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CrossCurrents Festival, Birmingham

The reopening of New Street Station a few months ago was a staggering event. Some European cities may form themselves around a couple of baroque cathedrals and a market place, but Brum’s central precinct is now an enormous station forecourt (indoors, but skylit) surrounded by every imaginable coffee chain and sandwich joint. It’s great that a major civic improvement allows the crossing of town via broad new walkways, but the greater goal, of course, is to get you quickly into The Shops, hugely gleaming, and crowding in on that hard-won public space.

Birmingham University’s new-ish Bramall Music Building also sprang up in a strange gap in the old campus. But in this case, the fit with the surrounding environment is perfect, and I felt elated after a couple of days in such an energising location. My visit was part of the first CrossCurrents Festival, run largely by students, the climax of which was a concert by BCMG involving University and Conservatoire composers, plus some older Birmingham regulars. As one of the veterans, I was delighted to see these institutions really linking up at last, to great effect.

CrossCurrents had bravely commissioned eleven composers (!) to write a suite of folk songs, as a homage to Berio’s song-cycle which had opened the Festival. All the songs turned up, and all but one (geographically-removed) composer attended – an exhilarating meeting. For me, the new composition’s most loveable feature was its mix of languages, including beautiful, personally-meant settings in Welsh by Richard Baker (who ably conducted the whole evening) and in Yiddish by Michael Zev Gordon, the presiding genius of CrossCurrents. And there were a couple of songs which I just crave to re-hear, like those numbers on old LPs I’d play over and over in my teenage years: ‘Silver Dagger’, a haunting Country and Western song from Joe Cutler; and Howard Skempton’s ‘There is a Tavern in the Town’. How could this boring old tune harbour such delicious harmonic ambiguity and pathos ? Only Howard could tease it out. Particular congratulations to Lucy Schaufer, who cheerfully sang us through this complicated but uplifting evening.




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