In concert – Simon Höfele, CBSO / Kevin John Edusei: Street Music – Stravinsky, Ellington, Zimmermann & Rota

Rota La Strada – Suite (1954, rev. 1966)
Zimmermann Trumpet Concerto ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I See’ (1954)
Ellington (orch. Henderson) Harlem (1950-51)
Stravinsky Petrushka (1910-11, rev. 1947)

Simon Höfele (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kevin John Edusei

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 1 December 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was one with a difference, Kevin John Edusei directing a programme which avoided the Austro-German mainstream with a vengeance as it surveyed music with a distinctly ‘alternative’ outlook.

Federico Fellini’s La Strada accords with the realism of post-war Italian film, yet its acutely emotional undertow makes it equally prophetic and Nino Rota’s score embodies both aspects with its heady dance-music but also a plangent inwardness in those passages for solo violin (eloquently rendered here by Philip Brett) where the tragic relationship between Gelsomina and Zampanò is made explicit. The suite Rota subsequently derived from the music’s later incarnation as a ballet remains among the most significant of his output for the concert hall.

While Rota looks to popular idioms, Bernd Alois Zimmermann utilizes jazz in his Trumpet Concerto, its (later appended) subtitle denoting the spiritual as underpins much of its content and comes to the fore at crucial junctures. The subtly varied orchestration – with saxophones, Hammond organ and ‘rhythm section’ featuring electric guitar – is complemented by that for the soloist with its range of mutes and a virtuosity new to the classical domain which Simon Höfele despatched with alacrity born of conviction. The respectively brooding and headlong initial sections created an expectancy fulfilled by a climactic episode which was taken a little too fast for its layering of jazz rhythms to come through unimpeded, though the final section lacked nothing in evocative power as it subsided edgily towards a close of muted anguish.

Duke Ellington’s Harlem may now have become relatively familiar in concert, but few such performances can have conveyed the sheer panache as was evident here. Edusei traversed the numerous brief sections of this ‘Tone Parallel’ (commissioned but never conducted by Arturo Toscanini) with innate appreciation of their musical as well as scenic potency that culminates with a rhythmic energy whose effect was undeniably visceral. A little audience participation, moreover, did not go amiss in the final pages where the orchestra duly gave its collective all.

From social, via racial and cultural to psychological alienation. Stravinsky may have intended Petrushka as a vehicle primarily for balletic or orchestral display, but the inner two of its four tableaux, defining the contrasting psyches of Petrushka and the Moor as they compete for the attentions of the Ballerina, provide acute character portraits delineated here with needle-sharp clarity (not least by pianist James Keefe – his crucial obligato contribution vividly embedded within the orchestral texture). Nor did the outer tableaux lack for atmosphere – the sights and sounds of St Petersburg’s Shrovetide Fair palpably in evidence, Edusei securing more poise and pathos than was usual from the relatively utilitarian orchestration as Stravinsky revised it. The closing stages of Petrushka’s death and apparition felt spine-tingling in their immediacy.

This resourceful reading concluded what is sure to prove a highlight of the orchestra’s current season. Other concerts might attract larger attendances, but the attentiveness of those younger listeners present confirmed this as precisely the kind of event the CBSO should be presenting.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Simon Höfele and Kevin John Edusei

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