Perhaps it is fitting that an orchestra that came into being during the “unprecedented times” of “a city recovering from war and pandemic” is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. That said, while the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (of Birmingham, England) celebrated its birthday in a – yes – unprecedented way, it was also an innovative and forward-thinking commemoration.
Given the current restrictions on large gatherings like concerts during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been thinking quite a bit about the ways in which performers are continuing to engage with audiences across time and space. I firmly believe that art conducted online is just as much art as any live, in-person performance, just through a new medium, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) illustrated this beautifully. While I would have loved to hear them perform in the immaculate acoustic environment of Hill Auditorium as they were scheduled to prior to the pandemic, and headphones undeniably will never match that experience, the new artistic medium of the internet in turn allows for greater accessibility, flexibility, and learning.
For me, the online format meant that through interviews, videos, and historical photos included in the presentation, I was able to learn far more about the CBSO as an organization than I ever would have at a live performance, and I have to say that I was impressed by what I learned. Through outreach, commitment to its community, and investment in younger generations, the CBSO seems to be paving the way for orchestras of the 21st century. Their youth ambassador program, which was highlighted during the celebration, quite literally puts the orchestra in the hands of the younger generation by giving a group of young adults age 16-21 the opportunity to program and present their own concert with the full CBSO. The CBSO is also not limited to the “classics” of composers from previous centuries, and though there is always room for improvement, it was delightful to see new music, old music, and music from pop culture all on the same program (according to their website, the CBSO performs “music that ranges from classics to contemporary, film music and even symphonic disco”). As a student studying music performance myself, it is heartening to see an orchestra so committed to creating a vibrant, relevant artistic community.
One of my favorite pieces was cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto in A Minor. Even through the medium of the internet, the expressivity of his playing was evident, which has made me even more excited for his upcoming UMS digital recital with his sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, in October! Roopa Panesar’s sitar playing for A R Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire Suite was also superb, and the excellent camera work for that piece added to the experience. Under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, the orchestra also performed works by Sir Edward Elgar (the first conductor of the CBSO), Igor Stravinsky, and Hannah Kendall.
Overall, although I missed the experience of seeing the CBSO perform live with Sheku Kanneh-Mason at Hill Auditorium, their online centenary celebration offered a window into the orchestra that I never would have gotten from a live concert. Though it may be different than what we are used to, arts engagement during the pandemic can offer entirely new perspectives on artists and their work.
The CBSO’s 100th Birthday Celebration is no longer available for streaming through the UMS website, but it can still be viewed on YouTube.