Why I love Birmingham's thriving cultural scene

Stephan MeierWed 30th August 2017

"The history and very fabric of Birmingham is built on people taking risks and investing in the new"

Go to any kind of concert, and you‘ll be looking for a mixture of expected and unexpected experiences. Go to a concert of new music and you’ll see the composers working on just that: how to construct something new, based on the old, using fresh as well as existing materials, mixing them in new ways.

The very nature of newness means that whilst we may think we know the direction of travel, we don’t always find what we expect on arrival. Last year, I moved from Germany to Birmingham to become Artistic Director of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. I was drawn to the city by the opportunity to work with BCMG’s exceptional players, but unsure what the city had to offer more widely. What I have found is something quite rare: a cultural identity that is both defined by the city, and gives definition to it.

Birmingham seems to enjoy plotting new routes, whether in new buildings, infrastructure or in culture. The city I arrived in last summer was buzzing from the recent reconstruction of Paradise Circus and New Street Station. Today, there’s a dominating new headquarters for HSBC taking shape, a new Conservatoire soon to open, a new home for Birmingham Royal Ballet, a new foyer for Symphony Hall in the pipeline, and much more. In many cities, cosmetic change is just that; in Birmingham, the roots of change go much deeper, reflected in the history of the city, its people – in my experience, notably open, friendly and helpful - and in an adventurous cultural scene that has helped place Birmingham firmly on the international map.

The history and very fabric of Birmingham is built on people taking risks and investing in the new; it’s an incredible story of invention, re-invention, free-thinking, building things, making things happen. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Birmingham’s many cultural organisations follow suit, providing a pulsating beat that’s rooted in the world around them but informed by a global perspective. They have set an agenda which manages to bring the world to Birmingham, and Birmingham to the world: Birmingham Opera Company; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Town Hall/Symphony Hall; Ex Cathedra; IKON Gallery; Flatpack Film Festival; Birmingham’s Conservatoire and Universities, my own ensemble, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and so many more. In my experience there’s a particular spirit of co-operation; our work may be individual, but we speak with a common voice on the challenges facing our sector and champion our successes through an umbrella organisation, Culture Central.

The fruits of co-operation can be seen in the annual Birmingham Weekender, the city’s largest free arts festival which sees theatre, music, art, dance and performance spill onto the city’s streets and squares and pop-up in stations and shops, and in bespoke collaborations throughout the year. And there’s always something new. For example, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, whipping up a storm as the new Music Director at the CBSO, will conduct BCMG for the first time next January, and the CBSO and BCMG will collaborate on Debussy Centenary concerts in March; Graham Vick’s convention-breaking Birmingham Opera Company will perform a string of mini-operas at the Weekender this September, produced in cooperation with BCMG.

In a world where international exchange and thinking are key to the future, I’ve noticed an international energy to Birmingham’s music making, a can-do spirit of adventure that was embodied by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle in the 1980s and '90s and has never left. Thirty years ago, members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Rattle, at the time CBSO Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor (and from 1990 CBSO Music Director), founded Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and built an ensemble with an international reputation for musical free-thinking totally in keeping with the founding spirit of Birmingham. 

This September, to celebrate our first three decades, we’re pushing the boat out (quite literally), inviting Birmingham to embrace new music, and composers from across Europe to leave their musical mark on the city (a collaborative new work to add to the 170 or so commissioned by BCMG in its first three decades). Black Country-born composer Richard Baker, Czech Ondrej Adamek and Cypriot composer Yannis Kyriakides have come together to create an outdoor serenade to Birmingham’s canals, exchanging musical ideas where goods were once exchanged, the first time that classical music has taken to the city’s watery arteries. The Canal Serenade will travel on three narrowboats, converging at the point where Birmingham’s Fazeley, Main and Worcester Canals meet. The city has more miles of canals than Venice, and the composers have walked the towpaths, tested the acoustics and spent the past few months swapping ideas. Yannis Kyriakides sums it up nicely: 'Part of the fun of this project is rooted in the unknown factors: taking music outside the concert hall; putting musicians on barges and not knowing at the outset, exactly how they will be co- ordinated; not being in complete control of how the elements will come together, or even who the audience will be.'

It’s this element of risk and surprise that has kept both culture, and all the great cities of the world, alive and vital, and may just keep them buoyant in the future. There is certainly still scope for further expansion of culture into Birmingham City Centre and for more non-commercial opportunities and public places to come together. In the case of music, Birmingham’s success should not be taken for granted, and music needs to continue to evolve in the way that it is performed and experienced in both the concert hall and the very fabric of the city. We all are living in an increasingly globalised reality, and the sound of today’s music must reflect this. It can only do this if it is truly rooted in the world today, as part of an international cultural dialogue; it’s crucial to welcome international composers and performers with fresh perspectives on music making in the city, and to encourage a broad, imaginative response to the things that really matter in our fast changing world. There’s nothing to suggest that Birmingham won’t do this; BCMG may be taking to the canals, but we, like so many of the city’s cultural institutions, are not prepared to just go with the flow.

BCMG’s free Canal Serenade takes place on Sunday, September 10 at 4pm, at the meeting point of the Fazeley, Main and Worcester Canals at Brindleyplace in Birmingham City Centre, and is followed by a concert at CBSO Centre Birmingham at 6pm. The Canal Serenade is repeated on Saturday, September 23 at 2pm as part of Birmingham Weekender 2017, which takes place on September 23 & 24. Full details at bcmg.org.uk

Stephan Meier

Stephan Meier is Artistic Director of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

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