Simon Rattle rehearsing the CBSO’s 100th Anniversary concert
Conductor Simon Rattle with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason rehearsing the CBSO’s 100th Anniversary concert © Andrew Fox

It is not only the current spat over “Rule, Britannia!” at the Last Night of the Proms. The Black Lives Matter protests have brought to the boil a more general concern over the lack of diversity in classical music that has been simmering for years. Over the past weekend two online events put the issue to the fore. Bard Music Festival, based at the Fisher Centre at Bard College in New York state, is presenting a series of four concerts focusing on black composers under the title “Out of the Silence”. In the UK, the centenary concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra combined tradition and diversity in a wide-ranging programme. Both are free to view on YouTube, though donations are invited.

The Bard concerts are modest in scale. Housed in a large tent, young players of The Orchestra Now (TON) sit masked and socially distanced for their performances of prominent black composers, not just American, but in later concerts also Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, English and French respectively.

The opening programme, conducted by Leon Botstein and James Bagwell, featured two 20th-century African-Americans. William Grant Still is the better known of the two, almost impressionist in his wonderfully evocative “Out of the Silence” from Seven Traceries, heartwarmingly American in his “Serenade” of 1957. George Walker's Lyric for Strings is similarly touching, probably his most frequently played work. One of Mendelssohn's string symphonies completed the programme. Performances are decent, though not more.

William Grant Still, in 1936,  the first African-American conductor of a major orchestra in the US
Composer William Grant Still in 1936: he was the first African-American conductor of a major orchestra in the US, the Los Angeles Philharmonic © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over in Birmingham, UK, youth and racial equality were prominent. The 100th birthday celebration of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra managed to be about not only the history of the orchestra but also the city itself, which has one of the most diverse and youthful populations in Europe. The nearly two-hour programme, well presented and varied, was filmed at PRG's Live Stage Studio, a Birmingham warehouse that provided an industrial backdrop with the bonus of an automated camera scurrying about on the floor in the foreground.

The youth and diversity themes came together in the central items. Sheku Kanneh-Mason was soloist in a thoughtful performance of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1, which would have benefited from a bit more sparkle. That was made good by Hannah Kendall's fizzing The Spark Catchers, a well-crafted, short orchestral showpiece. Part of A.R. Rahman's uplifting soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire varied the mood and also gave Roopa Panesar a solo spotlight on sitar.

The conductor for the occasion was Birmingham’s former music director Simon Rattle. Looking back over the 100 years, they played Elgar's Serenade for strings, the first work ever to have been performed by the CBSO, and Stravinsky's Firebird suite, the first to be played by this inspiring team at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. With the musicians socially distanced, the Stravinsky came across astonishingly clear and analytical. If coronavirus restrictions continue, we will have to get used to how different familiar music sounds.


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