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CBSO presents Ultimate Vaughan Williams @ Symphony Hall

andrew manze

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

CBSO Friday Night Classics: ABBA Symphonic Spectacular @ Symphony Hall


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.

stephen bell

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

Classics at the Movies by CBSO @ Symphony Hall


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

CBSO Opening Concert @ Birmingham Symphony Hall


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

Laura Marling and Guests @ Symphony Hall

The soulful folk melodies of Pete Roe drifted around the atrium of the Symphony Hall, perfectly setting the scene for the rest of the night’s performances. Although the seats were not yet full, his set of folk and blues songs were clearly enjoyed by the audience, not only for the catchy melodies but also the heartfelt lyrics.

Next, Taylor Kirk, a sole member of Canadian folk rock band Timber Timbre entered the stage. Although unaccompanied by the rest of the band, he maintained a stage presence and the dissonant chords created a style of folk that can only be described as spooky. Despite this, a comparison to The Tallest Man on Earth springs to mind, but Timber Timbre certainly possessed grit, which echoed their Canadian roots. Even as a solo performer, Kirk’s vocals reverberated around the venue, and reminded the listener of a different age of folk music.

By now, the Symphony Hall was almost completely full and the anticipation for the headliner was electric. Without further ado, Laura Marling and her band entered the stage and instantly started to play I Was Just a Card, which was simply captivating. With the audience in the palm of her hand, Marling continued to perform stand out songs from her most recent album A Creature I Don’t Know. The song Salinas particularly showcased the talent of Marling’s band, in which the banjo player jumped between the French horn and the guitar.

After we enjoyed a few more richly accompanied songs, the band left the stage, leaving Marling with the audience to herself. This was without doubt the highlight of the show. Dimmed lights and just her new temperamental ‘big dog’ guitar made Marling the sole focus; the vastness of the venue was no longer apparent. We were treated to new song Master Hunter, but renditions of Ghosts and Alas, I Cannot Swim reminded us of how Marling has progressed as an artist since her debut; they sounded so light and care-free compared to the darker elements present in her latest album.

Blackberry Stone was a standout moment, the accompaniment building from just the cello to the whole band once more, and was truly beautiful to experience. Ending the set with the atmospheric I Speak Because I Can and Goodbye England (Covered in Snow), Marling appeared vulnerable yet somehow wise beyond her years. Laura Marling’s talent for creating a style of folk that feels fresh and relevant was showcased in this performance. However, the set was over far too quickly. Ending on a crescendo, Marling and her band departed, leaving the entire hall wanting more.

Words by Annabelle Collins

Micky Greaney @ Symphony Hall

Folk for Free is a monthly live music event held in the foyer bar at Symphony Hall, showcasing some of Birmingham’s finest singer-songwriter talent. This month the audience was treated to an hour with Micky Greaney, who the compare quipped in the introduction as ‘the best songwriter in Birmingham, except maybe for Ozzy.’

The Symphony Hall’s huge glass foyer entrance made an ideal backdrop to the performance. The hectic rush hour commotion of buses, mothers with prams, taxis and commuters outside the window somehow perfectly complimented his mellow, folk soft-rock ballads. The first half was just Greaney playing solo; his songs were admittedly very generic, all with comfortably familiar verse, bridge, chorus structures and gently resolving chords. Yet despite this, the performance was actually  genuinely affecting and moving.

Greaney has the shambling goateed gravitas to pull off a style of music that in the hands of a lesser writer or performer could come off as slightly cliqued sentimentality. It was perfectly formed song writing, albeit traditional. There were tender spooky moments when silence fell over the audience, even the children; the Symphony Hall became a calm oasis in the hectic town centre. There was one really standout Starsailor-esque song, Satellite, in which Greaney’s voice sounded something akin to Fleet Foxes vocalist Robin Pecknold and his haunting melodic hooks rolled over each other gracefully.

The folk soft-rock ballad, though it can be over earnest and sentimental, is an undeniably enduring genre and is a style that is perhaps unfairly ‘uncool’ now. However, there is a particular innocence in using the simple conventions of pop-rock. Melody seems to have fallen out of favour with our generation’s songwriters, which is a shame. These songs were beautifully affecting and Greaney’s simple bare bones, nuts and bolts craftsmanship of them drew a huge, warm, affectionate crowd. He also came out at the interval for a pint with the fans and was an utterly charming, humble bloke.

The second half premiered his swaggering new band. Complete with the usual pop-rock line-up of keys, bass and drums, they had the added extra of two female backing vocalists giving it a gospel vibe. The fidgeting children were captivated by the band. It soared through the vast foyer so most toes were tapping and heads bobbing by the second tune. Nevertheless, not everything had changed after the interval; there was yet another gorgeous ballad midway through with three part harmonies, ensuring that the audience were left smiling.

Words by James Grady

Nick Jurd Quartet @ Rush Hour Blues

Friday evenings in Birmingham always come with the promise of some spectacular entertainment in the form of Rush Hour Blues at Symphony Hall. Organised by Birmingham Jazz, this weekly session regularly features various jazz and blues artists from the city and further afield. The latest performance was from talented young bass player Nick Jurd, appearing in his quartet alongside other former Birmingham Conservatoire students.

The group displayed a captivating sense of unity in their set, performing a range of Jurd’s original compositions as well as inspired renditions of jazz standards. Mostly, their repertoire was ballad-like or medium swing paced, lulling the audience into a meditative state and providing a welcome contrast from the frenetic rush hour traffic seen through the foyer’s ceiling-high windows. Even some of the busier samba-feel numbers provided a laid-back sense of contemplation.

Despite the overall relaxed state of the music, many of the quartet’s pieces enclosed fascinatingly frenetic improvisation from each of the band. Nick Jurd in particular demonstrated skilful use of the higher register of his double bass, producing solos both melodically and rhythmically captivating. Alto saxophonist Rachel Cohen often chose a more sustained and emotive style her solos, whilst trumpeter Sam Wooster displayed both subtlety and ferocity in his playing, effectively combining with perfectly placed rhythmic interaction from Jim Bashford on drum kit.

Jurd’s softly spoken introduction to each tune and acknowledgement of his fellow musicians did much to maintain the mellow tone of the gig. One particular tune that will undoubtedly hit home with students of many different disciplines was Jurd’s own composition ‘Sorted’, a piece he recounts writing after graduating. This piece was, in line with the rest of the set, of a smooth, unrushed tempo, yet still expressed excitement: as he explained, it reflects a sense of accomplishment and an undeniable taste of freedom.

Interestingly for a band of this size, the quartet did not contain any chordal instruments such as a piano or guitar as would be expected to complete the texture of a traditional jazz combo. This lack of chords was slightly unusual to the ear at first, but as the set went on this supposed gap in the texture actually created a unique sense of space in the music: this allowed the subtleties of harmony from the bass and horn instruments to shine.

Nick Jurd and his quartet undeniably transfixed the large crowd that frequents the Rush Hour Blues sessions. With a captivating blend of precision playing and musical ingenuity, the group brought a tranquil end to the day in the otherwise bustling city centre. The next Rush Hour Blues instalment will feature the MHJQ Jazz Blues Trio on Friday 3rd February, 5.30-7pm. Admission is free, so there really isn’t a more ideal way to end your week.

Words by Anna Lumsden