Forward momentum: Birmingham Conservatoire’s new home8:00, 7th September 2017
The first new conservatoire building in 30 years opens this month in Birmingham. The institution’s principal Julian Lloyd Webber tells Alex Stevens how not only the conservatoire, but the whole city, is ready to capitalise
As the first new conservatoire building in the UK for 30 years (the most recent before that being the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Renfrew Street home, completed in 1987), Birmingham Conservatoire’s construction at the city’s Millennium Point is not just a huge opportunity, but a significant statement for an institution with big ambitions.
The building, which has cost £57m, aims to have a remarkable impact on the cultural life of Birmingham. But it is also hoped that it will allow the institution, since July 2015 under the passionate leadership of former concert cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, to shake off the constraints of its dated and difficult former home, and to help build the conservatoire’s reputation.
‘I think we had as an institution completely outgrown our facilities,’ says Lloyd Webber. ‘This will enable us to do so many better things. For a start, we’re going to have five performance venues. We’re going to have a main hall of close to 500 seats, an equivalent recital hall of 150 seats, and a dedicated jazz café – which is really the only one in Birmingham. The city hasn’t had one for years and we hope to open this every night. We will also have a lab space for experimental performance and an organ studio.
‘It puts us in a completely different position. We have far more practice rooms – 100 – and we also have practice rooms in the student accommodation.
‘It is completely digitally connected, and I think that’s a unique feature. We will also be able to do a lot of distance learning at a really high standard – instead of Skype we’ll be able to do high-quality, real-time tuition, anywhere in the world where they are able to do it at the other end. The whole thing really enables us to do whatever we want. Whatever partnerships we form, it’s completely flexible, and is capable of being worldwide.’
The building will also provide an opportunity for increased engagement with the local community through the conservatoire’s learning and participation programme, which is led by Richard Shrewsbury. ‘He’s got massive plans,’ says Lloyd Webber. ‘We intend to be having schoolchildren in a lot, because we will have the space and facilities to be able to do that. It was always very difficult before: everything was cramped. Now it’s spacious.’
In with the old
One challenge of moving to new premises, says Lloyd Webber, is to retain the atmosphere which made the old building special. A certain spirit ran through the institution as both students and faculty worked together to overcome the limitations of their environment (affectionately morbid references to a teaching space known as ‘The Void’, for example, of the sort any teacher in an overworked building can easily imagine).
‘Everyone was really pulling together, staff and students, with a very special rapport,’ he says. ‘I very much want to try to keep that. Certainly, all the staff are very conscious of the relationship that we have with the students. It has been a thread throughout everything we talk about: we are working for the students. That’s what we’re for and those are the people we’re trying to help.’
Those young musicians who had their first year in the old building (while it was being torn down around their musicology lectures, and the whole institution forged a peripatetic practical and professional life) will, believes Lloyd Webber, ‘have a really good deal’. They will have experienced the ‘really quite special atmosphere, a backs-against-the-wall, against-all-odds mentality, in quite difficult surroundings. And then they go into the new building for three years. I think they will be the ones who will really get Birmingham Conservatoire, and why it is different to the other music colleges. There is a great spirit of trying to do something together.’
Birmingham on the rise
Birmingham’s place in the world, as much as in the UK, is interesting. In classical music, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – and its home, Symphony Hall – is a highly respected orchestra, and the appointment of 31-year-old Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinyte˙-Tyla (and subsequent rave reviews) as its music director has further strengthened the orchestra’s reputation for securing rising world-class artistic leaders (Simon Rattle, of course, established his career at the CBSO). Then there is Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, a leading commissioner of music from living composers which also has a worldwide reputation, and Birmingham Opera Company, whose participatory model and ‘a passion and a belief that opera can speak directly to all kinds of people’ leads to high-profile, critically-lauded performances in unusual venues both in Birmingham and at international festivals.
What this means, believes Lloyd Webber, is that Birmingham is a place of rich opportunity for the conservatoire’s students – one which the new building will significantly enhance. The opening should shine a spotlight on the opportunities which the city offers music undergraduates (quite apart from being a much cheaper place to live than the capital), and make prospective students consider Birmingham – behind only the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music in the latest Guardian conservatoire ratings, he points out – much more seriously than before.
So what would he say to ambitious potential undergraduates who feel that they have to study in London in order to be as close as possible to the classical music industry, such as it is? ‘I can answer this very, very easily, because I was a Londoner all my life.
‘First of all, there is a spirit here of the arts organisations in the city – we all work very closely together, and that’s across the board: from the CBSO to the Hippodrome, all of them. A lot of the CBSO principals teach with us, our players play regularly at Symphony Hall and Town Hall, we have four showcases a year where our students play in the Symphony Hall before CBSO season concerts. Mirga is conducting our opening concert, and we are closer than any conservatoire to any orchestra – and that is an absolute fact.
‘You can form very, very close links with people, which in many ways I think is harder to do in London. If you talk about networking and making connections, of course, there are masses of things to do and people to meet in London. But whether you will? That is another question. It’s a very close-knit society here. It’s very easy for one of our students to meet, for example, [CBSO chief executive] Stephen Maddock. It’s very easy to meet anyone in this city.
‘And of course we have a lot of visiting artists, and recently had a careers day that was a huge success – we had people up from Gramophone, Universal Music and so on. All these people mingling with the students was a fantastic networking occasion. And we want to do more of that. That’s my background in the profession: I was involved in the performing side for almost 45 years, and it’s in my blood. I want to introduce the students to the best contacts they can have.’
Lloyd Webber has always been a passionate and high-profile advocate for music education – indeed his work with In Harmony and Sistema England must have contributed to his suitability to the Birmingham job when he was appointed in 2015. He feels that the scale of investment and the quality of the new building can provide a boost to the sector. ‘I think it makes a statement that music education is still important.’
‘I also think that there is some sort of mood in the country. I’m not totally pessimistic. When Jeremy Corbyn got up in front of a crowd recently to make a speech, and happened to say that all children should be able to study an instrument – at one time that would have got polite applause, but it got a massive cheer.
‘I think that there is an acknowledgement across all of society that learning an instrument, and children having access to music, is a good thing. Our children are learning such a narrow range of subjects, and parents are asking “Is this good for their later life?”. I think we all know the answer to that. It isn’t. It’s really limiting for our children. We will fall behind other countries, and I hate it, it’s disgraceful. I think that the conservatoire building opening now in Birmingham is a hell of a statement.’
Although he joined after the architectural plans had been signed off, Lloyd Webber has nevertheless been involved in aspects of the building’s detail. More importantly, since starting as principal, he has been making appointments, encouraging initiatives, and providing visibly ambitious, energetic leadership – just in time for the institution to capitalise. Only when doors open to students, teachers and the public this month, however, will the building’s true impact start to be felt – because, as he says, ‘until we’re in the building we won’t really know’.
What is he most looking forward to? ‘I can’t wait to hear the full orchestra in our new hall. Full orchestra and chorus in that big, big opening concert. I think we’re going to knock people out.’
The new building: Key points
- Five public performance venues
- Main concert hall: 493 seats and space for full orchestra
- Recital hall: 150 seats
- Experimental music space
- Organ studio
- Jazz café, hoped to be open every night
- 100 practice rooms
- Public foyers, cafés and bars
- Purpose-built administration spaces
- Audio-visual interconnection between all practice and performance spaces