In concert – Caroline Sheen, Louise Dearman, Nadim Naaman, Jeremy Secomb, CBSO / Martin Yates – Sondheim: Broadway Baby

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Follies Overture
Company Company; Being Alive
Anyone Can Whistle Anyone Can Whistle
Follies Could I Leave You; Broadway Baby
Sondheim Three Sondheim Waltzes
Sweeney Todd A Little Priest; Johanna
Gypsy Some People
Merrily We Roll Along Old Friends

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum Overture
Company The Little Things You Do Together
West Side Story Something’s Coming; Balcony Scene; A Boy Like That
Passion Loving You
A Little Night Music Send In The Clowns
Into The Woods Giants In The Sky; Agony
Company Getting Married Today
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum Comedy Tonight

Louise Dearman, Nadim Naaman, Jeremy Secomb and Caroline Sheen (vocalists), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martin Yates

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 14 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse photo (c) Florian Wende

This overview of Stephen Sondheim was inevitably leant poignancy by the composer’s death in November but this, in turn, only served to emphasize the extent of his achievement across more than half a century and at least 16 stage-works; across the course of which, he brought the American musical to a new level of sophistication. The present selection further provided a reminder of that additional depth and richness made possible when the instrumental writing is allotted to full orchestra, of which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a keen advocate.

A versatile conductor, Martin Yates launched the evening via a bustling take on the Overture to Follies, Sondheim’s double-edged homage to Broadway’s ‘golden age’, before all four of tonight’s vocalists took the stage for the title-song from Company – its edgy expectancy offset by the fervency of that musical’s ‘Being Alive’ rendered by Nadim Naaman. Jeremy Secomb brought real poise to the title-song of initially ill-fated Anyone Can Whistle; Louise Dearman was defiance itself in ‘Could I Leave You?’, while Caroline Sheen teased out the insouciance of a further Follies song ‘Broadway Baby’. The CBSO duly gave its all in the lively and not-a little sardonic waltzes as taken from Anyone Can Whistle, then Dearman and Secomb proved well complemented as scheming barber and piemaker in ‘A Little Priest’ from Sweeney Todd; Naaman’s pathos in ‘Johanna’ a reminder of this musical’s compassionate side. Sheen sassily projected Sondheim’s lyrics to Jule Styne’s music in ‘Some People’ from Gypsy, then all four singers rounded-off the first half with the barbed ‘Old Friends’ from Merrily We Roll Along.

A lively traversal of the Overture to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum set up the second half in suitably racy fashion, with Dearman and Secomb bringing real piquancy to Company’s edgy duet ‘The Little Things You Do Together’. Three numbers from West Side Story reminded one of Sondheim’s peerless lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music – Naaman’s inquiring take on ‘Something’s Coming’ followed by his and Sheen’s rapturous showing for the ‘Balcony Scene’ (a.k.a. ‘Tonight’), the latter joining Dearman for the searing medley ‘A Boy Like That / I Have A Love’ as forms this musical’s emotional apex. Not that Secomb’s unforced eloquence in ‘Loving You’ from Passion proved an emotional come-down; neither did Dearman in conveying the bittersweet soul of ‘Send In The Clowns’ from A Little Night Music – Sondheim’s most recognizable melody. Two numbers now from multi-layered Into The Woods – Naaman suitably astounded in ‘Giants In The Sky’; he and Secomb pointing up the fanciful imagery of ‘Agony’. Dearman and Sheen joined him for the heady triple-take of ‘Getting Married’ from Company, then the advertised programme concluded with the quartet in the uproarious ‘Comedy Tonight’ such as unerringly sets the tone for Forum as a whole.

Those who might have been bemoaning the absence of Sunday In The Park With George (its first act arguably Sondheim’s most perfect achievement) would have been reassured with the ecstatic ‘Sunday’ that brought the evening to its close; one in which the contribution from the CBSO played no small part in conveying the sheer range of Sondheim’s enduring creativity.

For more information on this concert you can visit the CBSO website. Meanwhile click on the artist names for information on Martin Yates, Louise Dearman, Nadim Naaman, Jeremy Secomb and Caroline Sheen. To read more about Stephen Sondheim himself, visit the Stephen Sondheim Society

In concert – Clara-Jumi Kang, CBSO / Ryan Bancroft – Coleridge-Taylor, Mendelssohn & Sibelius

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Coleridge-Taylor Solemn Prelude in B minor, Op. 40 (1899)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (1901-2)

Clara-Jumi Kang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse Ryan Bancroft picture (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Having seen in the new year in customary Viennese-style, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this programme of repertoire staples along with what was (probably) only the third performance of a relatively early orchestral work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The recent revival of interest in Coleridge-Taylor hopefully means such enticing pieces as his Violin Concerto and Clarinet Quintet will be heard more frequently at concert hall and recital rooms. If the Solemn Prelude is not quite on their level, it certainly deserved more than total neglect following its premiere at Worcester Cathedral in 1899; a further hearing last July only made possible after the manuscript was relocated at the British Library. Combining Elgarian nobility with Brucknerian grandeur, its outer sections exude a portentousness complemented by the expressive immediacy at its centre; abetted here by Ryan Bancroft’s flexible handling of tempo so a welcome melodic spontaneity came to the fore. No undiscovered masterpiece, but an appealing work that doubtless fulfilled its remit back then and could do so again today.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has never lacked for performances during the 177 years of its existence such that familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least a certain predictability. Credit to Clara-Jumi Kang for reminding one how (to quote David Kettle’s apt description in the programme) ‘‘quietly innovative’’ the piece is as to formal continuity and motivic fluidity. Not that this was a low-key or understated reading – Kang bringing out the combative side of the opening Allegro (‘appassionato’ it duly was), not least her impetuous take on the central cadenza whose developmental function was tellingly underlined. The Andante melded warm lyricism and plaintive regret to a bewitching effect then, after its teasing entrée, the animated repartee of the finale was deftly rendered through to a vivacious coda and decisive conclusion.

Now in his early thirties, Bancroft (above) is into his second season as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and takes up a similar post with Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2023. This account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony left little doubt as to his interpretative credentials, not least with a finely proportioned yet impulsive reading of the initial Allegretto, then an Andante as lacked in little in that formal focus essential if its fervour is not to become histrionic. To which, an attacca from one movement to the other might have been beneficial.

The latter movements run continuously in any case – and, after a scherzo by turns tensile and tender, the transition was unerringly handled such that the finale hit the ground running. This can easily become discursive or even sprawl but, with its ‘big tune’ kept in check and starkly modal second theme keenly ominous, it built purposefully and with some inevitability to an apotheosis that, while it evinced more in the way of triumph than catharsis, none the less set the seal on an idiomatic performance with the CBSO woodwind and brass often at their best.

After an evening of Stephen Sondheim (now the more poignant following his death last November), then chief conductor designate Kazudi Yamada returns on Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 January in a programme of Strauss, Mozart and Mahler.

For more information on the next concerts with Kazudi Yamada you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Clara Jumi-Kang and Ryan Bancroft.

In concert – CBSO / Eduardo Strausser – Viennese New Year

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Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus (1874) – Overture; Tritsch-Tratsch, Op. 214 (1858)
Johann Strauss II / Josef Strauss Pizzicato Polka, Op. 335 (1869)
Lehár Die lustige Witwe (1905) – Vilja
Johann Strauss II Vergnügungszug, Op. 281 (1863-4); Im Krapfenwald’l, Op. 336 (1869); Frühlingsstimmen, Op. 410 (1882); Die Zigeunerbaron (1885) – Einzegsmarsch
Lehár Giuditta (1934) – Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss
Johann Strauss II Wiener Bonbons, Op. 307 (1866)
Josef Strauss Feuerfest!, Op. 269 (1869)
Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus (1874) – Mein Herr Marquis; Unter Donner und Blitz, Op. 324 (1868); An der schönen, blauen Donau, Op. 314 (1866)
Johann Strauss I Radetzky Marsch, Op. 228 (1848)

Jennifer France (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Eduardo Strausser

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 9 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The global reach of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual event, not to mention the world-wide jamborees masterminded by André Rieu, may have rendered the Viennese New Year concert  from a wholly new perspective, but its content and purpose remain essentially the same – as was evident in this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which has long emerged from its Christmas break with such a programme as was performed this afternoon; a smattering of novelties complementing the evergreens whose absence would be unthinkable.

His introductions may have been intermittent, but Brazilian conductor Eduardo Strausser was an engaging exponent of Johann Strauss II’s music – not least the overture to his operetta The Bat that, after a halting start, unfolded with a sure sense of where this ingenious medley of its main items was headed. The rhythmic verve of the Tritsch-Tratsch polka was exactly caught, as also the nonchalance of the Pizzicato polka (in collaboration with Josef Strauss, too often neglected next to his famous sibling). Jennifer France joined the CBSO for a winning take on the ‘Vilja’ aria from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, hearing it in English a reminder of this operetta’s massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the heady élan of Strauss’s Excursion Train polka then the rustic charm of his In Krapfen’s Woods polka – its plethora of birdcalls effortlessly dispatched by the orchestra’s percussion – she returned for the Voices of Spring waltz, heard in its unexpected while effective vocal guise with verse by Robert Genée which made for a concert aria such as brought this first half to its close in impressive fashion.

The Entrance March from Strauss’s operetta The Gypsy Baron provided a suitably rousing entrée into the second half, Jennifer France duly raising the stakes with her sensual reading of the aria My lips give so fiery a kiss from Léhar’s musical comedy Giuditta, then Strausser drew unexpected pathos from Strauss’s Vienna Bonbons waltz – its title belying the music’s elegance and subtlety; quite a contrast, indeed, with Josef Strauss’s roof-raising Anvil polka-française (and a favourite of this writer since first encountering it on an anthology from the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra decades ago). The scintillating repartee of My lord marquis (aka Adele’s Laughing Song) from The Bat enabled Jennifer France to bow out in fine style, then it was on to the rip-roaring swagger of the Thunder and Lightning polka that once more kept the percussion section fully occupied.

The advertised programme came to an end with On the Beautiful Blue Danube waltz – a piece which never quite measures up to its evocative opening, even though Strausser drew enticements aplenty from the CBSO players. There followed the inevitable encore of Johann Strauss I’s Radetzky March, early regarded as having immortalized the Field Marshal who, as a master tactician (and putative war criminal) helped to maintain the Habsburg Empire’s dominance longer than might otherwise have been the case. Not an issue for those who clapped along to Strausser’s alert prompting, rounding off in fine style the start to this second half of the CBSO’s season which continues this Thursday with Ryan Bancroft for a programme featuring Coleridge-Taylor, Mendelssohn and Sibelius.

For more information on the forthcoming Ryan Bancroft concert, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Eduardo Strasser and Jennifer France.

In concert – Raphael Wallfisch, CBSO / Gergely Madaras: New Worlds – Sibelius, Jonathan Dove & Dvořák

gergely-madaras

Sibelius Finlandia Op.26 (1899)
Dove In Exile (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Raphael Wallfisch (cello, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gergely Madaras

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 9 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra amounted to a themed programme with late 19th century evergreens by Sibelius and Dvořák framing another of this orchestra’s Centenary Commissions in the first UK performance of a major work from Jonathan Dove.

In his introductory remarks, Dove spoke of In Exile as a hybrid of cantata, operatic scena and concerto; a fusion that has surprisingly few antecedents – one being Concerto on Old English Rounds by William Schuman, with viola and chorus as ‘soloists’. Here the roles were taken by baritone and cello during a half-hour piece whose texts, adapted by Dove’s regular librettist Alasdair Middleton, examine the state of exile from a perspective less about those emotions experienced in the adoptive country than of sensations evoked by what has been left behind.

Drawing on Medieval sources, Dante and Shakespeare then, from the early 20th-century, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and Irish scholar Douglas Hyde, to the Iranian-American Kaveh Bassiri, In Exile unfolds as a formally continuous and emotionally cumulative sequence whose traversal from the general to the specific is complemented by its undulating texture, enhanced with resourceful writing for strings and tuned percussion, which graphically evokes a journey of the mind as well as body. Simon Keenlyside gave a powerful rendering of the vocal part in all its burnished rhetoric, while Raphael Wallfisch (to whose mother, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, this piece is dedicated) was no less searching as his ‘alter ego’ whose role takes in several exacting cadenza-like passages. Certainly, a work that should bear repeated hearings.

Making his debut with the CBSO, Gergely Madaras conducted with a sure sense of where this piece was headed, having opened the concert with a gripping account of Finlandia. Sibelius’s apostrophizing of his homeland can descend into bathos – Madaras ensuring otherwise in this tensile reading whose sombre brass, supplicatory woodwind and strings, then dashing central episode led into a lilting take on what became Finland’s unofficial national anthem, before the peroration urged the music on to a conclusion whose grandeur was shot-through with defiance.

There was equally much to admire in Dvořák’s New World after the interval, even though this was essentially a performance of two halves. Madaras’s listless way with the first movement’s introduction set the tone for a rather terse and short-winded account (made the more so by its lack of exposition repeat) of the Allegro, while Rachael Pankhurst’s eloquent rendering of the Largo’s soulful melody was hardly enhanced by peremptory changes in tempo, notably in the tense middle section. Not so the Scherzo, its coursing outer sections ideally complemented by the whimsical trio at its centre, then the final Allegro brought an impulsive response that kept its histrionics on a firm rein yet without losing sight of an intently growing momentum whose outcome was a powerfully wrought apotheosis – its radiant closing chord judged to perfection.

So, a well-conceived and finely executed concert featuring a conductor who will hopefully be returning in due course. The CBSO has three Choral Christmas concerts coming up later this month, then can be heard on January 9th in a Viennese New Year programme to see in 2022.

For more information on ‘A Choral Christmas’ click here. For more information on the January – July 2022 CBSO season, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Jonathan Dove, Gergely Madaras, Sir Simon Keenlyside and Raphael Wallfisch.

In concert – Hockley Social Club & the CBSO present: Symphonic Sessions 2 – Ooh la la

2021.12.02 - Hockley Social Club Symphonic Sessions - cr. Hannah Fathers-5185

Symphonic Sessions 2 – Ooh la la

Emer/Piaf J’m’en fous pas mal (1946)
Milhaud Suite Op.157b – Jeu (1936)
Lili Boulanger Nocturne, ILB10 No. 2 (1911)
Satie Gymnopédie No. 1, IES26 No. 1 (1888)
Gould Benny’s Gig – VI, Calypso; VII, Jaunty (1962)
Khachaturian Clarinet Trio in G minor – Allegro (1932)
Louiguy/Piaf La vie en rose (1947)

Gilles Les trois cloches (1940)
Tiersen Amélie – Comptine d’un autre été (2001)
Debussy Première rhapsodie, ICD73 (1909-10)
Gershwin Shall We Dance – Walking the Dog (1937)
Stravinsky L’Histoire du soldat, Suite – Tango, Valse, Ragtime; Danse du diable (1919)
Tormé/Wells The Christmas Song (1945)
Glanzberg/Contet Padam, padam… (1951)

Gabrielle Ducomble (singer), Oliver Janes (clarinet), Colette Overdijk (violin), Julian Atkinson (double bass), James Keefe (piano)

Hockley Social Club, Birmingham
Thursday 2 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photos courtesy of Hannah Fathers

It might not have featured the eponymous song from John Cale, but this ‘Ooh la la’ certainly had more than its share of surprises in among the entertainment. The artistic and commercial success of the first Symphonic Sessions event held back in October meant that its successor, once again co-presented by Hockley Social Club (a beacon of light in the dreary surrounding of Newtown) and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, would not be long in coming. Soon enough for this to have taken on anticipations of Christmas in its overall aura, and with a cabaret element provided by Belgian chanteuse Gabrielle Ducomble, whose cover-versions of Édith Piaf have previously (and rightly) attracted widespread plaudits. The stage, or raised platform towards the centre of the venue, was ready for another varied and enjoyable evening.

The first set duly got off to a striking start with Michel Emer’s J’m’en fous pas mal, Gabrielle Ducomble bringing out the world-weariness of lyrics which Piaf all too easily made her own; and to which Jeu, third movement of Milhaud’s Suite for clarinet, violin and piano, provided a vivacious foil. The evocative poise of Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne was elegantly conveyed by Colette Overdijk, then James Keefe drew surprising nuances from electric piano for the first of Satie’s Gymnopédies. Oliver Janes and Julian Atkinson enjoyed putting two numbers from Morton Gould’s suite Benny’s Gig through their paces, the central scherzo of Khachaturian’s Clarinet Trio most engaging with its alternate vigour and suavity. Ducomble’s take on Louis Guglielmi’s La vie en rose, Piaf’s signature-song, brought this set to a warmly eloquent close.

After a ‘dessert interlude’, the second set found Ducomble leaving her mark on Jean Villard Gilles’s Les trois cloches (a Piaf song introduced to a new generation by Tina Arena), before the ‘Theme’ from Yann Tiersen’s music for the film Amélie injected an appealing whimsy. A sure highlight was Janes’s rendering of Debussy’s Première rhapsodie, sensuous and poetic by turns, then perfectly complemented by the coy jauntiness of Gershwin’s Walking the Dog (aka Promenade). Four dance pieces from the suite for violin, clarinet and piano arranged by Stravinsky from L’Histoire du soldat received an incisive response, then Ducomble offered a soulful take on Mel Tormé’s evergreen The Christmas Song. The faux affirmation of Norbert Glanzberg’s Padam, Padam… saw this Piaf-centred programme to its gently fatalistic ending.

Probably the only thing not really evident over the course of this evening was the ‘‘specially dressed bohemian finery of a rather festive feeling Hockley Social Club’’ as was detailed on the promotional flyer, but no matter. The reaction from a capacity house was never less than enthusiastic – doubtless abetted by the variety of food and drink (including another designer cocktail) available, with DJ sets from Pritt Kalsi which enhanced the ambience between the live music-making. Incidentally, those who enjoyed Gabrielle Ducomble’s singing can hear her in residence at London’s Brasserie Zédel in the final week of December, and Symphonic Sessions will be back in action sometime next spring – now established as an attraction well beyond the confines of B19 and likely to remain so throughout 2022, and hopefully beyond.

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Further information on Symphonic Sesions can be found here. For more information on Gabrielle Ducomble click here, and head to the Brasserie Zédel website for details on her residence there.