there’s one thing that a History degree teaches you, it’s that personal memories are unreliable things. Eleven months isn’t a long time to research and write a book, so I began by scheduling interviews with as representative a selection of long-serving CBSO veterans as time and travel allowed.

I was thrilled that each of our living music directors (Simon, Sakari, Andris and Mirga) made time to talk to me – and startled by how candid they were. Former Chief Exec Ed Smith plied me with excellent wine at his London club; Sheila Clarke didn’t hold back (I’d hoped she wouldn’t); Mike Seal spilled the beans on the CBSO football team, and of course Stan Smith – the 96-year old father of our CBSO “family”, who played in the first violins from the 1950s through to the Rattle era – had some irreplaceable memories to share. Hearing about the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem from someone who actually played in it isn’t so much a perk of the job as an unforgettable privilege.

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But as I dug back beyond living memory, the archives took over – and that’s where it got really intriguing. I was too late to talk to Louis Frémaux (even if he’d been willing), but a personal statement, enbargoed during his lifetime, means that for the first time we’re able to read his side of the controversy that led to his sudden resignation in March 1978. Further back, through the music directorships of Hugo Rignold and Andrzej Panufnik, the Holocaust survivor Rudolf Schwarz and the former racing driver George Weldon; well, the more I rooted around, the more vividly they sprang to life. And then on past Leslie Heward (I’d love to have heard him conduct live) and a youthful Adrian Boult, to 1920 and the orchestra’s founder, the brilliant but clearly maddening Appleby Matthews.

I wanted to tell this story in full colour. When I was duty manager at CBSO Centre, I loved chatting to audience members about the orchestra, and I’ve tried to recreate the pleasure of those conversations – to put together a proper 100th birthday present for our audience, a lively and entertaining narrative with no specialist knowledge required. Along the way, we’ve aimed to share as many treasures from the archive as possible. Picking out the illustrations (there are over 120, many unseen for decades) has been huge fun (Maria Howes, of the marketing team, has a real eye for a quirky visual). Stephen was also anxious for me to explore some of the bigger themes of the CBSO’s first century: there are chapters devoted to touring, recording, new music and the Chorus. Much of the established history of UK orchestras is, in reality, merely the story of London orchestras. In the areas of public funding, education work and opportunities for women, Birmingham was decades ahead of the field.

So when I’ve encountered someone particularly interesting, I’ve paused to enjoy their company. Orchestras attract outsize personalities, and the CBSO story is full of them, from founding father Granville Bantock and his homicidal parakeet Scheherazade, to second oboe Ruth Gipps, who’s only now starting to receive her due as a major post-war composer. I’ve tried to let the audience have its say too – remembering always that this is Birmingham’s orchestra, rooted in its city, and growing and changing with it. Who’s to say that a concert in Vienna’s Musikverein touched more lives than one at Saltley Coliseum – or whether Elgar got a bigger ovation than AR Rahman? (spoiler alert: he didn’t). There are so many tales to tell that we’ll never run out of new perspectives. I’ve chosen the ones that I enjoyed the most; and I really hope that you enjoy them too.