Is there life after Rattle?

There certainly is, says Stephen Maddock, the new chief executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He tells Roderic Dunnett about their future plans
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The Independent Culture

Birmingham is on the move again. Across the road from the CBSO Centre, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's new hideaway, cranes hover like storks on one leg. A brick-and-concrete wilderness is sprouting, each residential unit up for grabs at about £200k. The city's moneyed youngsters will soon descend like vultures.

Stephen Maddock, chief executive of the CBSO since September, and the BBC's Proms guru till only last summer, cheerfully surveys the jungle from his pristine new CBSO Centre, built on the site of an old lead-plumbing works. "The whole development cost just £5m, including the land-lease. We were fantastically lucky to get it."

Neville Chamberlain, city father and founding father of the CBSO before London and Hitler beckoned, would have been proud. The plum site was clinched only in the late Nineties, once funding was in place. "The crucial factor," explains Maddock's deputy, Richard York, "was that the land this side of Broad Street is owned by the King Edward VI Schools' charity, who were wholly in favour of the orchestra's new base being built here. We paid them what I'd call a very keen price for a 125- year lease; in return, each of the foundation's schools gets an annual allocation of tickets, plus copies of our recordings - call it an informal ground rent, if you like."

The centre, topped out just as Maddock was appointed, has, he claims, everything going for it. "It's an absolute godsend. Our rivals - even the BBC orchestras, I'm delighted to say! - view us with envy. It houses the CBSO's entire administration and development staff, so we save on the cost of renting offices. But at its heart is our acoustically up-to-the-minute recital and concert hall, which doubles as a rehearsal space."

The building, close by the inspired Gas Street canal refurbishment, provides a top-notch venue not just for The Series (Birmingham's vibrant jazz concerts and Contemporary Music Group) plus the thriving new CBSO Centre Stage instrumental series (run by the players themselves), but for numerous other external events, on top of the CBSO's own burgeoning education projects. Timothy West reading Shostakovich's letters and Prunella Scales reciting Façade were both straight sell-outs. Late last month, you couldn't move for the influx of primary-school children, who swathed the Centre with cut-out dragons and performed a project based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, dreamed up and inspired by local composer Jonathan Girling.

"The brilliant thing," says Maddock, "is that the new venue cost the orchestra not one penny in revenue money. The cash came mainly from three sources: the Lottery; EEC Regional Development - Birmingham Council is skilled at prising out European funding; and a specially set up CBSO Development Trust. Not only was the centre built on target and on budget, it was one of the very first lottery-sponsored projects to be up and running, and doing what it was designed to do."

Maddock's first task was to negotiate a new Arts Council deal. He and his predecessor, Ed Smith, faced the dragon together. What emerged from the council's arcane deliberations, after several years of grief and angst, is good news, he feels, for all four main regional orchestras.

"The Arts Council has committed itself to putting the four big non-BBC regional orchestras - the RLPO, Hallé, Bournemouth and us - onto 'stabilisation'. In layman's terms, that means the Arts Council pays off the CBSO's accumulated deficit, which, by the end of this season, will be nearly £1m. It will also release new money to fund a 'programme of change' - though what exactly that means is as yet unspecified. One idea floated is that one might move towards a more freelance way of working, closer to that in London, so as to reduce our high fixed employment costs. But that's just one of the options. Thirdly, they hiked our annual revenue grant up to £1.5m, which for us means a sizeable increase of £150,000.

"In return, when we come off 'stabilisation' in a few years, we have to bridge the gap. From then on, the onus is on us to stay solvent."

The CBSO's relationship with Birmingham City Council is historically a strong one, true to the Chamberlain spirit: "People told me the relationship was good, but now I've seen it for myself. Birmingham backs us far more than any of the other authorities fund their orchestras," says Maddock.

The BCMG (the cutting-edge contemporary music chamber ensemble of leading CBSO players set up under Simon Rattle) is now separately administered. "They're the one that got away!" Maddock says slightly ruefully. "But we share the building, so we're daily in touch."

Maddock is still seeing through a CBSO season largely planned by his predecessor. Next season he can stamp his mark on programming, alongside his young Finnish music director, Sakari Oramo. "I'd like to establish a regular strand of doing concert performances of opera. It's insane that we're the only second city that doesn't have its own opera company."

How will they replace Rattle's indispensable flagship series - Towards the Millennium - which has just reached its triumphant finish? "We're still not sure. Being a symphony orchestra of 80-90 contract players, we can manage most things; but there's a limit to how many Gurrelieder or Mahler Eights or Alpine Symphonies you can mount - although those are in our sights. You have to ration that kind of event: even Bax's Spring Fire, which we did with Mark Elder in January, called for 10 extra players.

"We'll continue to perform regularly at Classical/Baroque strength with specialists like McGegan and Kraemer. It's good for an orchestra's sound, technique, balance.

"We have a Brahms cycle in the offing. And we'll certainly continue the emphasis on contemporary and rare repertoire. My view is that programmes need to be mixed and balanced - not unlike the way we approached the Proms. Sakari embarks on a complete Sibelius-plus-Prokofiev series this month.

"The CBSO's Feeney Trust commissions date back to the 1950s, and it's not a bad list: Tippett, Humphrey Searle, McCabe, Thea Musgrave,Lennox Berkeley, Richard Rodney Bennett, early John Casken." he says. "The interest in British works will definitely continue next season. And we're making two programmes for LWT to be shown this summer, featuring new works by Judith Weir and Simon Holt."

Following Towards the Millennium, the CBSO went straight to Vienna for a three-concert stint with Rattle. "What's more, we're the only British orchestra to be featured at the Cologne Triennale in May - five weeks of 20th-century music, with the five 'big' American orchestras, the Concertgebouw, the Berlin, Munich and Vienna Phils, the Ensembles Moderne and InterContemporain - and us!"

The CBSO Prokofiev-Sibelius series begins on 27 April at Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0120-780 3333)