Who will pick up the baton?

David Parker looks at the leading candidates to become the CBSO’s new music director.

One of the most important roles in the cultural life of the Midlands, and arguably much further afield, remains vacant after a search of more than 18 months. The departure of Andris Nelsons from his position as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was emphasised in the summer not just by his farewell concerts, but also by the extension of his contract with the Boston Symphony Orchestra until 2022, and his appointment to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 2016.

Nelsons’s ascent from virtual unknown when he arrived in Birmingham in 2008 to the pinnacle of global classical music reflects the extraordinary chemistry of his relationship with the CBSO, strikingly evident from any concert during his tenure. Yet, as when Simon Rattle left in 1998, the very strength of that bond makes the task of replacing him unenviably difficult. At the same time the departure next January of the orchestra’s leader, Laurence Jackson, the recent retirement of several long-serving players, and the ongoing reduction in public funding means the orchestra is at a critical moment approaching its centenary in 2020.

The CBSO has a tradition of appointing young, relatively unknown, Music Directors – Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Nelsons were all in their twenties when they first stood in front of the orchestra – and of involving orchestra members in the decision-making process. With the Search Committee doubtless deliberating as the new season begins, who is in contention for this much-coveted position?

Assuming that Ed Gardner, the current Principal Guest Conductor, is out of the running given his new post with the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway, looking at the conductors who’ve appeared with the CBSO in the recent past and those due to appear in the near future highlights several prime candidates.


The young English musician Nicholas Collon has been an innovative Principal Conductor of the Aurora Orchestra, which recently played a Beethoven symphony at the Proms completely from memory. Collon has several wide-ranging programmes with the CBSO in the next few months, starting on Wednesday October 14th, and must be under serious consideration.

The same applies to the 26-year old Israeli Lahav Shani awarded first prize in the 2013 Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition, following in the footsteps of Gustavo Dudamel, a previous winner. Shani first conducted the CBSO in November 2014, and like Collon has a number of concerts in the coming season, including Mahler’s First Symphony on Saturday November 28th.

Several other conductors featuring in the 2015/6 season are also likely to be under close scrutiny. These include Ryan Wigglesworth, Daniele Rustioni and Omer Meir Wellber. Regular CBSO guest conductors such as Ilan Volkov, Andrew Litton, Jac Van Steen and Michael Seal, the Associate Conductor of recent years, may also be in the running; particularly Litton with the recent announcement of his early departure from a post in Colorado possibly more than a coincidence.

Given the CBSO’s tradition of promoting younger talent, three further names, two with local roots, could well be in the frame.

The orchestra’s second Associate Conductor, Birmingham-born Alpesh Chauhan, recently stepped in at very short notice for an unwell Andris Nelsons to great acclaim, and has begun to build relationships with other ensembles such as the BBC Philharmonic who he conducted in the BBC’s “Ten Pieces” initiative.

Like Alpesh, Ben Gernon is a former member of the CBSO Youth Orchestra. Gernon conducts the CBSO at Symphony Hall on November 11th, and has rapidly developed an international profile, including a rôle as Dudamel Conducting Fellow in 2013/4 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

The final and perhaps most intriguing name also has a Californian connection.


The Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has just been promoted from Assistant to Associate Conductor in Los Angeles and her concerts at the Hollywood Bowl have been favourably reviewed. In July she conducted a CBSO concert at Symphony Hall, which given its placing after the main season felt like a purposely arranged public audition. Judging from the reactions of the musicians, and some orchestra members watching in the audience from the Choir seats, she made a strong impression.

As with previous appointments it will be fascinating to see who the CBSO selects. The last three incumbents have developed major careers and in different ways significantly enhanced the orchestra during their time in Birmingham.

Rather than naming my preferred candidate I conclude with three hopes for whoever is appointed:

First, that he or she makes Birmingham their primary commitment rather than just one of two or three Music Directorships held at the same time, which seems to be the norm among top conductors today.

Second, that the CBSO features more contemporary music than during Andris Nelsons’s time. For all his outstanding qualities he did not conduct the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at all during his seven years here.

Third, that the new Music Director plays a wider rôle in the cultural life of the city, making the case for classical music as a uniquely life-enriching force.