Inside the home of music: what the 500,000 visitors a year to Town Hall and Symphony Hall don’t see!
One was opened in 1834 and is a monument to Victorian England, the other dates from 1991 and was the catalyst for the regeneration of the centre of Birmingham and the ongoing development around Brindleyplace. The Town Hall and Symphony Hall are worlds apart in so many ways, yet have the common bond of transforming and enriching lives through music. On the face of it, and for those who don’t know, the grand facades and opulent auditoriums might convince you that THSH is the preserve of the well-heeled – home for the city’s cultural toffs. Nothing could be further from the truth! Besides the mere fact that appealing to the minted middle-aged would be madness in a city with the largest population (over 40 per cent) of under-25s in Europe, such a policy would go against everything that THSH stands for.
“We are always seeking the answer to one vital question,” said THSH chief executive Andrew Jowett. “How do you get to the young person who has talent but not the ability or the opportunity to find ways to engage?” THSH tries to answer the question by powering ahead with one of the biggest outreach cultural community programmes in the country. And all this goes on, largely unseen by the 500,000-plus people who come to the big set-piece concerts and classical performances by major international stars for which THSH is rightly renown. The two halls have charitable status and are managed by Performances Birmingham Ltd. A thriving education/community department spearheads a number of projects to bring music into the lives of more than 12,000 local youngsters and 6,000 adults each year – people who very likely would never have the chance of getting that special experience any other way. “Our education work mainly comes through and is based at Symphony Hall,” said Andrew. “We work with people at many different levels, but fundamentally whatever we do has to relate to what is a very diverse and predominately young local population. And the city is getting younger all the time. That’s a challenge, but a very exciting one for us. “So, we have to think more and more about how we can engage with children. Today’s five-year-old will be a voter in 13 years’ time – and we want all of them to grow up understanding the importance of culture in our lives.”
FESTIVAL OF YOUTH
This emphasis on youth is perfectly illustrated by the National Festival of Music for Youth held at THSH in July. The event attracted 8,000 of the country’s most talented young exponents of jazz, rock, folk and classical music, and helped earn the city the title of Britain’s ‘Capital for Young Musicians’. A few weeks earlier, THSH’s Generation Ladywood community project saw 280 young instrumentalists and 120 singers from 16 schools perform on the grand Symphony Hall stage before an audience of more than 1,000 people. “We launched Generation Ladywood in 2012 with the aim to connect young people in our local community to music,” said Andrew. “We wanted to give kids the chance to learn to play an instrument, and then they have to come and perform on one of the greatest stages in the country.” The project, five years in the planning and now two years in the delivery, has seen THSH raise more than £300,000 to provide nearly 8,000 children so far with the opportunity to play or sing. It’s an awesome effort of which Andrew and his ‘crew’ are immensely proud. Equally as impressive is THSH’s Jazzlines team – charged with finding, developing and working with exciting musicians in the substantial and rapidly growing Birmingham jazz scene – plus the Women in Jazz project which helps and empowers young and exclusively local female talents to find a career. “THSH is also a city council arts champion which sees us work with even more young people,” said Andrew. Of course, most of the audiences who come to enjoy an evening out at THSH have no idea how much is going on ‘behind the scenes’ in their local communities. They come in huge numbers to see stars from across the world of entertainment perform.
LOVED BY LEGENDS
And those stars are also huge fans of THSH. Legendary crooner Tony Bennett, who returns to play Symphony Hall this month, says: “The people of Birmingham are so fortunate to have this beautiful hall right in their home town – it is one of my favourite places to perform.” Multi-award winning singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading adds: “Having grown up in Birmingham, I feel so proud that this city has one of the finest concert halls in the UK. On my tours around the world, Symphony Hall is at the top of the list.” Andrew Jowett cites a newer home-grown star as proof that working with youth is a vital part of the city’s musical future. King’s Heath queen of pop Laura Mvula came to the top via the city’s school music system, and spells with Birmingham Conservatoire and Symphony Hall’s resident orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. “Laura is the perfect example of what engaging with the young and developing their joy of music can achieve. We’re about much more than just what you see on the stage.”