Life comes at you fast, they say: Forward was published in November and for the next few weeks it seemed like there was hardly a night that I wasn’t at a CBSO concert or at CBSO Centre, signing copies. It was exhausting but huge fun: not just because of the many kind comments about the book itself, but also because it was a chance to meet and chat to the CBSO’s supporters. That was always my favourite part of the job when I was duty manager for concerts at CBSO Centre – the enthusiasm that people feel for “their” orchestra is genuinely touching, and the stories that they have to tell of their concert-going activities are endlessly enjoyable. I spoke to ex-players, ex-singers, and audience members with memories stretching back to the George Weldon era in the late 1940s. Since I always intended the book to be a centenary gift from the orchestra to its friends and followers, this was enormously gratifying.
But it was still something of a surprise to realise that it was actually out there, making its way in the world and being read far beyond Birmingham. I popped into Waterstones on New Street and Foyles in Grand Central to sign copies. “It’s nice to have something in the local history section that isn’t Peaky Blinders” commented the manager. I gave an interval interview about the history of the orchestra on BBC Radio 3, and recorded a series of short films for the CBSO website. The Spectator kindly asked me to write something about the history of the CBSO for its Christmas edition, and BBC Music Magazine followed suit shortly afterwards.
Then there were the reviews, which if I’m honest I dreaded – but since I dish it out regularly as a critic, I was hardly in a position to expect sympathy. In fact, reviewers seem to have been very positive. I was particularly delighted to be reviewed in The Oldie; Richard Osborne wrote that “Such books can be a terrific bore but this is a gem: a lovingly researched, entertainingly written and handsomely designed and printed volume”. Jessica Duchen gave the book one of her end-of-year personal “Awards” on her long-running blog: “gorgeously produced, seamlessly readable, superbly expressed and full of splendiferous anecdotes. A wonderful anniversary tribute to the orchestra, with the lightly-worn engaging touch of the insider who knows exactly how it really works”.
John Quinn, on MusicWeb International, did the book proud: “Richard Bratby has told the story uncommonly well. His style is eminently readable and clear. It’s obvious that the book has been scrupulously researched.” Nigel Simeone, in Gramophone found it “thoroughly engaging” and Norman Lebrecht, in The Spectator (a review of which, like the Gramophone write-up, I knew nothing in advance), noted – with typical acuity – that “no nation state in modern times has chosen great leaders so unerringly well as the CBSO”. BBC Music Magazine gave it five stars.
Since then…well, we all know the story and the fact that the book is currently only available for purchase online is of no significance beside the fact that the CBSO’s long-planned centenary celebrations are on hold and that everyone involved with the orchestra is intensely, anxiously trying to find a way to salvage something. There isn’t much comfort to be had in the current situation, and I’ve never believed that history repeats itself.
But one constant of the CBSO’s history has been the depth of the support that it has received from the community that it serves; that, and a near-miraculous ability for doing great things under intense pressure. The CBSO has turned a crisis into a triumph quite a few times over the last 100 years. Things are worryingly quiet at the moment – though as the orchestra’s CEO Stephen Maddock pointed out a few weeks ago, if you think planning a concert season is hard work, just try cancelling one. But we wait; we hope; we keep the faith. Let’s hope the dawn is not far away.