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Birmingham Post lays into CBSO’s Emma Stenning

Birmingham Post lays into CBSO’s Emma Stenning
Birmingham Post lays into CBSO’s Emma Stenning

Christopher Morley, long-serving arts editor of the Birmingham Post, has written an op-ed today attacking its flailing management and failing reputation. Here goes:



The name of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra glows all over the world as a beacon of excellence, with huge fan bases in every country appreciating classical music. Music-lovers in Japan were overjoyed when a talk I gave there seven years ago about the orchestra’s history, scheduled to last 15 minutes, ran to 45. Its recordings under conductors such as Louis Fremaux Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo, Edward Gardner and Andris Nelsons are quite rightly ranked very highly. It now has an exciting new music director in the popular Kazuki Yamada. Everything in the garden should be lovely.

But it isn’t. Last November the recently-appointed Chief Executive Officer Emma Stenning, replacing Stephen Maddock, who after a brilliant near quarter-century at the CBSO was moving on to do great things as Principal of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, published a Vision for the Orchestra. Calculated to attract new audiences to CBSO concerts, it invited people to bring drinks into the auditorium, to feel free to take photographs on their mobile phones at any time, promised a more welcoming experience from front of house staff, an introduction from the stage by a performer or member of the management team, and, most striking of all, lighting effects and backstage projections illuminating the music being performed.

My response, as someone who has loved the CBSO since 1966 when I came to Birmingham as a music undergraduate, and who has been reviewing the orchestra ever since I graduated in 1969 (and since 1988 as chief music critic of the Birmingham Post, a cherished position from which I have only recently retired), was immediate. The Post published my rebuttal of these dangerous ideas, “If it ain’t woke don’t fix it” as a front-page lead. A few days later Ms Stenning’s vision came to fruition in a concert in which heroism was the theme: Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote (in which violist Chris Yates and cellist Eduardo Vassallo were the genuinely heroic soloists in view of all the shenanigans surrounding this performance), and the greatest of all symphonies, Beethoven’s Eroica, during which images of various personalities whom the orchestra’s players had been urged to nominate as their heroes, were back-projected, distracting the audience from their absorption in the music. I am only grateful that Ms Stenning did not misread the symphony’s title as the Erotica, as the Guardian once did…

The response from seasoned concertgoers was immediate, angry at the intrusion into their concert experience, and particularly incensed that such an approach was foisted upon them after they had booked their tickets, expecting a concert “straight” in its presentation.

Strong letters fell onto Ms Stenning’s desk, some from sponsors who were now considering withdrawing any future support. The “Vision” was also intimating that this Son et Lumiere approach would be gracing all future concerts. There was soon a backtracking from the management, declaring that these innovations were to be used in only two subsequent concerts during the rest of the season.

I was at one of those, the CBSO Youth Orchestra of all things, when the exposed solo trumpeter at the nerve-racking beginning of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was required to stand in a spotlight whilst delivering the opening fanfare, and the concertmaster was somehow asked to stand while the rest of her colleagues sat during the violins’ first entry. The youngsters got through their ordeal, and all the subsequent ones during this vast work, with aplomb, but the pressure put on them was cruel. It might work for jazz bands, but it fell flat here.

Around this time Emma Stenning presided over an emergency meeting of CBSO subscribers at a pre-concert gathering at the CBSO Centre at the bottom of Berkley Street. Their concerns were volubly expressed, but apparently placated by the CEO and Lord Tony Hall, Chair of the Board of Trustees, who had been appointed to that position, leaving the BBC, last November, immediately prior to the Vision announcement.

Mention of the Vision rouses feelings that seasoned concertgoers should have felt something brewing even from the start of the current season, with the stark rebranding of each concert’s programme-book cover as “CBSO Remastered”, with perhaps a subliminal message of new brooms sweeping clean. The prospectus for the forthcoming 2024-25 season is equally unsettling. For the first time in decades the editorial blurb has not been written by an accredited writer on music, and speaks about toe-tapping to joyous works such as Bruckner Nine and Mahler Nine (music-lovers will understand that anomaly). Ms Stenning has even gone into print advertising Dvorak’s New World Symphony featuring the music for the Hovis advert, and other such connections which I used to use during my years as a schoolteacher.

There seemed to be conflicting messages as to what the CBSO management were dangling in front of potential audiences with their slurp and snap enticements, whilst at the same time reassuring concerned existing audiences that photography was “suggested” only during applause breaks. The excrement really hit the fan during a performance of Benjamin Britten’s song-cycle Les Illuminations, when the internationally-renowned tenor Ian Bostridge halted proceedings because flashes from mobile phones were disturbing his concentration.

This event was reported nationwide, even on Radio 4’s Today programme, and Bostridge revealed that he had not been informed of this phone-use policy in advance. Ms Stenning’s subsequent excuse was that the perpetrators were only perusing their programme-notes (such a lighting intrusion is bad enough in itself).

Matters have continued to lurch along, with the occasional appearance of conflicting messages about slurp and snap. It should be pointed out that this policy was at odds with the declared policy of Town Hall Symphony Hall as displayed when the Vision was first announced. It should also be pointed out that I know of CBSO subscribers who are abandoning their devotion to the orchestra, and going instead to the Halle in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, where notices firmly forbid any photography and the taking of drinks into the auditorium. Would you want someone slopping their beer over you as they fumble their way back to their seat in the middle of the aisle?

Another furore developed when one of the CBSO’s most loyal attendees, well-known to concert audiences throughout Birmingham, complained about the distractions of a photographer snapping away behind his seat. Eventually the CBSO management saw fit to issue a directive that people who continued to complain might be barred from attending concerts, or indeed any involvement with the orchestra. As recently revealed, the Arts Council of England has such a policy of threatening disgruntled clients.

Experienced concertgoers are indeed cancelling their subscriptions, and it would be interesting to know if these new policies are succeeding in attracting a younger audience. After more than 30 years reviewing concerts in Symphony Hall I know that the average age profile of the audience has remained the same, newer patrons replacing those who have passed away. As families grow and leave the nest, as mortgages get paid off, as more time becomes available after retirement, that is when people start to think about going to concerts. The blandishments of the new Vision’s razzmatazz mean nothing to them – and nor, I would suggest, does it mean anything to those younger ones who have more pressing concerns in their lives.

Far more likely to attract new audiences into the concert hall is the CBSO’s programme of outreach activities planned for August, when for a week the orchestra and its charismatic conductor Kazuki Yamada give free concerts at locations across the conurbation, including the Hawthorns, Bullring and Grand Central, and New Street Station

There is a disturbing subtext to the entire situation, and that is the implication that the performances in the auditorium aren’t enough to attract audiences. What does this do to the morale of the players? Some anonymous contributions to Slipped Disc from within the ranks suggest that the players are disheartened and fearful, and that they feel the management should be thinking more about recouping financial shortfalls due to Birmingham City Council’s bankruptcy, and not wasting money on all the theatrical and lighting gimmicks.

And there’s the nub. Emma Stenning comes from a successful theatrical background (she served as an advisor on theatre to the much-maligned Arts Council of England for some time), but had no musical experience whatsoever. Questions are being asked as to who appointed her as Chief Executive officer of one of the world’s greatest orchestras, and why are they not querying her continuation in the role?

Subscribers are angry and voting with the refusal to renew their subscriptions. I detect an atmosphere of fear and resentment amongst the players, who continue to do their best to maintain the standing of this great orchestra which has been built up so strongly over the half-century since Louis Fremaux. I am sure the Musicians’ Union will do everything to support them in their concerns, and am remembering how strong the MU representation used to be under violinist Paul Smith and clarinettist Martyn Davies. Perhaps it still is, but gives the impression of being muted.

I cannot imagine this regrettable situation ever existing under such Principal Conductor/Chief Executive Officer partnerships as Rattle/Ed Smith and Oramo/Stephen Maddock. Of course Emma Stenning has every right to reply, but I, along with all those disgruntled subscribers and myriad loyal supporters, remain to be convinced, short of an apology.

The post Birmingham Post lays into CBSO’s Emma Stenning appeared first on Slippedisc.

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