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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: 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

CBSO Carmen and Boléro @ Birmingham Symphony Hall

Alain Altinoglu. Photo: Fred Toulet

Alain Altinoglu. Photo: Fred Toulet

Ensemble: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Conductor:  Alain Altinoglu
Soloist: Nora Gubisch (soprano)

Programme:

Bizet Carmen Suite No. 2
Ravel Shéhérazade
Bizet Symphony in C
Ravel Boléro

The CBSO have produced a hugely energetic and charismatic performance of romantic and impressionist French music under conductor Alain Altinoglu.  Opening with Bizet’s Carmen Suite No. 2, the well known melodies of the seductive ‘Hanbera’ and the dramatic ‘Danse Boheme’ were performed with tremendous energy and precision whilst the work as a whole explored fully the dramatic intentions of the composer.  The trumpet performance in the equally popular ‘Chanson du Toreador’ was notably impressive!

The concert featured a solo performance from soprano Nora Gubisch in Ravel’s Shéhérazade.  Gubisch’s voice sat delicately on top of the complex underlying harmonies in the quiet passages of the first movement and changed character entirely when the movement underwent sudden changes of mood, demonstrating the soprano’s remarkable versatility and musicality which continued throughout the work.  The string section was also impressive in its detail and control with moments of shimmering sound.

Bizet’s Symphony in C, written when the composer was just seventeen, is a hugely accomplished work for someone so young and was performed with a youthful energy reflecting this. However, it was always at a tempo which allowed for the subtlest moments of expression to be enjoyed fully, particularly in the first movement, preventing the rapid string passages in the fourth movement from being rushed whilst maintaining a joyful momentum.  The second movement saw a terrific oboe performance and a very enjoyable fugal section with clear lines and bright, engaging, entries.  As a whole, the work was performed with a real sense of joy and an endearing light-heartedness that was reciprocated in the faces of audience members.

Closing the concert was a performance of Ravel’s celebrated Boléro.  Having never seen the work performed live before, it quickly became apparent that no recording will ever capture the genius of this piece.  With each successive solo bringing its own character not only in timbre, but also in nature of expression, above the hypnotic snare drum ostinato, an antiphonal effect is created (as well as visual intrigue) that is not captured by recording equipment. Altinoglu’s directions and subtlest intimations were followed precisely by the orchestra, maintaining musical interest throughout, culminating in an explosive finish leaving the hall ringing with sound.

A hugely enjoyable performance from the CBSO and what’s more; they clearly enjoyed it too!

Daniel E. Smith

CBSO Opening Concert @ Birmingham Symphony Hall

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It is telling – though not particularly subtle – that the name Wagner originally gave to Tannhäuser was ‘Der Venusberg’ (the Mount of Venus). The opera, like its creator, is incandescent with sexual excess. Luckily the composition is of more nuance and tact than its would-be title, and masterfully the Overture (as performed by the CBSO) explores the polarity of sensual and spiritual love, it once having been dubbed “one of the most extreme depictions of sex attempted in music” (though paradoxically enough it was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s).

The piece begins solemnly with the mellow warming notes of clarinets, horns and bassoons. Yet, there is almost an imperceptible melancholy and shortly, before the theme of spiritual love can develop, this melancholy is transformed by the entrance of the upper and lower strings into a dizzying, chromatic yearning – an allusion to ‘the temptations of the flesh’. Here we have Wagner at his most exhilarating; the giddiness of it all compels a sharp intake of breath (“Wagner’s art has the pressure of a hundred atmospheres”) whilst Nelsons draws out the visceral sense of yearning longer than any other performance of the overture I have heard.

This exhilaration founders, however, and is subdued by the solemn chant of the trombone. But it is not long before the tempo takes on a joyful allegro, with leaping flutes and violas depicting the ‘earthly delights’ of the ‘Venusberg’. The music crescendos into a vivacious, ebullient melody, driven by the full orchestra over pulsating strings; this is “the true, the terrible, the universal Venus” that Baudelaire writes of, the Venus which smothers our “sense of the divine” with “the lusts of the flesh”. Again, though, the music tumbles, this time into a vigorous swirl (depicting sexual abandon) before the wind instruments (spiritual love and redemption) are lifted by the whole orchestra into a triumphant apotheosis that echoes the last lines of Goethe’s Faust: “Das Ewig-Weibliche / Zieht uns hinan.” (“The eternal feminine lures us to perfection”).

The Tannhäuser overture, together with the Lohengrin prelude and the resolution of Tristan and Isolde, very much beg the question first put by Nietzsche in 1888: is Wagner a musician at all? Is he not a magician, a hypnotist, or rather, a sickness? Eventually he concludes that Wagner is a tyrant whose pathos topples every resistance, opining;

Who equals the persuasive power of these gestures? Who else envisages gestures with such assurance, so clearly from the start? The way Wagner’s pathos holds its breath, refuses to let go an extreme feeling, achieves a terrifying duration of states when even a moment threatens to strangle us.

Nietzsche’s equivocation belies his tone. This is praise for Wagner, as well it should be. Though what’s more, this is perhaps the diagnosis par excellence of the sorcery behind Tannhäuser and its breathless embrace.

By Alexander Blanchard
@blancharder

Birmingham University Singers perform at the Barber Institute

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, situated on the university campus, boasts one of the finest small art collections in the country, showcasing works by Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh to name a few. Yet, the venue is further renowned for its regular classical music concerts which take place in its stunning concert hall, attracting both students and outside music-lovers alike.

A long established tradition at the Barber is weekly Friday lunchtime concerts which are free admission and feature recitals and performances from the university’s thriving music scene. The latest of these concerts was a performance by the Birmingham University Singers, singing a mixture of English, Italian and German madrigals and part-songs. They were accompanied during their performance by Robert Tibay and Gerald Lim who provided a continuo. Their conductor was Professor Colin Timms, whose obvious passion and knowledge of the madrigal genre provided an insightful glimpse into a style of music that perhaps not all would have been previously accustomed with.

The Madrigal has its roots in 16th Century Italy and is traditionally polyphonic in texture, unaccompanied and can feature up to eight separate vocal parts at a time. This leaves a great deal of scope for musical interpretation and the conductor works hard to ensure all parts are each given their own precedence amongst the array of contrasting chords and lyrical lines. This Friday’s concert featured an array of works by Monteverdi, Weelkes and part-songs by Brahms amongst others.

As for the singer’s themselves, their performance was extraordinary and there were moments of incredible musical understanding and collective empathy with the choral works. Even at times when the ensemble were singing at full capacity, the sopranos’ vocals had an ability to cut through the mass of harmonies and soar to the back of the concert hall, which resulted in awed expressions and smiles on the faces of some attentive audience members.

The biggest giveaway as to the success of the event was the very, very small number of spare seats in the concert hall. It seems that these Friday lunchtime concerts attract a wide following and have established a reputation which ensures listeners return to the University again and again. Even for the student populace, a chance to relax away from the glare of laptop screens and rigorous studying, I can imagine, is a welcomed relief. Before, I wondered why these concerts were perhaps not advertised widely but seeing the unbelievable turn-out it seems the Barber have little need to.

What is also wonderful about these concerts is the evident number of individuals from outside the campus who come to enjoy the music the University displays. It shows that the University of Birmingham has a prominent placing in Birmingham’s classical music scene, already well established and linked with the prestigious Birmingham Conservatoire and the The CBSO Youth Orchestra. I strongly urge anyone, either with imminent deadlines or just an interest in classical music to go along to the next concert on Friday 10th February where the University Music Scholars will be performing.

Words by Alice Grimes