Beresford King-Smith
Website created by Paul Baker •
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Beresford worked in various capacities for the CBSO for exactly 50 years, from 1964 to 2014.

Plus ça change...

Beresford's final article for "Music Stand", the CBSO magazine.

On Monday 6 January 2014, I am planning to retire from the CBSO, fifty years to the day after I started working for this wonderful orchestra.

In 1964, 6 January was also a Monday, and I climbed the two flights of stairs up to the Orchestra's offices in Newhall Street, over the Bradford & Bingley Building Society. Nowadays, of course, the mere act of climbing two flights of stairs would be something l would prefer to avoid!

To give you a flavour of the times, that week also saw the first issue of  ‘Jackie’ (the first big-selling ‘teen-mag' - a youthful Cliff Richard on the cover); 'Beatle rnania’ was at its height - Capitol issued its ‘Meet the Beatles' album; Mary Whitehouse launched her ‘Clean Up TV Campaign’; ‘Hello, Dolly!’ opened in New York.

I was introduced to everyone in the CBSO Office - far fewer on the staff than we have these days. General Manager Arthur Baker also introduced me to the Orchestra’s long-serving Associate Conductor Harold Gray, who kindly took me out for lunch at what he called ‘a real old Birmingham Pub’ (sawdust on the floor, and a ‘Men Only' bar!). Sadly, before the season was out, it had become another victim of the city‘s insatiable thirst for knocking down fine old Victorian buildings and replacing them with unlovely (if functional) concrete boxes.

'Plus ça change - The more things change, the more they stay the same’; and Birmingham has certainly changed a great deal since 1964. The old Library in Paradise Place was another casualty, that year, but now its replacement (Prince Charles’ bête noir) has been replaced in its turn. So maybe fifty years isn’t such a long time after all!

The Town Hall, where I enjoyed hearing so many fine CBSO concerts, would also be superseded in 1991 by Symphony Hall; but now it lives again, and full houses for the recent excellent Mendelssohn Series show that the handsome old room can still claim an honoured place in our affections - and rightly so.

Some changes are more profound. In 1964, the CBSO was still engaged by the City‘s Education Committee on no fewer than fifty days a year! - mostly, fairly small groups of players gave concerts in school halls. People often tell me how they were introduced to ‘good music’ on these occasions, and how that has changed their lives.

To balance the books, the Orchestra had to work absurdly hard. In the week when I started, it gave six concerts in three different cities, playing five different programmes under three different conductors. The programmes included three different Beethoven symphonies and music by Malcolm Arnold, Roberto Gerhard, Granados, Wagner, Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and it was normal to give each concert on a single three-hour rehearsal. No pressure, then! In that respect, things have decidedly improved, these days!

Choral engagements? In the twenty years between 1960 and 1980, the CBSO played for over fifty performances of The Dream of Gerontius, promoted by many different choirs. Sadly, most choral societies can no longer afford to employ leading symphony orchestras for their concerts.

Broadcasts? In 1964, the BBC was still regularly employing the regional orchestras to make interesting ‘studio recordings’; nowadays, you’ll get a ‘live relay' or nothing.

Overseas tours? These were real rarities, then. We travelled (very successfully, it must be said) to Eastern Europe in 1968, and again in 1972 - but then: nothing, until young Master Rattle arrived in 1980. By contrast, in the current financial year, the CBSO is giving 38 concerts overseas!

Commercial recordings? Only one during the 1960s, made for the Lyrita label. EMI were quick, though, to take advantage of the wealth of recording experience which Louis Fremaux brought with him from Monte Carlo to Birmingham; happily, many of his excellent 1970s recordings are still available on CD.

‘Plus c’est la même chose’? - well, some things never change, of course, such as the ongoing difficulty of ‘balancing the budget’. There were a couple of years during the ‘Rattle Era’ when it looked as if we might actually end up 'in the black’, but the politicians just said ‘Well done - that means that we can reduce your grant!’ To be fair, though, Birmingham City Council has never refused the CBSO a grant of some kind, in 93 years to date. A proud record.

The main thing that never changes is the sheer quality of the CBSO‘s playing over the years. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that ‘life began with Simon Rattle'! To be a small part of those exciting ‘Rattle Years” was indeed a thrill, but I still remember being ‘blown away' by Hugo Rignold’s account of the Tippett Fantasia Concertante (with John Georgiadis and David Measham on the front desk) and (one example amongst many) by Louis Fremaux’s superb Damnation de Faust in 1974, with the brand-new CBSO Chorus launching itself onto an unsuspecting world with colossal élan.

One thing that I shall miss, I know, is my involvement with Music Stand, which I do rather regard as my ‘baby’. The magazine came into being forty years ago, in 1973; I was its first Editor, I suggested its title and devised its first logo. Kind people often tell me at concerts that they have enjoyed these Archivist's Corner articles, over the years, and that’s nice to know.

Playing standards in Birmingham have never been higher than they are today, and I shall look forward to whatever the future has to offer, from a seat somewhere on Level 4...