Christopher Morley shakes his head in sadness

We are no longer in the Golden Age, when a name or venue would be attraction enough for people to be queuing out the door for admission to events.

During my half-century of reviewing I've witnessed people docilely standing in line on the steps of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery hoping for a ticket-return for the latest Birmingham Chamber Music Society concert. Similarly for Birmingham Festival Choral Society under the direction of the much-loved and much-admired Jeremy Patterson.

Admittance to one of the series of Evening Concerts at the glorious art deco Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham was like receiving a red carpet pass to the Hollywood Oscars.

Not any more.

Birmingham Chamber Music Society has folded, after so many decades of bringing illustrious performers to the city. Birmingham Festival Choral Society valiantly pursues a roaming existence, more often than not with keyboard accompaniment, rather than that of a full orchestra, and the Barber...I was recently at a Barber concert starring one of the world's most illustrious sopranos, Miah Persson, and the attendance was embarrassingly pitiful.

Where were the students? In my day as an undergraduate we were on a three-line whip to attend, though we never needed such coercion, such was the international quality of the performers. Where even were the University's academic old lags, turning up because that was the thing to do? Where was Joe Public?

The Barber Institute is a veritable jewel where I spent the happiest three years of my life. The libraries - both the music one, and in particular the art one, were so conducive to work whenever one needed total peace in order to produce an essay under pressure -- and the Art Gallery upstairs was a blessed solace into which to escape and perhaps have a heart-to-heart tryst. The concert hall was, and remains, the most perfect of venues for musical performance.

OK so we used to snooze on Thursday afternoons during the obligatory Prof lecture there to the entire Music Department (all 60-odd of us in those days), but we came alive for performances, whether from great world-renowned artists, or even ourselves: Friday lunchtimes, Special Choir (what an accolade it was to be invited to join that), University Music Society concerts, and of course, breathlessly taking part in the great series of Barber Operas under the wonderful direction of Anthony Lewis.

Where has all this excitement gone?

Events at the Barber Institute no longer seem to carry the charisma they once did. The attendance at Miah Persson's recital was poor enough; one of my spies tells me that the billing of the equally great soprano Kate Royal attracted an even smaller audience last year. The University of Birmingham needs to realise that it is no longer the privileged Shangri-La it once was when people used to flock there to bask in its reflected glory. Gown used to attract audiences from Town, only three miles down the Bristol Road. Access is still not much different; the buses still run, car-parking is easy, and nowadays there is also a train, though admittedly at the other end of the campus.But there seems to be little appetite for reaching out into the wider community outside the University's cosy confines, and, as I have witnessed, little response from those within it.

Audiences are difficult enough to foster in any case, but the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, music faculty of Birmingham City University, is rolling up its sleeves and doing a magnificent job in attracting music-lovers out into the less fashionable part of town. Leafy Edgbaston it ain't -- far from it -- but the RBC isn't sitting complacently on past glories.

So many of my past glories happened in the Barber Institute, whether as an academic, or as a performer (conducting, accompanying, playing percussion in a brilliant student performance of Walton's Facade, timpanist in the orchestra, singing in the choirs, scene-shifting in the Barber operas), and indeed in personal relationships.

I am saddened to see this precious place virtually ignored, even by those who have such ease of access to it.

The city of Birmingham and its wider environs need to be informed of the wonders on offer at the Barber Institute. Shake yourself, my beloved Barber, and extend a welcoming hand to the outside world.

Comments

  1. It doesn't help when the Barber Concerts are on the same night as a CBSO Concert. It helps neither venues with clashes like this

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