Celebrating a hundredth birthday and a diamond anniversary
At this point I hope someone reading this will mutter with astonishment, 'Heavens! I'd no idea Judith was that old!' And then I will confess that the birthday isn't mine, and though the diamond anniversary IS mine, it's not the celebration of a marriage of one woman to one man – much as I love my husband. The birthday – celebrated in a most wonderful book by Richard Bratby (Forward, pub 2019 by Elliott and Thompson) which inspired this essay – is that of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, known to all who have ever heard it and fallen in love with its music-making as the CBSO.
I first met the orchestra in my early teens: I would have been thirteen or fourteen. Sadly the programme for the concert has disappeared in the course of several house moves, so I don't know the date or the music involved – but some sixty years later I can vividly see Rudolf Schwarz, with those hunched shoulders so viciously broken during the war. That concert, with my mother and sister, was followed by others. Soon – in those safer days – I was allowed to go on my own, buying my own half-price tickets and travelling into Birmingham by bus.
By the time I was sixteen, I had serial tickets, winning a brief tussle with the financial powers that be: the half-price child ticket concession ended at sixteen, and only resumed if you were a student, a discrepancy I was quick to point out and they were equally quick to remedy. Now my autograph album was a regular feature backstage: usually the platform manager got the signature of the soloist or guest conductor for me, but on some magical occasions I got to meet the celebrity.
I was at an age for painful crushes. Other girls screamed for the Beatles; I swooned for a handsome pianist called Sergio Varella Cid. My passion was neither spoken nor requited, possibly a fortunate circumstance since he went to live in Brazil, where he was allegedly involved with highly unsavoury people who ultimately bumped him off. I would like to say that this was the inspiration for my crime writing career, but in fact I didn't even know the rumour till comparatively recently.
Crazily, after O levels I decided to learn a musical instrument. My mother and sister were fine musicians, but I had suffered from really nasty childhood eczema which meant my hands were thickly bandaged for most of my first twelve or fourteen years. I knew of course I'd never be able to play well – but at this point I reasoned that even a second-rate viola player might scrape by (pun intended) in ensembles desperate for any representatives of that rare species. Dr Johnson would have made the observation that I did not do it well, but one was surprised to find me doing it at all.
After university I continued to play, and turned for teaching to an impecunious and incredibly kind young CBSO violist who soon led the section: Peter Cole. At last it became clear to all concerned that I had reached my limit, not least because my arms were really too short for even the smallest viola, but Pete and Joy became friends with my then husband and me and enriched our lives in many ways. (Tragically in his middle years Pete was struck down by the illness everyone dreads, one especially cruel to a person who has created magic with his hands: motor neurone disease.)
Musicians became part of our lives: we named our son after principal oboe Richard Weigall, who had become a close neighbour and friend. We shared Ben Rivers' fabulous Basil Brush laugh. We went to and gave parties largely dominated by CBSO players. One memorable gathering aroused much ire among our neighbours, one of whom was going to call the police – until he saw the guests were all wearing dinner jackets or long black dresses, at which point the gathering was deemed a respectable soiree.
Richard Bratby's account is necessarily less personal, but he gives a wonderful account of the decades which saw the departure of the old guard. Hugo Rignold and Harold Gray had been reliable but not always inspiring. The latter acquired the soubriquet Treacle-Toes for his lugubrious tempi in Beethoven, but he made the hair on my neck stand up with his account of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. More hairs were raised by maestri like Fremaux, who converted the CBSO from the town band to an international (French) symphony orchestra: his Symphonie Fantastique justified the adjective in every way. Then Rattle. The coming of Symphony Hall. And my birth as a novelist.
I remember the precise moment I conceived the plot of my first published novel, Dying Fall: going into the still unfinished ICC for an open rehearsal at which regular concert-goers were encouraged to discover where they wanted to have their new serial-ticket seats. I've never been one for heights, and though the topmost tier was in my price range, the view definitely wasn't. I could envisage myself plunging to my – no, not my death, but my chosen victim's. That evening I phoned my friend the principal bassoonist. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Andrew, would you mind being called George?
Andrew Barnell: Errrrr – no.
Me: Would you mind being dead?
Reader, I murdered him.
Despite my homicidal tendencies, I became the first woman trustee of the CBSO Benevolent Fund, glad to do even the smallest something to replay all the pleasure they'd given me. Sadly, even the happiest of relationships sometimes end: for reasons not relevant to this narrative I left Birmingham and gave up the trusteeship – I didn't want to be the musical equivalent of an absentee landlord. The players' committee gave me a farewell presentation during a Symphony Hall rehearsal. To make myself seen as well as heard when I gave my thanks, I had – of course – to stand on the podium once occupied by Sir Simon, without whom there would have been no Symphony Hall.
My ties to the orchestra are such that I've made pilgrimages from Kent or the Cotswolds to hear every new musical director, all making their own individual mark, but none of them transforming the orchestra as much as Fremaux or Rattle, I'd say. Until Mirga came on the scene. Do you know, I think she's even better than Simon was at that stage.
The retirement of David Gregory marked the end of my personal relationship with orchestra members, though I am delighted to report that I am in regular touch with the resuscitated Andrew Barnell and Christine Predota, his bassoonist and bell-ringing wife. But when I hear and see Brum's Brightest Band, it's still 'my' orchestra – and the musicians I'll never know are friends because of that invisible bond of sharing something greater than we will ever be as individuals, music. When I die, I want it to be to the sound of the CBSO. It'll certainly be there at my funeral.
Thank you, my dear CBSO – and thank you, Richard Bratby, for bringing back these and many other priceless memories.