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There's a part of me that is rather dreading this afternoon's debate on the value of regional arts. Having worked in London through the

1990s, I've since become what my wife calls 'a born-again Brummie', forever harping on about how marvellous Birmingham is as a place to live and work. So I often resent the time we spend justifying ourselves, especially to media types from London (I know the type, I used to be one).

But in truth I also enjoy these occasions: there's little that is more fun than banging our own drum, and demonstrating to a metropolitan arts world just what they're missing by their over-emphasis on the capital. Stop giving two or three star reviews to plays and concerts in London, you want to cry - get out more!

And at the CBSO we have plenty to be pleased about. The classical music world is full of challenges, but we, like several of Britain's other regional orchestras, are developing faster than at any time in our history. So, just in case any of this has passed you by, I offer my personal A-Z of reasons to be (mostly) cheerful.

A is for Artists - it all has to start here - everything we do is driven by the expertise and the enthusiasm of our musicians, and also our many guest conductors and soloists. The CBSO is a pounds 7 million business, but without the passionate commitment of our artists that would mean nothing.

B is for Beethoven - however much new and unusual music we play (and we play more than most orchestras), it's equally important to remember that we have to bring the same high standards and desire to communicate to the familiar standard repertoire as well - there will always be somebody who's hearing their first ever Beethoven Fifth, and this should always be a life-changing experience.

C is for Choruses - every great orchestra needs a great chorus to work with: we have four. Our adult choir is internationally famous but our youth choruses are increasingly being seen as a model of how to get young people singing to a high standard. Last month our Seniors went to Sweden for two concerts, and we're trying to raise money to send our Young Voices to Africa next summer.

D is for Downloads - the record industry is changing fast, and we're changing with it.

We're soon going to be offering people the chance to buy downloads of CBSO concerts.

E is for Elgar - the CBSO's first conductor turned 150 a fortnight ago and we celebrated with an acclaimed weekend of three choral masterpieces that he wrote for Birmingham, plus a new CD. It was an unforgettable project for performers and audiences alike.

F is for Friends - like any arts organisation, we need lots of them. The thousands of individuals and families who donate to the CBSO are vital to our financial viability.

G is for Guillemots - we're always looking to expand our horizons, and collaborations with non-classical musicians are a great way to do this. Our concert at the Town Hall on October 11 with this amazing Mercury and Britnominated band is something I'm really looking forward to

H is for Halsey - next year our Chorus Director Simon Halsey celebrates 25 years with the CBSO, a position he has somehow managed to combine with jobs in Berlin and Holland as part of a truly international career.

I is for Investment - I don't use the word 'subsidy' - we are fortunate to be supported by Arts Council England and by Birmingham City Council, and it's their investment which makes it possible for the Midlands to have a world-class orchestra. It's vital that we develop new streams of private funding at the same time, but strong and sustained public investment will remain a necessity for decades to come.

J is for Jobs - the CBSO employs 90 full time musicians and 35 office staff, and is the largest player in a classical music sector that produces an economic impact of well over pounds 50 million in the West Midlands. Most of our players have moved here to join the orchestra, and increasingly they are coming from overseas, attracted by the CBSO's reputation.

K is for Kids - our education programme touches the lives of around 28,000 young people each year, and at long last government seems to be waking up to the contribution this involvement can make to transforming young lives.

L is for Liverpool, European Capital of Culture - no comment.

M is for Maestro - most conductors are actually far less grand than you think. We're lucky to work with some of the best, and of course the 18 years with Simon Rattle did wonders for putting the city and its orchestra on the world stage.

N is for New music - this is a vital part of what we are known for, and our sister organisation BCMG has also built a formidable international reputation for its work with living composers.

O is for Oramo - having taken on what many took to be an impossible challenge of following Rattle, our Music Director Sakari Oramo steps down next year after a hugely admired 10-year tenure. He will be a hard act to follow, as we're all aware.

P is for Podcasts - last year we became the first major orchestra to offer regular free podcasts - we now have over 9000 listeners every month, many from the USA and China.

Q is for Quartets - within the orchestra we have every conceivable kind of smaller musical group, offering concerts at our own wonderful chamber hall, CBSO Centre, as well as in schools and community venues across the region.

R is for Rafi - our tribute to Bollywood legend Mohammed Rafi was one of our biggest recent successes, and we'll soon be releasing a CD of these songs with Indian megastar Sonu Nigam.

S is for Symphony Hall - ever since 1991 Birmingham has been able to boast that it has one of the best concert halls anywhere in the world. It's still true, and I count myself immensely lucky to be able to hear concerts there twice a week all year.

T is for Town Hall - the orchestra's previous home, reopening this October after a magnificent refit. We look forward to going back on 8 October for Elgar's The Music Makers.

U is for U-rated - our classic silent movies with live orchestral soundtrack have become firm favourites with all ages: it's great to have something to which grandparents can bring their grandchildren.

V is for Variety - these days a CBSO musician might be playing a big Mahler symphony one night, an Ella Fitzgerald programme the next, while spending the day doing school visits - overall this variety makes for better musicians and broader audiences.

W is for Worldwide reach - since 2000 the CBSO and its choruses have visited 20 countries on 4 continents, while our broadcasts, recordings and podcasts have been heard pretty much everywhere else.

X is for X factor - in our search for a new conductor to follow Sakari, we are always on the look out for that extra special, indefinable magic that marks out the really great musician from the merely good. It's the same principle when filling any of the jobs in the orchestra - you should never be satisfied with second best.

Y is for Youth Orchestra - the newest addition to the CBSO family, started in 2004, has already become an indispensable part of the region's music scene, giving 100 young musicians the chance to play at Symphony Hall.

Z is for Zemlinsky - a great composer from the early 20th Century, and yet the CBSO has only ever played one of his pieces - a reminder to us all that however much we have achieved, there is always more to do!

The health of Britain's regional arts scene is the main subject for The Big Debate from 2.30pm at the ICC in Birmingham today. Supported by The Birmingham Post and the NEC Group, it features representatives from the worlds of arts and culture, business, politics and local communities. Here three local luminaries - Stephen Maddock from the CBSO in this article, playwright David Edgar (below) and Culture West Midlands chairman Brian Woods-Scawen (right) - give their own take on arts in the region


The many faces of culture in Birmingham include the maginficent Symphony Hall (left); the stunning music of The Guillemots (above); great expectations of the refurbished Town Hall (left); and below, Simon Rattle's successor at the CBSO Sakari Oramo; Birmingham Royal Ballet supremo Sir Peter Wright and, of course, the iPod - a necessary part of cultural life in 2007 and source of much interest for CBSO podcasts.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 18, 2007
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