SINFONIA OF BIRMINGHAM                                            All Saints Church, Leamington Spa ****   It is now 30 years since a small group of enthusiasts assembled a new orchestra, the Sinfonia of Birmingham, for a concert in St Mary’s Church, Moseley. Since then the orchestra has grown to acclaim not only in its home city, but also in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy   “185 concerts, 55 venues, 28 conductors, 27 leaders, 64 soloists, and counting!” emblazons the programme-book for last Sunday’s anniversary concert in one of the Sinfonia’s favourite venues. This is such a friendly orchestra, friendly both within its ranks and also in its outreaching to a supportive audience, and the warmth it engenders was clearly in evidence in the otherwise chilly but impressive All Saints Church. Michael Seal, a much-loved long-time regular conductor of SoB, presided over a programme in which the number 5 was predominant. A Fistful of Fives b
                LONGBOROUGH FESTIVAL OPERA – the first 30 years As a young man Martin Graham dreamed of bringing opera to his sleepy home patch nestling in the Cotswolds, and Richard Bratby’s beautiful new book describes the exciting thirty years since that dream began to come to fruition. “Longborough Festival Opera – the first 30 years” details the Grahams’ invitation to Travelling Opera to present productions in the grounds of their house at Banks Fee, on the outskirts of Longborough, it tells of Martin’s hands-on building of a functioning opera-house and his struggle with the local council objecting to its existence and subsequently to the pink colouring of its façade, and later of his victory over HM Revenues and Customs over VAT-exemption (something which benefited arts organisations nationwide). It was not long before visits from travelling companies became unnecessary, with the formation of the thriving organisation which gloried into Longborough Festival Opera. During th
  Boris Giltburg at Birmingham Town Hall  ★★★ Both on disc and in recital it has become accepted that a performance of Rachmaninov’s Preludes should begin with his earliest, the C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2. While this makes chronological sense it’s poor showmanship since, such is its popularity and barnstorming impact, everything that follows can be an anti-climax. So it proved here. After its premiere in 1899 Rachmaninov played it as an encore – due to audience demand – at virtually every appearance until his death in 1943. It would have made him a fortune if he hadn’t sold the copyright for a one-off fee, just as Sibelius did with ‘Valse Triste’, to his lifelong regret. Giltburg made the sinister tolling bell-like opening chords suitably impressive and then lightened his tone so that their eventual return had the doom-laden impact the piece demands. Like the agonies of a man being buried alive – as one female fan wrote to the composer. This hints at a problem when the recital programme
  White-hot Brahms Symphony No.4 lights up the evening CBSO at Symphony Hall  ★★★★ With only a month of shopping days left, the majority of the nation’s married men are searching for a solution to seasonal domestic harmony – what to buy the wife for Christmas. Imagine if she had been born on December 24 with the combined conundrum of finding special birthday and Christmas presents. Not a problem if you’re one of the world’s greatest musical geniuses: no traipsing around the shops of Lucerne for Richard Wagner. Instead he composed the sublime ‘Siegfried Idyll’ for his wife Cosima, gathering sixteen musicians who squeezed themselves onto the staircase leading to the bedroom where she slept on Christmas morning 1870. What an offering – a Boots gift voucher can’t compete. Daniele Rustioni, using the familiar format with augmented strings, conducted a very broad performance almost pointillistic with vivid individual details – Siegfried’s sylvan horn and the flute’s twittering forest bird –
  Birmingham Bach Choir St Paul’s Church , Hockley– 18 th November 2023   ****   Opening a splendid concert by the Birmingham Bach Choir, appropriately billed as containing radiant choral masterpieces, was JS Bach’s joyous short motet Furchte dich nicht , reputedly composed for a funeral in 1726. This is a work which is notoriously difficult to interpret and execute successfully, but on this occasion the piece was authoritatively yet sensitively directed by conductor Paul Spicer, with the choir giving an assured performance which impressed me. Set for double chorus, there are plenty of vocal challenges, which were well met by the choir, with both halves of the choir complimenting each other perfectly, coming together beautifully for the three-part fugue chorale.   With twice as many sopranos and altos than tenors and basses, I felt that the male voices sometimes struggled to be heard in Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater , despite the sopranos being divided into 4 parts. An impres
  Glorious Schumann C Major Symphony lights up the concert CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ The ‘Spring’ and ‘Rhenish’ may be more popular but Schumann’s second symphony is surely his greatest. Richard Egarr agreed and conducted a performance of immense vitality, studied detail and great beauty, played superbly by every section of the CBSO. Egarr’s engaging and informative prefatory talk cited Bach as the keystone to the work: the old master being both a musical and spiritual inspiration for Schumann’s fervid genius and troubled soul. Egarr preceded the symphony with an orchestral arrangement of Bach’s short and cryptic ‘Fuga a tre soggetti’, from the immense and unfinished ‘Art of the Fugue’. I’m sure that both talk and music helped newcomers in understanding Schumann’s sublime Adagio where as a response to its disturbing sepulchral opening figure, rising from Stygian basses to tremolando high strings plus the bleak loneliness of the cries in the wilderness from solo oboe and clarinet, ther
  Alleaume’s Violetta is La Traviata’s jewel in the crown ‘ La Traviata’, Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★★★ What’s the most challenging soprano role in  Verdi ?  Surely it’s the  lung-busting,  double-octave leap ing  Abigaille  in ‘Nabucco’. Giuseppina Strepponi created the role and sang the  first  eight performances.  She had to take  a year  off  to recover.  When Verdi proposed marriage  Giuseppina agreed  but  only on condition that  she never had to  sing  Abigaille  again. Violetta  in ‘ La Traviata’,  however,  requires much more  than just sheer vocal firepower. Versatility both stylistically and emotionally  is needed for  three contrasting acts: stupendous  coloratura flamboyance; delicacy and emotional subtlety  for intimate scenes; immense pathos, without mawkishness,  but concentrated projection,  at her death. Violetta is the  opera’s  eponymous heroine – it’s her show and  that  demands star quality.  Without doubt the Australian soprano  Stacey Allea
  Ligeti’s wonderful and wacky concerto steals the show CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ On his visit to Count Dracula, Jonathan Harker is startled by the eerie sound of howling wolves outside the castle. Transylvania’s most famous son responds with the immortal line: “Listen to them—the children of the night. What music they make!” What is disturbing and disorientating to Harker is mellifluous to the vampire. I was reminded of these differing responses when listening to a brilliant performance of the violin concerto by Transylvania’s second most famous son – the composer György Ligeti. In a welcome and entertaining short introduction to the work the bright young Australian conductor Nicholas Carter said finding parts of it funny and frightening were both apt responses. Soloist Carolin Widmann encompassed all its dazzlingly eclectic array of styles, allusions and parodies. The Praeludium has the players – few strings, lots of percussion – in a hesitating start like Edgar Varese’s leg-pull ‘T
                                             EUROPEAN UNION CHAMBER ORCHESTRA                                            Great Hall, Malvern College **** Now over 30 years in existence, the perennially enterprising Autumn in Malvern Festival welcomed the engaging European Union Chamber Orchestra for its concluding concert, something which has developed into an endearing tradition, sponsored by the Elmley Foundation and the Prokofiev family. Conductorless, they have the benefit of a nifty concertmaster, deft in securing clean, clear entries and arresting in his communication of dynamics. The sound from these 13 strings, however, was disembodied and thin for the opening of Rudolf Barshai’s orchestration of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives for piano, though there was plenty of measured wit where appropriate. Award-winning pianist Yuzhang Li was soloist in Mozart’s Concerto no.12 in A , K414, the EUCO collaborating with warmly-turned phrasing and an excellent balance with the piano. Y
  BIRMINGHAM SCHOOLCHILDREN TAKE UP WILLIAM BYRD’S “REASONS TO SING”                                            By Christopher Morley Four hundred years after the death of William Byrd, the great Elizabethan and Jacobean composer’s spirit lives on in the young voices of well over 100 Birmingham schoolchildren singing in the premiere of Kerry Andrew’s new Byrd-inspired commission at the Barber Institute on November 8. They will join the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico and Horizon Voice as the culmination of a project instigated by Dr Katie Bank of the University of Birmingham. In his own preface to his ‘Psalmes, Sonets and songs of sadness and pietie’ of 1588, Byrd listed eight reasons why singing is so beneficial to all, including curing stammering, and concluded with the injunction “Sing singing is so good a thing I wish all men would learn to sing”. Kerry Andrew has followed in the footsteps of her great predecessor, whose description as England’s Nightingale gives it
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases George Walker:’Five Sinfonias’ National Symphony Orchestra / Noseda (NSO CD / SACD) ★★★★★ He published 90 musical works including four concertos, piano sonatas, string quartets, songs and a mass. As a concert pianist his repertoire included the second concertos of Rachmaninoff and Brahms. He was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. For Simon Rattle, he was simply, “by any measure a great composer.” So why have so few of us in Britain heard of George Walker? Walker, who died in 2018 aged 96, wrote eclectic music which doesn’t fit into easy categories like minimalism, jazz or avant-garde. This new disc is an excellent introduction to Walker’s world featuring five short Sinfonias, composed between 1984-2016 and lasting between ten and sixteen minutes. The first three are in two or three movements, No.4 ‘Strands’ and No.5 ‘Visions’ are single spans. The Washington-based orchestra, under Gianandrea Nose
  Their National Orchestra does Ukraine Proud National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine at Symphony Hall ★★★★ An enthusiastic audience gave a standing ovation to the Ukrainian orchestra on the Birmingham leg of their European tour. The opening piece combined patriotism and power: the tone poem ‘Grazhyna’ by Ukrainian composer Boris Lyatosynsky. Although written in 1955 it’s a romantic throwback to the style of Smetana’s ‘Ma Vlast’ but instead of his fierce and murderous warrior maiden Šárka, Lyatosynsky celebrates the noble Lithuanian princess Grazhyna who leads the troops into battle in defence of her country. The orchestra’s music director Volodymyr Sirenko conducted the huge orchestral forces – including snare and bass drums and harp – sans baton but with expressive and cajoling hands. It began with Grazhyna’s delicate plangent theme on cor anglais with disturbing wisps of sound from the wind, violas and second violins, depicting ominous forebodings of the invasion to come. Sirenko’s d
  Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra 80 th   anniversary concert Birmingham Town Hall   5 stars *****   Eighty years is a ripe age for any orchestra, and two years after Covid scuppered the planned anniversary concert, the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra didn’t stint on what was actually its 82 nd  birthday celebration. The BPO had assembled a chorus specially for the occasion, and with representatives from (among others) Birmingham Bach Choir, Wolverhampton Chamber Choir, Dudley Choral Society and Walsall Choral Society, what was billed as a birthday party for the West Midlands’ pre-eminent amateur orchestra actually served as a much wider showcase for regional amateur music making at its most buoyant.    You wouldn’t have guessed that this was an  ad hoc  choir: tuning was secure, ensemble was tight and the tone glowed, especially up top. With the entire first half devoted to Elgar’s  The Music Makers –  the last masterpiece thar Egar created specifically to be sung here in Birmingh