thu 22/10/2020

BCMG, Galbreath, Adrian Boult Hall Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

BCMG, Galbreath, Adrian Boult Hall Birmingham

BCMG, Galbreath, Adrian Boult Hall Birmingham

A quiet requiem for Birmingham's least glamorous concert hall

Music to Go: BCMG's Christopher Yates and Ulrich HeinenRobert Day

So this is the end of the Adrian Boult Hall, due to be demolished in a matter of weeks. And to be honest, all but the most nostalgic of Birmingham concertgoers will find it hard to mourn. It’s no architectural masterpiece – nothing like John Madin’s superb Central Library, one of Britain’s greatest postwar buildings, currently being pulverised next door in an act of civic vandalism that’s been compared to the destruction of the Euston Arch.

So this is the end of the Adrian Boult Hall, due to be demolished in a matter of weeks. And to be honest, all but the most nostalgic of Birmingham concertgoers will find it hard to mourn. It’s no architectural masterpiece – nothing like John Madin’s superb Central Library, one of Britain’s greatest postwar buildings, currently being pulverised next door in an act of civic vandalism that’s been compared to the destruction of the Euston Arch.

True, it has a decent acoustic and its owner, Birmingham Conservatoire, has tried over the years to brighten it up a bit. And once they did something about the fumes from the adjacent McDonald’s, it went from being an actively unpleasant venue in which to sit through a concert to a perfectly adequate one. But with its bunker-like ambience, backstage noises and dingy lighting, the ABH feels older than its 30 years. It no longer has a place in the city of Symphony Hall, CBSO Centre and the refurbished Town Hall. 

Unexpectedly and poignantly, the ABH’s acoustic came into its own Still, its passing demands to be marked: thousands of students have made their debuts here. And this is the venue, after all, where Rattle and the CBSO used to rehearse, and where Birmingham Contemporary Music Group gave its earliest concerts – even if they couldn’t get out fast enough when CBSO Centre opened in 1998. Tonight though, for one last time, BCMG was back, in a short but thoughtfully programmed concert with the chamber choir Via Nova under its conductor Daniel Galbreath.

As wakes go, it was a subdued affair. Cellist Ulrich Heinen began with Howard Skempton’s unaccompanied Six Figures – commissioned and premiered by Heinen in 1998 – and he played them from memory, tinting their sparse lines without overplaying their wit. Malcolm Wilson’s performance of three piano miniatures from Skempton’s Nocturnes and Reflections found the same unforced balance – though it was hard to resist a smile at the post-modern drollery of the central Bolt from the Blue.

A short a capella cycle by Skempton, The Flight of Song actually moved the audience to a ripple of laughter. Opening in a chatter of aleatoric-sounding sprechgesang, these four partsongs suddenly venture off in an idiom that could be mistaken for Stanford. Only gradually, with an over-extended line here, an alkaline dissonance there, do they drift into Skempton’s spare but rich imaginative world, before ending with what sounds like a homage to the Swingle Singers. No other composer could have pulled it off so guilelessly, and Via Nova sang with calm assurance.

Charlotte BrayBut the emotional ballast of the first half came from two instrumental duets. Heinen and viola player Christopher Yates gave a subdued, eloquent account of Betsy Jolas’s Music to Go, Yates’s chant-like line meshing with and occasionally clashing against Heinen’s double-stops. And Heinen and Wilson performed Perseus by Charlotte Bray (pictured right), a cello sonatina inspired by dark matter and stellar energy, and evoking cosmic forces within a remarkably terse span. Perseus was the only really fast or loud music we’d heard, and as it turned out these two pieces were the key to the second half of the evening – a full performance of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel.

Here, unexpectedly and poignantly, the ABH’s acoustic came into its own: putting enough of a bloom on the three BCMG instrumentalists (viola, celeste and percussion) to suggest vastness while somehow muting the sound of the wordless choir. The result was to make their remarkably controlled and subtle singing sound even more inward. Feldman’s echoing silences and near-static pace charge even the simplest musical event – a pizzicato note, a pianissimo oscillation on the timpani, or a solo soprano suddenly lifting clear of the choral haze – with intense emotional resonance.

The ending – a brief viola melody; a real, hummable, expressive melody, played over a musical-box celeste accompaniment – is magical; in a performance this focussed it was quietly devastating. If the intention was to perform a sort of ritual of closure for a place that is soon to be just an absence and a memory, it was perfectly done. Depart in peace ABH, you maddening old concrete mistake. Birmingham Conservatoire can now look forward to something brighter and better.

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