Live review – CBSO with Oliver Janes & Andrew Gourlay: Strauss, Copland & Rachmaninov

Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday 6th April, 2017

Richard Strauss Don Juan Op.20 (1888)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 in A minor Op. 44 (1936)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

An ear infection meant that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla had to withdraw from this concert, which provided a welcome opportunity for Andrew Gourlay (now into his second season as Music Director of the orchestra in Valladolid) to make his debut at Symphony Hall with the CBSO.

A pity the Fourth Suite from the ballet The Golden Key by Mieczysław Weinberg had to be dropped from the programme, but that will hopefully be rescheduled (and if Gražinytė-Tyla could tackle one of this composer’s symphonies as his 2019 centenary approaches, then so much the better). Instead, Gourlay directed an account of Strauss’s Don Juan which, while it rather failed to ignite in the earlier stages, evinced some suitably enticing playing during the amorous central episode and then a rousing culmination prior to those fatalistic closing bars.

Hardly a natural complement to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, but the latter piece works well in a variety of contexts. It also provided an impressive showcase for Oliver Janes, now into his third season as principal clarinet of this orchestra and a player whose elegant while never unduly soft-grained tone was admirably suited to the first movement, with its limpid backing for strings and harp. Janes tackled the central cadenza with no less security – necessarily so as, in addition to its technical virtuosity, it functions as a formal and expressive ‘bridge’ into the second movement. This latter, substituting piano for harp and focusing on the jazz idioms often to the fore in Copland, was a little too reined-in over much of its course with the final pages failing to lift off, though there was never any doubting Janes’s identity with the piece.

The highlight of the concert came after the interval with a perceptive and involving account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. Although it lags well behind its predecessor in terms of performance, this piece has moved from the periphery of the repertoire as earlier tendencies to dismiss it as a rerun of past glories have yielded to a recognition of just how subtly while effectively it overhauls the composer’s thinking for the inter-war period. Not for nothing was Nikolay Medtner alarmed by what he heard as the ‘modernization’ of Rachmaninov’s idiom.

In terms of textural balance and formal continuity it poses more problems than any other of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works, but Gourlay was never fazed by these potential pitfalls. The unworldly ‘motto’ launching the first movement was hauntingly rendered, and the only error in what followed was the omission of an exposition repeat necessary to balance an extensive development whose crisis-riven denouement was acutely realized here.

Neither did Gourlay misjudge the integration of slow movement and scherzo in what follows – the outcome being a developing variation as seamless as it was affecting. If the finale then unfolded at slightly too relaxed a pace, this enabled Gourlay to characterize detail in as resourcefully orchestrated a movement as Rachmaninov ever penned – with the closing accelerando vividly brought off.

A convincing take, then, on this engaging symphony and a fine marker for Gourlay to have laid down in what should prove an ongoing association with this orchestra. Those unable to attend Saturday’s repeat can hear it being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 18th April.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Live review – CBSO with Nicholas Collon: Savitri & The Planets

nicholas-collon

Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano, Sāvitri), Robert Murray (tenor, Satyavān), James Rutherford (baritone, Death), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Wednesday 8th February, 2017

Holst Sāvitri, H96 (1909); The Planets, H125 (1916)

holst

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst enjoyed a close relationship with the City of Birmingham Symphony right from its inception, so it was good to see a concert being devoted to his music as part of The Spirit of England series running through to the orchestra’s centenary in 2020.

The elapsing of 108 years has not dulled the innovative qualities of Sāvitri, Holst’s one-act opera with which he made a decisive move from the Wagnerian opulence of his earlier music (not least the three-act opera Sita, still awaiting complete performance), towards the lean and often introspective expression of his maturity. Just over half-an-hour in length, it explores the time-honoured operatic themes of love and redemption as a means of transcending death – all rendered from a curious amalgam of Vedic teaching and Socialist thinking wholly of its time yet no less influential for being so. In addition, the scoring for just three woodwinds and nine strings, along with (wordless) offstage female voices, blazed the trail for later generations of British opera. No Sāvitri = no Britten chamber-operas and no Maxwell Davies music-theatre.

First heard in Birmingham 63 years ago, Sāvitri was given by the CBSO in 2004 and 2008. Then, as now, James Rutherford took the role of Death – his forceful yet ultimately humane assumption complementing the title-role, in which Yvonne Howard (replacing an indisposed Sarah Connolly) responded with fearlessness but also compassion; Robert Murray likewise conveying the heroic vulnerability of Satyavān as he succumbs to then escapes death via the intercession of Sāvitri. Choral and instrumental forces responded ably to Nicholas Collon’s direction, using the spatial possibilities of Symphony Hall’s acoustic to telling effect, but it was a pity that dimmed house-lights made it impossible to follow the succinct yet detailed libretto which was otherwise not always audible. Maybe surtitles could have been provided?

It would be an unlikely all-Holst concert as did not feature The Planets, which duly followed the interval. Collon presided over a performance which, while it offered few revelations, still did justice to the power and originality of this music. Mars evinced a brooding implacability through to those seismic closing bars, then Venus brought eloquence without sentimentality and a solace that was never cloying. Mercury was nimble and quick-witted, not least in the hectic approach to its close, and the only partial disappointment (as so often in this work) was Jupiter, whose outer sections were a shade unsubtle rhythmically, the indelible melody at its centre haltingly paced.

Saturn went much better – Collon alive to the gaunt solemnity of its opening pages and the monumental climax, the final section effortlessly combining radiance and resignation. Nor was there any lack of impetuousity in the goings-on of Uranus, the martial episode reaching a heady culmination (its organ glissando finely integrated into the texture) and wrathful final climax not pre-empting the stillness around it.

Following-on without pause, Neptune rounded-off this reading with a fitting evocation of the ethereal – the CBSO Youth Chorus now placed high in the Symphony Hall auditorium so its role was wholly audible yet, in keeping with Holst’s conception, poised on the intangible.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

BBC Proms 2016 – Kamasi Washington and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Kamasi Washington (c) Mark Allan

Prom 61; Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2016

You can listen to this Prom from its BBC broadcast here

Late night Proms at the Royal Albert Hall are usually special – and this one even more so. Kamasi Washington arrived to a great fanfare in 2015, firstly for his work as orchestrator and band leader on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly, then latterly for his extraordinary triple album Epic, released to great acclaim on Ninja Tune.

Washington, while perhaps not earmarked as the future of jazz, is definitely a figure to whom audiences are turning. Some approach him from the hip hop direction, from Lamar or Snoop Dogg, while others with jazz more embedded in their listening recognise the influences of Sun Ra and John Coltrane. But how would all these elements blend with a 32-voice choir and the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?

Extremely well, as it turned out. It helps that Washington has a wonderful, almost beatific stage presence. He is a mixture of assertion and modesty, which suits his music too, for there were long, ecstatic phrases where the Royal Albert Hall itself seemed to be lifted from its foundations on a tide of good feeling. As the long phrases swelled from the ground up, supported by cellos, basses, the bass of Miles Mosley and the drums of Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin, the treble instruments and assembled chorus were swept along on the good vibes.

That was certainly the case in Change of the Guard and The Next Step, while in The Magnificent 7 there was more of a soloistic approach, Washington’s band each invited to present their extraordinary virtuosity. Top of the pile were Mosley and pianist Brandon Coleman, both placed centre stage and forming a supple rhythmic base as well as a source of boundless musical enthusiasm.

However the praise for the effectiveness of the arrangements should also be directed at Jules Buckley, for whom this was a third appearance at this year’s Proms. Buckley is a master arranger, responsible for a lot of last year’s Ibiza Proms arranging but also this year taking on Quincy Jones and Jamie Cullum – each foils for the music of Washington, where he conducted the strings.

It also helps that Washington’s music is so well orchestrated, for although he allows his band solo time, in the quieter music things stripped back to allow the string orchestra room to be heard. Although they were swamped in the opener Change of the Guard there was plenty of room for the bittersweet cello lines of Henrietta, Our Hero to make a strong impact.

This was one of many high points in the concert, Washington introducing his father Rickey as they both paid homage to Kamasi’s grandmother in a song beautifully intoned by Patrice Quinn. There was a new piece, too, The Space Traveller’s Lullaby, which formed an effective mid-set interlude, stripping back to saxophone, trombone, voices and strings. Washington’s moving solo was backed by twinkling stars projected onto the backboard.

The music lingered long into the night. Some extraordinary phrases, both loud and quiet, issued from Washington’s saxophone, played with the utmost of care. His music has the power to move from tiny, quiet moments or through the massive, surging crests of the wave where all 80 performers were involved. Its wholly positive outlook won the day.

Ben Hogwood

Proms premiere – John Woolrich: Falling Down (London premiere)

john-woolrich

John Woolrich photo by Maurice Foxhall

Margaret Cookhorn (contrabassoon), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (Prom 4)

Duration: 15 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02xpm1z/player

What’s the story behind the piece?

There are very few concerto pieces written for the lowest voices in the orchestra – hardly any for double bass and fewer still for the contrabassoon. This is mostly down to the trouble composers have making the instruments heard at such a low pitch.

As the publisher’s notes for the piece say, “The title explains itself: the piece begins and ends with music that tumbles from the top of the orchestra down to the depths where the contra lives”

Woolrich, who celebrated his sixtieth birthday last year, wrote Falling Down in response to a commission from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – and he dedicated it to their contrabassoon player, Margaret Cookhorn.

Did you know?

Woolrich founded the Composers Ensemble in 1991, founded the Hoxton New Music Days festival and has been an associate Artistic Director at the Aldeburgh Festival since 2005.

Initial verdict

Woolrich succeeds in his biggest challenge in this piece – making the contrabassoon heard above the orchestra!

The piece starts with a bright and brash orchestral introduction, initially up in the treble register but gradually falling from its great height until the contrabassoon comes in with an incredibly fruity note, sounding as though it is beneath the floor!

Some of the sounds are incredibly raspy and distinctive, with a full throated bellow on occasion. Woolrich uses a lot of percussion in his orchestra, with volleys of drums around the 2 and 15 minute mark that make a powerful, kinetic impact on the music. The piece ends effectively with a door slamming shut in the shape of a big bass drum.

Second hearing

tbc!

Where can I hear more?

A good place to head next is an NMC disc devoted to the composer, The Ghost in the Machine. Soundclips and biographical information present a very interesting variety of music