In concert – Hockley Social Club & the CBSO present: Symphonic Sessions

cbso-symphonic-sessions

Symphonic Sessions

 

Hockley Social Club, Birmingham
Thursday 21 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Out & About’ schedule has seen musicians playing at venues from railway stations to suburban pubs, but tonight’s Symphonic Sessions, billed as ‘‘the perfect evening for the musically curious’’, was a more ambitious undertaking.

The venue was Hockley Social Club – located closer to Newtown and an area which, with its rundown warehouses next to remnants of faded civic planning, is ripe for redevelopment of a kind encountered on the other side of Great Hampton Street. Such urban realism aside, it was an ideal setting for an event designed to appeal to the young professionals living or working in this area, and the capacity (300 or so) attendance was gratifying to club and orchestra alike. Assorted street food and designer cocktails were some of the attractions available on the night.

The live element consisted of two half-hour sets played by a quartet drawn from the CBSO, situated on a raised central platform, and amplified so neither visibility nor audibility was an issue. The first set enjoyed a lively start with Year of the Boar from Sufjan Stevens’s zodiacal electronica Enjoy Your Rabbit, popularized in Michael Atkinson’s arrangement for the Osso Quartet. One of the most arresting younger American composers, Caroline Shaw has written widely for quartet but, while Entr’acte provided a showcase for the musicians’ dexterity – not least cellist Arthur Boutillier – its fractured continuity tried the patience of numerous punters. Not so those teasingly ironic excerpts from Anna Meredith’s Songs for the M8 – with Sigur Rós’s evergreen Hoppípolla, as reimagined by the Vitamin Quartet, a delightful signing-off.

The inward fervency of Stevens’s Year of our Lord began a second set that touched on more Classical fare with a visceral take on the second movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, then a lucid First Contrapunctus from Bach’s The Art of Fugue that only gained in eloquence on restarting after violinist Colette Overdijk had lost her battle with a dislodged microphone. The undoubted highlight was Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (Homeward) – a commission from the Kronos Quartet for the guitarist of The National, this is music whose propulsive energy and tensile interplay were to the fore in a performance which brooked no compromise. Violinist Kirstie Lovie and violist Amy Thomas then came into their own in excerpts from the Danish String Quartet’s folk-song anthology Wood Works, which made for a scintillating conclusion.

Either side of and in between the live music, low-key DJ sets (at least until the half-hour prior to closing) from ‘local tastemaker’ Pritt Kalsi did much to enhance the atmosphere for what throughout was a lively and appreciative audience. What proportion can be persuaded to make CBSO concerts at Symphony Hall a regular part of its fixture-list remains to be seen, though feedback on the ground was encouraging. Whatever else, the future of live events looks to be one in which listening across the spectrum of musical styles and genres has become the norm.

Good news, therefore, that Symphonic Sessions is destined not to be a one-off experiment, with the follow-up having been set for Thursday 2nd December. Whatever the line-up of musicians and music, it would seem certain that ‘‘A splendid time is guaranteed for all’’.

Further information on Symphonic Sesions can be found here. Further listening on the featured music can be enjoyed through the Spotify albums below:

Stevens:

Shaw:

Meredith:

Sigur Rós:

Shostakovich:

Bach:

Dessner:

Danish SQ:

In concert – Jess Gillam, CBSO / Jaume Santoja Espinós: Jess Gillam’s American Roadtrip

Jess-Gillam

Gershwin Cuban Overture (1932)
Villa-Lobos
Fantasia for Saxophone W490 (1948)
Copland
Danzón cubano (1942)
Milhaud
Scaramouche Op.165c (1937/9)
Copland
Appalachian Spring – Suite (1944/5)
Barber
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1935-6, rev, 1942-3)

Jess Gillam (saxophones, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santoja Espinós (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took a break from ‘standard’ repertoire to focus on music by composers either American or with an American focus, in a programme which rung the changes to often vibrant and always appealing effect.

A familiar radio presence, Jess Gillam has already encouraged renewed interest in the music for classical saxophone, as her contributions amply demonstrated. Little heard in his lifetime, the Fantasia by Villa-Lobos is among those more modest creations of a composer known for his (over-reaching) ambition – its three short movements drawing animated and ruminative responses from the soloist enhanced by a restrained orchestration. Swapping soprano for the alto instrument, Gillam returned for Milhaud’s Scaramouche which was no less engaging in this arrangement than the original for two pianos; whether in its incisive opening movement, soulful central interlude or its final Brazileira which could hardly fail to provoke a response from orchestra and audience – the latter evidently appreciative of such an infectious display.

The CBSO captured the spirit of both pieces, thanks not least to former assistant conductor Jaume Santoja Espinós, who had opened the concert with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – the percussion-clad exuberance of its outer sections a telling foil to the haunting pathos of those canonic textures at its centre. Copland’s Danzón Cubano can seem irritating in its rhythmic over-insistence, but Espinós brought an unsuspected wit and subtlety to this amalgam of coy nonchalance with an orchestration recalling Stravinsky’s forays into ‘crossover’ at this time.

Latin-American traits made way for those of a Europeanized East Coast after the interval, Espinós directing the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring with a cohesion as brought out expressive contrasts between the various sections without these becoming too episodic. The idealization inherent in this ‘Ballet for Martha’ can hardly be gainsaid, yet the chaste eloquence of its musical content came through no less affectingly – not least as the familiar ‘Variations on a Shaker Hymn’ subsided into the serene inevitability of the final evocation.

The highlight was a welcome revival for Barber’s First Symphony, whose continuous design marries Sibelian formal precision with that unabashed emotionalism closer to Russian music from this period, with a cumulative impact to its four-in-one trajectory which was palpably in evidence. From the stark foreboding with which it begins, through the relentless impetus of its ‘scherzo’ and consoling poise of its ‘slow movement’ (felicitous oboe playing by Emmet Byrne), to the inexorable force of its closing passacaglia, this was a performance to savour.

An eventful evening, then, and was more to come with a post-concert informal performance from the quintet El Ultimo Tango, familiar from its several recordings and here providing a 30-minute overview of Astor Piazzolla for what was a – necessarily – belated tribute in the year of his centenary. Those wanting a longer selection can hear this group at CBSO Centre next February, while the CBSO returns next week for a programme of mainly French music from conductor Kevin John Edusei with Kirill Gerstein in both of Ravel’s piano concertos.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Jess Gillam, click here – and for more on El Ultimo Tango, here. For more information on Jaume Santoja Espinós, head to the conductor’s website

In concert – Baiba Skride, CBSO / Andrew Gourlay: Rossini, Mozart, Berlioz & Prokofiev

Rossini Guillaume Tell – Overture (1829)
Mozart
Violin Concerto no.5 in A major K219 (1775)
Berlioz
Le carnaval romain, Op.9 (1844)
Prokofiev
Romeo and Juliet – Suite no.2 Op.64ter (1936)

Baiba Skride (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 13 October 2021, 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse; Picture of Andrew Gourlay (c) Kaupo Kikkas, Baiba Skride (c) Marco Borggreve

This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw an unexpected but welcome return from Andrew Gourlay (replacing an indisposed François Leleux) for this diverse programme as worked much better as a concert than it might have appeared on paper.

Its fame as a novelty item in cartoons et al can easily obscure the innovative qualities of the Overture to William Tell, last and most ambitious of Rossini’s operas, in terms of its eliding between curtain-raiser and symphonic poem; which latter aspect Gourlay emphasized in this evocative but cohesive account – whether in the ruminative calm of its opening section with the CBSO cellos eloquently fronted by Eduardo Vassallo, a scrupulously controlled ‘storm’ episode, a not unduly mawkish ‘lullaby’ then a closing galop free from Hollywood overkill.

Mozart was barely out of his teens on writing his Fifth Violin Concerto, if not the finest then certainly the most eventful of his cycle through such as the soloist’s alluring first entry in the opening Allegro with music not directly related to either of the main themes and rendered by Baiba Skride with real finesse. Equally successful was her succinct yet ideally proportioned cadenza prior to its close; after which, the Adagio had elegance without excessive sweetness. In the final Rondeau, others may have made more of that contrast between graceful lyricism and the robust humour of its central section’s stylized Turkishness, but Skride brought these into complete accord and, with Gourlay securing limpid playing from a scaled-down CBSO, this was a persuasive performance of music whose felicities can easily be taken for granted.

Formerly ubiquitous as a concert-opener, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival – the inspired recycling of music from his opera Benvenuto Cellini – launched the second half to striking effect. If the soulful introduction took a little time to settle (doubtless occasioned by a soon extinguished onstage rebellion before Gourlay’s return), what ensued was not lacking rhythmic elan or that scintillating interplay of orchestral timbres as was Berlioz’s gift to the orchestra. Effecting a tangible crescendo into the blazing peroration, Gourlay undoubtedly saved the best until last.

Ad hoc selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet rarely provide a satisfying second half, making one of three suites the composer extracted from his ballet the more viable option. Of these the Second Suite is the best overview, and this account quickly found its stride with a visceral take on the music which opens Act Three, the grinding progress of Montagues and Capulets proving no less forceful. Juliet as a young girl exuded the right insouciance and pathos, as did Friar Laurence that of earnest authority. The lithe Dance made a telling foil to Romeo and Juliet before parting, its fraught rapture potently conveyed here, then Dance of the girls with lilies made for an appealingly wistful entrée into Romeo at Juliet’s grave with its searing anguish that only gradually subsides into expectant calm towards the close.

Gourlay had previously directed a fine account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony with this orchestra and the Prokofiev confirmed his prowess in Russian music. The CBSO, meanwhile, returns next Wednesday for a varied American programme with the saxophonist Jess Gillam.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Baiba Skride, click here – and for more information on Andrew Gourlay, head to the conductor’s website

In concert – Aris Quartet play Schulhoff, Kurtág & Mendelssohn @ Wigmore Hall

Aris 5

Schulhoff 5 Pieces for String Quartet (1924)
Kurtág Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky Op.28 (1988-9)
Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op.44/1 (1838)

Aris Quartet (above, photograph (c) Sophie Walter) [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 October 2021, 1pm

Written by Ben Hogwood (reviewed live from online stream below)

The Aris Quartet are part of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, and this was their first appearance at the Wigmore Hall. They presented themselves as a lively ensemble who clearly enjoy their music, and they played with sensitivity and panache

Also revealed was a strong instinct for programming. Schulhoff’s 5 Pieces for String Quartet are beginning to make themselves known more in the concert hall, presenting as they do a number of sides of this unique musical personality. The Czech composer was arrested in Prague before he could be issued with a visa to emigrate to Moscow in the Second World War, and died at the Wülzburg concentration camp at the age of 48. His music is still relatively young in its exposure because of this, only really coming through in the 1990s. Initial criticism from those sceptical at his integration of jazz and dance forms is giving way to more outright respect, and – as could be seen here – the 5 Pieces make a great start to a concert.

The Aris Quartet gave a vibrant account of the first movement, marked Alla Valse viennese, but soon a chill was forming as the Alla Serenata progressed, its ghostly presence reminiscent of early Shostakovich. The muted instruments danced over a distracted drone from the cello before biting hard in a sequence that was almost anti-lyrical. There was an impressive cut and thrust to the Alla Czeca, bringing out the composer’s heritage, then an attractive sway to the Alla Tango milonga, beautifully played but with an unexpectedly ominous finish. Finally the buzz of the lively Alla Tarantella set a strong unison violin melody against brisk viola and cello.

Officium breve by György Kurtág was next, a requiem to fellow Hungarian composer Andreae Szervánszky. By his standards it is a lengthy piece indeed, but with 15 sections in barely 12 minutes it was packed with compressed melodies of great intensity. Kurtág is a master in obtaining deep expression from the shortest of phrases, achieving this through carefully pointed melodies and highly imaginative quartet textures. Such a thorough knowledge of string quartet capabilities informs the many sides of grief felt here, and the Aris Quartet reveled in the nuances of the piece. The gripping account took hold from the distracted opening, where cellist Lukas Sieber effectively set out the pitches of the open strings of hit instrument, to savage chords wrought with pure anger later on. The composer’s use of microtones was deeply expressive, as were the ‘double stopping’ passages, the quartet playing as one instrument with eight or more voices. It was a moving and mind-expanding performance.

A wholesale change of mood took us to Mendelssohn, and the joyous outpouring of the first in his trio of quartets published as Op.44. Anna Katharina Wildermuth’s songful first violin was key here, but so were the quartet textures, with lots going on but impressive clarity to reveal the dialogue between the instruments. This was a lovely, fluid performance, with a sunny first movement giving way to a less excitable but equally persuasive Menuetto, showing off its rhythms and soft-hearted theme. Feelings ran deep in the slow movement, especially in the minor key episode, where Wildermuth probed deeper with her phrasing. The finale recaptured the mood of the first movement, good spirits bubbling over to cap an affectionate and energetic performance.

It was great to see an ensemble playing as one with such obvious enthusiasm and commitment for the music, and based on this evidence the Aris Quartet have a bright future indeed. Watch the concert stream and see for yourself!

You can also listen to the repertoire from the Aris Quartet’s concert on this Spotify playlist:

For more information on the Aris Quartet visit their website

In concert – James Ehnes, CBSO / Finnegan Downie Dear: Cassandra Miller, Britten & Beethoven

©Frank-Bloedhorn-finnegan-downie-dear

Miller La Donna (2021) [UK premiere]
Britten
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.15 (1938-9)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1807-08)

James Ehnes (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Finnegan Downie Dear (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; Picture of Frankie Downie Dear (c) Frank Bloedhorn

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a first appearance with British conductor Finnegan Downie Dear, winner of the 2020 Mahler Competition in Bamberg, and a first hearing in the UK for an orchestral piece by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller.

Currently based in London, where she is Professor of Composition at the Guildhall, Miller’s output has often drawn on pre-existing sources as are then integrated into the work at hand. Such is the case with La Donna, premiered at Barcelona earlier this year, where a group of Genoese male voices singing La Partenza da Parigi (as recorded by the redoubtable Alan Lomax in 1954) is channelled into music of intensive polyphonic activity and topped by a falsetto melodic line – the eponymous La donna. This builds to an apex as intricate in its texture as it is immediate in expression, then gradually subsides in a resonance of suffused elation. Such was the impression left by this performance, Downie Dear drawing sustained amplitude from relatively modest forces in a visceral demonstration of tension and release.

A time there was when Britten’s Violin Concerto enjoyed only a modest presence in British concert halls, though recent years have seen it taken up by leading soloists from around the world. Its edgy yet intense lyricism has a persuasive exponent in James Ehnes (above), who brought out the restless emotion of the initial Moderato – the five-note motto underlining the context of war and unrest from which it emerged. The Vivace’s rhythmic velocity and sardonic tone were no less evident, a tensile reading of the cadenza pointing up its thematic function and leading inevitably into the final Passacaglia. After a superbly shaped orchestral introduction, Ehnes characterized its variations with mounting intensity to a powerfully wrought climax – the final pages exuding a fatalistic eloquence no less affecting now than eight decades ago.

Perhaps this music’s rapt equivocation explains why it has often been programmed in recent seasons with Beethoven’s Pastoral. While by no means revelatory, the present account gave a good indication of Downie Dear’s abilities – not least his emphasis on rhythmic articulation during what was a relatively swift traversal of the opening Allegro, along with his fastidious attention to dynamics as brought the requisite focus and lucidity to the Scene by the Brook with its warmly enveloping string textures and its bird-calls deftly inflected towards the close.

The final three movements unfolded in much the same vein – the peasants lithe if arguably a little too well-behaved in their merrymaking and the thunderstorm forceful if not electrifying in response, though with a seamless diminuendo of volume and energy going into the finale. Without drawing the ultimate gravitas from its interplay of rondo and variation procedures, Downie Dear guided it surely and attentively to a ruminative coda – Beethoven transcending the incipient era of musical romanticism through the (deliberate) absence of any defining ego.

This evening’s programme is repeated tomorrow afternoon – with the Miller being replaced by Mozart’s Idomeneo overture – while the CBSO returns next week for Rossini, Berlioz, and Prokofiev under François Leleux, along with Baiba Skride in Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Cassandra Miller, click here – and for more information on Finnegan Downie Dear, head to the conductor’s website