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

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 photos (c) Beki Smith (above) and Florian Wende (below)

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.

broadway-baby

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

Live review – English Music Festival opening night: BBC Concert Orchestra & Martin Yates play Robin Milford, Stanford, Vaughan Williams & Arnold

Sergey Livitin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra / Martin Yates

Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames
Friday 24 May 2019

Berners Portsmouth Point (1918) [World premiere]
Arnold Serenade Op.26 (1950)
Stanford Violin Concerto in D major (1875) [First public performance]
Vaughan Williams orch. Yates The Blue Bird (1913) [First public performance]
Delius A Song before Sunrise (1918)
Milford Symphony no.2 Op.34 (1933) [World premiere]

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Picture of BBC Concert Orchestra (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke

The 13th English Music Festival got off to an impressive start this evening, with Martin Yates presiding over the BBC Concert Orchestra for a substantial and wide-ranging programme that brought together the hitherto unknown and the relatively familiar in appropriate EMF fashion.

Who else would provide a platform for a first public performance of the Violin Concerto in D major that Stanford wrote at Leipzig in his mid-20s but which, despite the seeming approval of Joachim, remained unheard before being recorded two years ago. Admittedly the first movement rather outstays its welcome, the themes lacking memorability and a solo part not ideally contrasted with the orchestra, but the slow Intermezzo has an appealing poise; its cadenza artfully made an extended transition into the final Rondo (a procedure likely taken over from Wieniawski’s Second Concerto – the model in several respects), its winsome second theme brought back as a lingering coda prior to the closing flourish. Sergey Levitin proved an able and sympathetic soloist in a piece which, whatever its stylistic limitations, was certainly worth rehabilitating.

As too was the incidental music Vaughan Williams devised for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, idiomatically orchestrated from the piano score by Yates. This is essentially a ballet (or rather mime) sequence for the end of the first act, its series of thematically related dances striking a fantastical note such as the composer tellingly (if unexpectedly?) conveys. It may well have proved too ambitious in its original context though makes for a lively and imaginative suite, into whose whimsical spirit the BBCCO entered with evident enjoyment.

Malcolm Arnold’s Serenade exemplifies this composer’s early maturity with its pert melodic writing, harmonic ambiguity and rhythmic impetus. A Song before Sunrise is less often heard than other Delius miniatures, but its ruminative mood – barely ruffled by passing shadows, is no less characteristic. It could not have been more different from Lord Berners’s Portsmouth Point, redolent of early Prokofiev in its mechanistic aggression that, if it lacks the ebullience of Walton’s later overture, still packs an uninhibited punch when presented as a curtain-raiser.

The concert ended with its most intriguing item. Long considered a miniaturist (at least in his expressive scope), Robin Milford was not lacking in ambition – as reinforced by his Second Symphony (so designated following the rediscovery of its predecessor from six years earlier), admired by Vaughan Williams but only now receiving its first complete performance. Its four movements ostensibly reflect classical archetypes, but the first of these modulates ever more stealthily as it unfolds, while the scherzo’s latter trio unexpectedly opens-out the expressive range. The highlight is undoubtedly a slow movement of sustained and cumulative emotional depth, closer to Nielsen than Sibelius in tonal follow-through; after which, the (intentionally?) concise finale barely manages to provide a decisive resolution without seeming perfunctory.

Not in doubt was the commitment of the BBCCO and Yates in realizing this dark horse among British inter-war symphonies. A fitting end to an absorbing event: good to hear that orchestra and conductor will be returning for the 14th EMF – scheduled for May 20th–22nd next year.

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on a date as yet unknown. Much of the music is not currently available in recorded versions on Spotify. However EM Records, the label who run the festival, made this enterprising release of Stanford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, coupled with Robin Milford‘s Violin Concerto no.2, both with soloist Rupert Marshall-Luck:

For more Robin Milford this album on Toccata Classics provides great insight into his writing for chamber music forces:

Meanwhile the following playlist includes the Malcolm Arnold and Delius works, the more familiar version of Portsmouth Point by Sir William Walton, and Arnold’s Symphony no.1: