Richard Bratby visits the strings department at Birmingham Conservatoire to hear about plans for an exciting future in a new building
September 2017: Birmingham Conservatoire has just moved into the newest and best-equipped purpose-built music college in Britain. There are five performance venues (including a 400-seat orchestral concert hall) and 70 practice rooms, all fitted into a spacious state-of-the-art building just across the road from the future HS2 terminus in Birmingham’s redeveloped Eastside. These are dynamic times for the 129-year old institution – and Julian Lloyd Webber, the conservatoire’s newly-appointed principal, is excited.
‘It’s been designed to a very high, modern specification. Everything’s adaptable: you can change the acoustics, and all the rooms are going to be completely soundproofed, so when you’re trying to play, say, the Alan Rawsthorne cello sonata, you won’t be able to hear someone singing in the next room at top volume! Some music colleges are struggling with premises that were built in Victorian times. Here, everything’s thought out and 100 per cent focused on music.’
The only problem being that…well, it’s still 18 months away. For the time being, the life of the Conservatoire carries on for a little longer in a concrete warren of tired-looking buildings in the middle of Birmingham’s spectacularly misnamed Paradise Circus. For Julian, though, that’s actually a sign of the Conservatoire’s strength. ‘Where we are now actually isn’t bad – on one side we’ve got Birmingham Town Hall and on the other, Symphony Hall. Look at it in those terms and I’m not sure any college can match that! There’s a certain mood about the transition; we’re all in it together and we’re going to get through this time knowing that we’ve got something very special to look forward to in 18 months.’
Energy, realism, perspective
Louise Lansdown, head of strings, agrees. ‘Appearances can be a little deceptive,’ she points out. ‘The music profession is changing very fast. Birmingham is oddly wonderfully situated – we have incredible connections with all parts of the country in terms of teaching, performances and projects. We’re embedded in the life of the city, but because Birmingham is so well connected, lots of our strings staff don’t live in Birmingham or even the UK – they live in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic or France. And we’ve got strong relationships not just with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra but with Welsh National Opera, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Swan and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.’
The student body is just as cosmopolitan: the department has recently doubled in size, and some 23 different nationalities are represented amongst the 180 string students, with contingents from China, South America and – a tribute to Louise’s recruitment work in her home country – South Africa. The appeal of Birmingham Conservatoire’s string department, it seems, is its energy, its realism, and its outward-looking perspective. The department is involved in pioneering performance health research, and a remarkable outreach project that uses Skype to allow students and staff alike to help teach beginner string players in Soweto.
‘I think what we have here specifically in the Strings Department is an attitude of mutual learning and collaboration between staff and students,’ says Lansdown. ‘There’s a very open-minded attitude to how we approach work. Our international chairs in each instrument – that’s Oliver Wille, Thomas Riebl, Alexander Baillie, Thomas Martin and Catrin Finch – are all very, very involved with each student: they act as a kind of “godparent” to each instrument. We don’t have masterclasses from people who flash bits of knowledge around, do damage, and then go – I’m interested in people who are going to make a lasting contribution to what we’re doing. There’s a big sense that it’s a community of musicians. I have ideas and aspirations for what this place should be, and we’re heading that way – but it’s led by the attitude of our students.’
It being lunch hour, those students are currently gathered around tables in the Conservatoire’s main corridor – a low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit space that doubles as a cafeteria, foyer and general thoroughfare. For another year or so, at any rate. ‘The new building should be fantastic!’ says third-year viola student Alistair Rutherford. He’s a little sad that he won’t get to study in it – but no matter.
‘The thing with Birmingham is that the strings department is just really blossoming; every month there’s new faces coming in, new things going on, and the chamber music scene is amazing. I’m part of a string trio, then I’m doing the Trout. We don’t really put on our own concerts, but to be honest we don’t need to – there are a lot of performance opportunities. And in the third year we get a pedagogy module; staff from Birmingham Music Service come in and give lectures on different early-age teaching techniques.’
‘You save a lot of money coming here, too,’ says Elsabé Raath, another viola student. ‘It’s almost one third of London prices, and for that, you actually get to live near college.’ The nearby halls of residence even have 24-hour practice rooms – ‘which is nice’. Meanwhile, the musical opportunities in Birmingham are world-class. Elsabé’s colleague Matthew Johnstone recently saw the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig at Symphony Hall for £4, and the Conservatoire’s external engagements department isn’t short of paid work for students. ‘It’s so affordable here that if you get paid £85 for a gig you can pretty much survive for a week and a half,’ she adds.
And on top of all that: well, as Matthew puts it, ‘Everybody just seems to get along, across all age groups. My friends at other colleges say that Birmingham feels a lot more – well, not relaxed exactly, everyone works hard. But we all mingle together and make friends.’ ‘Exactly,’ says Elsabé. ‘It’s just very supportive and positive.’
Set free from concrete
It’s almost enough to make you wonder why a new building is even needed. Almost. No amount of fresh paint can hide the fact that the 1970s buildings are worn out, and the conservatoire’s unloved main concert venue, the Adrian Boult Hall, is slated for demolition next summer. But while the hoardings go up outside and the wrecking crews gather, everything that really matters about Birmingham Conservatoire is healthy, ambitious, and just waiting to be set free from its concrete corset.
‘You just have to walk around and listen to what’s already going on,’ says Lloyd Webber. ‘It’s pretty impressive. I’m just thinking of what the cello staff looks like at the moment. I mean, I’m on the list, we’ve got Sandy Baillie coming as a visiting tutor, we’ve got Raphael Wallfisch coming in now, we’ve got Eduardo Vassallo from the CBSO, we’ve got Ulrich Heinen – pretty good team, isn’t it? It’s not bad! We’re aiming to do that with all the instruments – we’ve got a flute residency coming with James Galway in May.
‘The students get individual care here. I think in some institutions that I couldn’t possibly name there’s a feeling that OK, you get on with it, you practise, and if you don’t make it you’re no good. But it’s a tough profession and some students need nurturing, preparing. Here, everybody is trying to help each other and there don’t seem to be any bad vibrations. We’re not small – we’ve got over 600 students – but it’s basically a family atmosphere. People seem to be happy here. And you can see that Birmingham is a city that’s in a very good place right now. Theconservatoire really is on a bit of a roll.’