Every year there is an opportunity to hear the cream of UCE Birmingham Conservatoire’s instrumental students, all on the same night. They will have been selected from preliminary auditions followed by a semi-final round. The event is the competition for the Birmingham Philharmonic Concerto Prize, the place the Adrian Boult Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire, the date – an evening in March or April.
2013 saw the finalists performing for the first time accompanied by an orchestra – the Birmingham Philharmonic.
The ‘Ludlow’ in the former title did not refer to that delicious Shropshire town, but to a family which was involved in Birmingham’s musical scene over a long period. In the early 1900s Ernest Ludlow was a tenor soloist who sang in many oratorio performances, although not as a full-time professional. His son, David, studied the violin at the School of Music (as the Conservatoire was then called) with T. Henry Smith, but chose the business world rather than life as the professional musician he certainly could have become.
The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra is now one of the most accomplished non-professional orchestras in the country. In 1946 David Ludlow was invited to lead the orchestra and very soon became its conductor. The BPO concerts, mainly at the Central Hall and the Town Hall, became very popular (as were the programmes) and the orchestra received many generous compliments in the Birmingham press and elsewhere. Under David’s guidance the orchestra developed into Birmingham’s foremost amateur ensemble; the base had been established for the huge developments which were to follow.
When David died in 1959, his widow, Dorothy, who had also studied at the School of Music and had become a very successful violinist and violist, set up a Prize in his memory. When Dorothy died she left a bank account named ‘Ludlow Philharmonic Prize’, so the Prize needed to be formally structured.
With the help and encouragement of Louis Carus, then Principal of the School of Music, and the conductor of the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, Kenneth Page, a charitable trust was set up to oversee the prize, which became dedicated to the connections which both David and Dorothy had shared over many years with the Birmingham School of Music and the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra.
The purpose of the Prize was to enable the winners ‘to further their musical education or otherwise assist their artistic development’.
At the first competition, in 1979, a prize of £100 was awarded to an oboist. The skill of the then Hon Treasurer, Ted Edwards from the BPO, was reflected in the annual growth of the prize-money – £190 in 1980 became £500 in 1985, £1,000 in 2003 and £1,200 in 2011. This sum has to be divided between the three finalists and although the awards are made by the Trustees of the Prize Fund, the choice of the first prize-winner and the placing of the second and third are decided by the Adjudicator.
Under the guidance of the present Honorary Treasurer, Dr David Arrowsmith, the Fund’s finances have continued to strengthen, and a series of anonymous donations to the Trust has made sure that the prize will be around to challenge and encourage the students for many more years. The size of the prizes would seem a pretty good return for a performance lasting about half an hour but, of course, a vast amount more than that is involved. This will be one of the most important performances, perhaps the most important, of the students’ lives so far, so there will have been years of solid hard work, lonely practising, expert guidance, elation and disappointment before getting to this stage; and this is still just one more step forward, although a substantial one.
This is all fine for the winners, but what of the other competitors? Well, they all gain because the effort they will have put into developing and refining their performing to that extra high level will be sure to repay them well in the future. Competing could prove a turning point for any or all of them, winners or not.
Every performance reflects the talent, perseverance and dedication of the student, nurtured by wise technical, artistic and personal guidance from their teacher. Over the past 30 years the competitions have provided proof of the great development in the standard of the Conservatoire’s top students, and therefore of the generous guidance, skill and dedication of their teachers. The results have been inspiring to witness.
© John Ludlow, 2012