News Story

A celebration of the CBSO's Centenary Commissions

by Richard Bratby

On 10 November 1920, when Sir Edward Elgar conducted the City of Birmingham Orchestra in its first concert as a full symphony orchestra, not a single piece on the programme was more than ten years old. By any standards, it was a bold move – in fact, one of the three pieces that Elgar conducted that night was barely more than a year old. Its premiere in London, the previous October, had been coolly received. In Birmingham, all the evidence shows that this difficult, challenging and unfamiliar new piece was warmly applauded. Which just goes to show: the work in question was Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

Commissioning and playing new music is always something of a gamble, demanding imagination, open-mindedness and (as Elgar himself once put it) a “massive hope for the future”. Above all, it’s an investment in talent, and it’s been part of the CBSO’s DNA since the first weeks of its existence. Whether it’s Holst’s Egdon Heath, Tippett’s Piano Concerto, Britten’sWar Requiem or Thomas Adès’ Asyla, major premieres have punctuated the CBSO’s history. When the orchestra marked its Centenary in 2020, there was never any doubt that an ambitious programme of commissioning and premiering new music would be at the heart of the celebrations.

And ambitious is certainly the word: the plan was that over two Seasons, with support from the John Ellerman Foundation and the Feeney Trust, and other funders, the CBSO would give World or UK Premieres of no fewer than 20 Centenary Commissions by 20 of the most significant composers in the world today. And then, on top of that, it would offer an opportunity to 20 equally diverse emerging composers: to write a short piece for full orchestra, to be premiered as an encore during the celebration period. 40 premieres in all: an almost unprecedented commitment to the future of music from a major symphony orchestra. And then… well, we all know that 2020 and 2021 didn’t exactly work out the way anyone expected. But the commissions went ahead anyway. The pace was slower than planned; there were cancellations, re-schedulings and performances given to socially-distanced audiences. You probably don’t need reminding.

Would the Centenary Commissions have drawn more attention if the original centenary plans hadn’t succumbed to Covid? Almost certainly. But the simple fact remains that the music was written, the music was played and the CBSO is now approaching the end of a landmark commissioning programme on a historic scale. That demands a celebration in its own right, not least because all the signs are that some of the Centenary Commissions are already entering the international concert repertoire.

"The CBSO's Centenary Commissions offer 20 reasons why, a century on, this city is still classical music's workshop of the world."

In October 2022, Mirga and the orchestra toured Thomas Adès’ Exterminating Angel Symphony (premiered in Symphony Hall in August 2021) to cheering audiences across the USA; Thea Musgrave’s Trumpet Concerto (July 2019), Unsuk Chin’s SPIRA (January 2020), and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Catamorphosis (June 2022), to name just three, have already been performed around the globe.

Sharp-eyed (and -eared) CBSO followers will note a couple of Birmingham connections among those four pieces – though none, perhaps, as self-evident as the Five Polish Folksongs (March 2023) that Roxanna Panufnik adapted for the CBSO’s Youth and Children’s Choruses from works by her father Sir Andrzej Panufnik, the CBSO’s Chief Conductor from 1957 to 1959.

Adès had his first big orchestral break with a CBSO commission (Asyla) in 1997; now he’s written his first full-scale symphony for the CBSO, and international interest has been keen. Thea Musgrave is a living giant of British music who also scored an early-career success in 1968 with her Concerto for Orchestra – a Feeney Trust commission for the CBSO. Chin and Thorvaldsdottir, meanwhile are both major international names; artists that any orchestra would aspire to commission. The CBSO joined forces with (among others) the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris to commission these composers – exactly the kind of company that one would expect the CBSO to keep.

None of this, in other words, happened by accident. “There’s always a bit of happenstance” says CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock “I regularly meet with publishers anyway. I asked about Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music because I’d really enjoyed what I’d heard of hers. And they said, ‘Look, we’ve got a piece that she’s doing for the Berlin Phil and New York Phil. Would you like to be part of that?’ That was the easiest decision that I ever made. And it’s a great piece”.

But certain basic principles guided the choice of composers. Naturally, there was a 50:50 gender split among the commissioned composers. And the aim was always to involve the whole CBSO “family” of ensembles: making a project like Brett Dean’s massive choral work In this Brief Moment (September 2022) an irresistible choice. It’s already scheduled for performance in Australia. “I mean, it’s a really big undertaking” says Maddock. “My god, the chorus sweated blood to do it. But I saw one of the older baritones as I was walking home yesterday, and he said: ‘I have to tell you, I’m just so pleased we did that.’ ”

"That was the other intention really: partly so that we could have a series of beautiful things, made just for us. But also, to try to add to the stock of worthwile pieces in the concert repertoire."

Stephen Maddock

Grace-Evangeline Mason’s My Thoughts Fly In at Your Window (October 2020) was tailored to the Centre Stage chamber series at the CBSO Centre, and is already finding a place on chamber programmes around the UK as a companion piece to its inspiration, Schubert’s Octet. Debbie Wiseman’s Carnival of the Endangered Animals (October 2021) was premiered in a Family Concert and looks set to delight listeners of all ages for years to come: a ready-made answer to the eternal concert-planner’s question of how to follow Saint-Saëns’ evergreen Carnival. Stef Conner wrote Stella Maris (December 2019) as a Christmas present for the Selly Oak-based community choir SO Vocal; Bergrun Snaebjornsdottir is currently completing a showpiece for the CBSO Youth Orchestra for premiere in February 2023.

Sometimes, though, it’s just good to reconnect with old friends. Birmingham favourite Jonathan Dove composed In Exile, a powerful song cycle for baritone Sir Simon Keenlyside and cellist Raphael Wallfisch (December 2021). From Jörg Widmann, a former Artist in Residence, came the song cycle Das heisse Herz (December 2019), while another favourite collaborator, the pioneering harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani came to the CBSO with a proposal for a magical new concerto from the Danish composer Bent Sorensen
(April 2022). “I just said yes straight away” says Maddock, whose one regret is that the pandemic frustrated a plan for a new choral work from Master of the King’s Music (and former CBSO Composer-in-Association) Judith Weir. But both of the CBSO’s other composers-in-association have contributed something to the festivities: Julian Anderson with the cello concerto Litanies (June 2021), and Mark-Anthony Turnage with the ebullient concert opener Go for It (September 2021).

“I asked Mark, ‘Could you do us something? And if you want to reflect on your time in Birmingham, that would be very nice’” recalls Maddock. “He just ran with it. It’s classic Turnage – an absolutely brilliant, condensed version of his language in an eight-minute concert opener. Just a joyful, riotous, fun piece. Honestly, it should be played by everyone! The Centenary Commissions took a lot of my time to plan, and the players have had to work very hard. But I think they’re all useful pieces in different ways. That was the other intention really: partly so that we could have a series of beautiful things, made just for us. But also to try to add to the stock of worthwhile pieces in the concert repertoire. From my point of view, we’ve definitely had more hits than misses”.

And they’re not over yet – in fact, that isn’t even the half of it. At the time of writing, 15 of the 20 large-scale commissions have been premiered by the CBSO: works by Dani Howard (whose recent trombone concerto has caused a minor sensation), Freya Waley-Cohen and the Third Symphony (A Line Above the Sky) by the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher are all slated for the current season. And then, on Sunday 29 January, the CBSO takes this astonishing list and doubles it at a stroke. Remember those 20 encore commissions from 20 emerging composers, that were meant to be scattered like sonic Easter Eggs throughout the two centenary seasons? The best-laid plans, and all that. Instead, all 20 will be played (19 of them for the first time) in one bumper afternoon-long exploration of all that’s brightest, most imaginative and most vital in the next generation of orchestral composers.

“We thought: OK, is it possible to reconfigure this in a different way? Anna Melville (CBSO Head of Artistic Planning) suggested “Let’s do them all on one day and make it a big thing – a real pilgrimage for lovers of new music.” That is what we’re doing on the 29 January. They’re 20 exciting new voices, they’re all fairly young, and they’re short, impactful, snapshot, four
minute pieces in a huge and varied smorgasbord of brand new music. It’s a laboratory as well as a showcase”. And there’s every reason to expect a breakthrough: the names of these
composers may be unfamiliar at present, though anyone with their ear to the ground in recent years will be interested to hear what Tyriq Baker, Ryan Latimer, Bethan Morgan Williams or Yfat Soul Zisso has to say.

And of course (it’s been said before, but it can’t be said often enough) there was a time when audiences (in London, anyway) thought Elgar’s Cello Concerto was something of an experiment. For the last 100 years, here in Birmingham, we’ve done things differently. The CBSO’s Centenary Commissions offer 20 reasons why, a century on, this city is still classical music’s workshop of the world.