Category Archives: Music

The Robert Glasper Experiment @ The Institute, Digbeth

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The vibes at The Institute on Thursday night were as cool as the soft, blue colours that gently lit the main room. I walked in to the fresh, jazzy sounds of Mercury Prize nominee Soweto Kinch. He was a more than adequate starting act, and after displaying his reputable talents as a saxophonist, he then revealed his skills as both a written lyricist and freestyle emcee. Kinch’s slot was capped off with a jaw-dropping display of lyrical skill, in which he set himself an acrostic challenge of incorporating words that spelled D-I-G-B-E-T-H into improvised verses (the words having been shouted out by random members of the audience). From due diligence to hunger, Soweto Kinch surpassed the challenge with ease, to a hearty and well-deserved applause.

Shortly after, The Robert Glasper Experiment took to the stage, and as soon as they did, Glasper charmingly suspended all elements of pretence with a simple “Hello, how you doing?” For the most part, I truly did not know what to expect from their live performance. Prior to the gig I was mostly familiar with the group’s collaborative works (including features from Erykah Badu, Emeli Sande, and Yasiin Bey/Mos Def, to name a very select few) but huge crowd favourites such as ‘Ah Yeah’ and ‘Let It Ride’ proved to be just as powerful without their respective vocalists, and for many songs this was somewhat of a blessing in disguise, shifting the focus towards the band’s ability to play off of each other and improvise, which is essential of any show associated with jazz.

What was refreshing about the band was that, despite Glasper being their namesake, there was no true frontman of the group. Equal attention was given to Casey Benjamin (vocoder and saxophone), Mark Colenburg (drums), and Travis Burgess (bass, presumably filling in for Derrick Hodge) as well as Robert Glasper himself. In fact, the term solo was taken quite literally during the show, with other band members often leaving the stage to lend the spotlight to their fellow band members, whose showcases of instrumental skill did not disappoint. Even the vocals were at a casual volume that blended with the other instruments. However, this often meant that Benjamin’s words were drowned out by the drums, particularly during Colenburg’s heavier jams. At times this was a little bit frustrating, and I felt that perhaps the synthesised vocals that gave the Black Radio albums (Black Radio 2 in particular) such a unique touch simply could not be done justice by a live performance – or maybe the levels just needed a bit of tweaking. Either way, for the songs with more recognisable lyrics, nothing was lost in translation, as the strong crowd helped to raise the volume for The Robert Glasper Experiment’s well-known renditions of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and ‘Lovely Day’. The latter which performance entailed Benjamin’s light vocals making the perfect match for Glasper’s gentle piano chords.

Covers were certainly expected due to the aforementioned Nirvana and Bill Withers numbers, but that knowledge didn’t prepare me for their sensational performances of ‘No Church In the Wild’, and a shorter, but more polished version of Radiohead’s ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, which somehow seamlessly transitioned into a slow and emotive version of ‘Get Lucky’ (don’t ask how, but believe me, it really did).

Just when we thought the music couldn’t get any better, guest vocals from a Birmingham-born female singer added a beautiful, organic tone to their smooth, Neo soul sound, and in the closing few numbers, Glasper spoke the immortal words, “Soweto, where you at? Come spit some raps”. Mr Kinch graced the stage once again with his saxophone talents and more freestyle finesse, and the way he thrived off the musical environment around him was a genuine treat to watch.

All in all, it was a fantastic performance from an incredibly tight and talented band, and the at-times smothered vocals in no way detracted from what the gig was truly about: good, soulful music. 

by Oliver Clifford

Rachel Sermanni @ The Glee Club

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Scottish folk singer Rachel Sermanni has recently taken Birmingham’s Glee Club by storm. From Carrbridge, Strathspey and aged just twenty-two Rachel has already toured with and supported famous names such as Fink, Mumford and Sons and Elvis Costello. Making a name for herself with Under Mountains, her debut album in 2012, her new EP tour Everything Changes has brought Rachel back to Birmingham’s Glee Club. In the Glee Club’s studio, where she performed her set, the atmosphere was quite electric, the dim red lighting and the closest audience member only a couple of feet away from Rachel herself made for an extremely intimate experience.

Supporting Rachel was twenty-three year old Mo Kenney, a witty and dryly amusing folk singer from Nova Scotia, her beautifully melancholy songs (“Sucker” in particular) were interspersed with laconic audience interaction about stories of plastic toy snakes and terrorizing old ladies named Judy.

Accompanied by Jennifere Austin on keyboard, Rachel walked on stage modestly and quietly opening with her lead track, ‘Two Birds’, from her new EP she instantly captivated the audience, following up with ‘Breathe Easy’ and the track list from Under Mountains. Personally I didn’t know what to make of her at first as she moved erratically about the stage with her guitar, but it wasn’t long before I was completely transfixed and understood the way she truly moved with and felt her own music. Each song began somewhat soft and slow, culminating in a harmonious outburst of sound. Her fresh faced look and modesty on stage was ultimately contradicted with the power of her commanding, soulful voice and her quiet confidence and connection to her own music.

After purchasing both Mo Kenney’s self-titled album and Rachel Sermanni’s new EP and Under Mountains almost as soon as I got home from The Glee Club I cannot recommend them both enough. Both Mo and Rachel are touring the UK together until the end of March, and are definitely ones not to miss.

Elin Morris
@ElinMorris2509

CBSO presents Ultimate Vaughan Williams @ Symphony Hall

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Ralph Vaughan Williams remains one of the nation’s favourite composers, and his enduring popularity was very evident at Symphony Hall. There was barely an empty seat in the house as Andrew Manze conducted the CBSO in an evening of ‘Ultimate Vaughan Williams’; a shamelessly indulgent programme consisting of what might be considered his orchestral greatest hits, spanning a twenty-two year period (1908-30) which saw Vaughan Williams establish himself as one of the most important figures on the British classical music scene.

We began with his Overture to The Wasps, originally commissioned to accompany a production of the Aristophanes play at Cambridge University in 1909, which abounds with wonderfully broad, expansive themes of cinematic scope, sounding at times almost like the score for a Western. And the CBSO did justice to the energy inherent in the piece, Manze energetically brandishing his baton with a charisma and deftness obviously infectious to both orchestra and audience.

Next was Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and although the turnaround of players between the first two pieces was wanting some smoothness, it was definitely worth the negligible wait. It is written for two string orchestras with a solo quartet, which – in the hands of Vaughan Williams – results in a rich and delicious sonority. The fact that several, admittedly more elderly members of the audience appeared to drift off during this piece is, I think, testament to the beauty and subtlety of the music, rather than evidence of anything condemnably soporific there. The thick strings, often moving in parallel fifths, are so typically characteristic of his style that, at times, he seems almost to parody himself, but always remains wholly earnest, creating a sound at once singularly evocative of the English countryside and yet also decidedly European. In the passages for solo viola and violin respectively, the ideas he would fully realise in The Lark Ascending are explicitly audible, but comparatively Fantasia… contains moments that seem to cry out for solo woodwind to burst through and soar lyrically above a texture occasionally clogged by the sheer number of strings the composer employs.

This concert was part of the CBSO:2020 series, which – as the famous orchestra approaches its centenary in six years’ time – features works composed in the decade leading up to their inaugural concert in September 1920. The Lark Ascending, written in 1914 (initially for violin and piano) and arguably Vaughan Williams’s best known work, therefore formed the centrepiece of the evening. And here, unlike in Fantasia…, that desire for otherness is satisfied absolutely. At the moment, say, where the beautiful solo violin might take a phrase too many, the oboe emerges, pure and defiant. It was in this piece, and the final one, where we heard the CBSO, under Manze’s skilful guidance, at their most dexterous and antiphonally fluent. Laurence Jackson was the soloist, and he did an admirable job with a notoriously delicate part, occasionally sounding hollow or airy, but commendably never dispassionate.

The concert concluded with Job – A Masque for Dancing, which Michael Kennedy (in his excellent programme notes) calls ‘a synthesis of various elements in his [RVW’s] musical personality,’ and it was thus perfectly positioned at the end of the programme. By far the most dramatic and ambitious of the evening’s pieces, Job takes the listener on a journey too nuanced to describe in this short review, but one through which the CBSO led us expertly. Jackson – with the other excellent soloists – found full voice here, making his violin sing sweetly with the nostalgic themes of a composer whose place in the hearts of the British concert-going public appears deservedly secure.

by Ben Norris
@BenNorris7

CBSO Friday Night Classics: ABBA Symphonic Spectacular @ Symphony Hall

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What does one get when they mix the hits of ABBA with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra? An absolutely fantastic evening, that’s what.

A little apprehensive, having never been to view a performance at the Symphony Hall, I wasn’t quite sure of what the night would entail, yet what a truly wonderful event it turned out to be, nostalgia was in the air and it reminded the audience of just how powerful the music of ABBA can be.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has had recent seasons involving tours of Germany and Switzerland and a prestigious seven-concert tour of Japan and Taiwan. The Orchestra is loved across the globe and exists to inspire the next generation to participate in music. The evening was conducted by Stephen Bell and the vocals were performed by Capital voices, directed by Annie Skates.

I entered the auditorium with an idea of the grandeur I was about to witness, I was amazed as expected, at the spectacle in front of me. Galleries and tiers leading up to a high ceiling – a wonderfully regal and grand sight to behold.  The air of elegancy soon disappeared as the Orchestra entered the room, all dressed head to toe in 70s fancy dress. This immediately lifted the atmosphere and reminded the audience what a fun and cheesy evening this was going to be.

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Stephen Bell, conductor

Before the vocal group arrived, the Orchestra provided us with a spectacular ABBA montage that was utterly breathtaking to listen to, the music soared above and beyond the auditorium. After this, Capital Voices entered the stage, also dressed in ABBA themed costumes, beginning their opening number with ‘Waterloo’, this upbeat hit immediately had the audience clapping away and swaying. The night then followed accordingly, before each track the group would give a brief background to the song, this altogether made the interaction between them and the audience more personal, and allowed the audience to loosen up.

Many performances stood out across the evening, ‘The Winner Takes It All,’ for example, was a wonderful rendition that Annie Skates performed with incredible emotion, touching the hearts of many in the room. ‘Dancing Queen’ came before the interval, leaving the first half of the evening with an upbeat, buzzing tone. Capital Voices opened with ‘Lay all your love on me’ in the second half, and were greatly aided by the incredible orchestra, as they seemed a little pitchy at first and the orchestra upheld an empowering rhythm that blotted out any vocal issues. The evening ended with ‘Thank you for the music’, which had the audience swaying and singing along in a heart-warming fashion.

Though this wasn’t the end, the group and the orchestra, spurred on by the excitable audience, performed an encore of ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ which had the entire auditorium (including myself) on their feet, dancing, swaying and clapping along to the beat of the music. Looking around at the older generation of people in the audience, this spectacular finale gave off a sense of nostalgic happiness, whilst looking at the younger generation, you could see how the love of ABBA had been past down by parents and grandparents, similar to myself, as my passion for ABBA was the result of my mothers constant blasting of their classics through the house in my childhood.

Overall, the night was a success. Capital Voices were great performers, though a little cheesy, it added to the buzzing atmosphere. The CBSO, as predicted, were mesmerizing, and were the real stars of the show. The Orchestra echoed through the auditorium with every song, but both the CBSO and Capital Voices, bounced off each other brilliantly and gave the audience a night to remember!

Thank you for the music, CBSO!

By Jessica Green

CBSO Friday Night Classics: A Wonderful Christmastime

A relaxed and festive atmosphere met the audience of the Symphony Hall on Friday, 13th December 2013, as the CBSO took to the stage to begin the Christmas Celebrations in earnest. Conductor Carl Davis took charge of the orchestra for the evening, and from start to finish, he was a man possessed – dancing his way through Christmas Classics such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Wonderful Christmastime, and Let it Snow! with the liveliness and enthusiasm of one tasked with instilling that Christmassy feeling into the hearts of each and every audience member.

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Right from the very start, Davis’s Christmas cheer was infectious. He was able to put a really personal spin on the evening’s proceedings, aided in no small way by his playful chats with the audience, in between each number. Indeed, audience participation was the order of the day here, as, in many of the Christmas favourites, such as When a Child is Born, Davis would turn to the audience and gesture for them to sing along.

The performances of the two soloists further added to this festive feeling. Lance Ellington, of Strictly Come Dancing fame, was smooth throughout, giving a particularly velvety rendition of The Christmas Song. Ellington’s co-star, Katy Treharne, gave an equally stellar performance, culminating in her touching delivery of Niles’s I Wonder As I Wander. The pair enjoyed great chemistry, especially in duets such as Baby it’s Cold Outside.

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It was above all, however, the orchestra that stole the show, performing beautifully arranged, traditional Christmas classics with skill and ease. Whether accompanying the vocalists, or performing festive favourites such as A Christmas Overture by Hess, and Prokofiev’s Troika from Lieutenant Kijé, the CBSO constantly entertained its audience. The players were also game for some festive frivolity, as, after the interval, the majority of them reappeared wearing assorted Christmas paraphernalia; knitwear, tinsel clad instruments, Santa hats, and reindeer antlers. Conductor Carl Davis also got in on the act; he resurfaced after the interval (to his biggest cheer of the evening) wearing a resplendent red suit and tails – which, along with his mane of white hair, resulted in more than a passing resemblance to Chris Cringle himself.

CBSO_Dress_Rehearsal_2011_166.sizedFittingly then, it was Davis who would produce more delightful presents for the audience. The second half proceeded in even more of a ‘song and dance’ style than the first, culminating in the energetic encore, Wizzard’s I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day. This capped a fine evening, as Davis and the orchestra went into Christmas party overdrive – the audience were ordered to their feet for the biggest sing-and-dance-a-long of the evening. Leaving Symphony Hall, I could not help but carry with me a huge smile and a large helping of Christmas Cheer. With the big event nearly upon us, this concert was the perfect way to kick off the festive season.

By James Parsliffe     @jamesparsliffe

Classics at the Movies by CBSO @ Symphony Hall

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Often, when it came to classical music, I used to feel like there was a bit of a boundary that existed. When I was younger, I often felt that I ‘didn’t get’ classical music and would grow impatient with it quickly, due to naivety and to craving a fast food pop music fix.

However, attending ‘Classics at the Movies’ at Symphony Hall in Birmingham I had the realisation that classical music is embedded in my enjoyment of pop culture thoroughly and has more of a presence within my life than I had ever imagined. ‘Classics at the Movies’ paired the work of the late and great composers, including Wagner, Mozart, Strauss and Puccini with their use in film, which created a fantastic merging of pop culture and classical music, demonstrating how perfectly different composers have the skill to capture a range of emotions and moments, illuminating classical music’s presence, and relevance in everyday life. The performance featured various pieces from a vast range of films, which differed wildly in genre and date, ranging from A Room with a View, to Babe and Die Hard 2, capturing that moment in the cinema when you realise you recognize the tune, however you just can’t put your finger on its origin.

The resident, ninety-piece ensembles were conducted by Michael Seal and leading proceedings was Barry Norman. Norman, who presented BBC Film from 1972-1998 was the perfect addition to the evening. He narrated each piece and provided his own characteristic introduction of each work and the film in which it appeared. His presenting style often broke the intensity of each work, his casual chat in between each searing number punctuated the energy and immersion that occurred in each performance, allowing the audience a well-deserved breather, to recover from the depth and scale that each classical number provided. It also offered insight into classic films and their relationship with classical music – for instance, how Stanley Kubrick originally commissioned an entirely futuristic score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but ditched it upon hearing Johnann Strauss’s The Blue Danube, the work which is synonymous with the film.

Hearing the CBSO play in a setting as stunning as Symphony Hall is truly recommended and a definite must if visiting, or living in, Birmingham. For stunning live music, in an awe-inspiring location, Symphony Hall is the perfect place to visit to escape day-to-day life and immerse yourself in a performance that is guaranteed to stun.

By Lottie Halstead
@LottieHalstead

Tom Odell @ The Institute

tom odell

Other than accidentally hearing Another Love on the radio, I knew very little about singer-songwriter Tom Odell before seeing him live at The Institute a couple of weeks ago. My friend had a spare ticket so I tagged along and left two hours later completely converted.

When the BRIT-Award winning musician strode on stage he was greeted by a screaming crowd, yet with mysterious modesty he went straight to the piano and launched into Grow Old With Me without so much as a word.

It’s clear that he’s not into fame; it’s the music he cares about. His furious passion in playing the piano is mesmerising and I found myself wishing I could play an instrument with the intensity he does. Due to Tom’s onstage presence, only a simple set was required. Yet a magical atmosphere was created by the giant light bulbs positioned around the stage. They glowed dimly during the melancholy songs, whilst a spotlight was cost on Odell, and flashed randomly during his more energetic tracks.

Stand out tracks were those lonely, brooding ones he does so well, such as his first single Can’t Pretend and my favourite, Sense, a touching song from his debut album Long Way Down. Odell has said his lyrics are inspired by his “inability to sustain a relationship with someone for longer than six months” and the lyrics to Sense are a real tear-jerker, such as when he poignantly asks “If I fell in love a thousand times, would it all make sense?”

Another highlight was his penultimate song- a surprise cover of Etta James’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You”. The crowd were all singing along and thumping their feet, whilst Odell’s cheeky substitution of ‘you’ for ‘all of you’ had his female fans cheering.

Odell also seemed to get on very well with the band- they were often laughing together and the crescendo of music they created together for the finale was incredible; it seemed as though they had forgotten the audience entirely and were in a world of their own.

Seeing Tom Odell live made my first experience of his songs so much more tangible and moving; I was surrounded by people who his music meant so much to, whilst also seeing how much it meant to him. His lyrics are incredibly touching and I found myself desperate to download his songs so I could listen to the words again. Above all, Tom Odell is something very rare: a musician who is even better heard live.

Ellicia Pendle
@elliciapendle