CBSO opening concert at refurbished Symphony Hall


Symphony Hall
It was like going back 30 years to Symphony Hall's entry into the world. Much of the excitement we felt on that heady night was relived when one of the world's greatest performance venues opened its doors to a live audience for the first time in many months.
And what doors they were, portals into a newly-refurbished foyer and bar (with cosy booths running down the side), revealing stunning vistas of Centenary Square, and accommodating new spaces on three floors providing additional performance areas. "We hope that there will be at least one performance a day from September onwards", a genial steward proudly told me.
But chief cause for excitement on this sunny spring afternoon was the opening concert of an extended series from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, mouthwatering programmes delivered twice (early afternoon and early evening) every Wednesday until the beginning of July.
Symphony Hall's efficiently-organised social distancing on three levels meant we could only be a small audience -- approaching 500 in the afternoon, with 600 expected in the evening --, all bemasked, but the thrill in the air was palpable.
The stage was the deepest I have ever seen it, ranging from the front extension right back to the original acoustic panels ranged round its rear curve. Apparently these had never been used before, but here they succeeded both in warming the sound and reflecting it back into the auditorium. There were no risers, so that social distancing of 80 players -- the largest symphony orchestra performing in these lockdown times -- could be accomplished.
And the acoustic effect was amazing. Every player was cast into individual focus (no hiding behind your desk-partner), but ensemble remained breathtaking whilst detail emerged so natural and clear.
Clarinettist Joanna Patton welcomed us back with such warm emotion, and it was evident that the players were thrilled to be performing to a live audience whose reactions could galvanise their adrenaline (and we were so thrilled to be able cast our eyes around the stage instead of squinting at a cramped computer screen).
Edward Gardner, such a CBSO favourite following his many years as Principal Guest Conductor, gave us an equally emotional welcome, praising "this great orchestra in this great hall".
It was all systems go. Stephen Hough, another great CBSO favourite, was soloist in Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto no.4 (his recording of all five concertos with Sakari Oramo conducting the orchestra was Gramophone magazine's "Record of the Year", as had been an earlier recording of the two Mendelssohn Concertos, the CBSO conducted by Lawrence Foster on that occasion).
This is a quirky piece, veering eccentrically between moods and styles (incidentally, sometimes evoking the structure and procedures of the "Organ" Symphony, that great CBSO warhorse of yore), and Hough brought an almost jazz-style rumination to its opening, whilst displaying technical fireworks elsewhere, all beautifully coloured and speaking so clearly through the orchestral texture. Dynamics from both soloist and orchestra, were vividly shaded, and Gardner and his players collaborated with both smoothness of phrasing and pointedness of rhythm.
Missy Mazzoli's Violent, Violent Sea proved a much more worthwhile piece than her programme-note made us fear (composers should never be allowed to click the "send" button when writing about their own music).
It begins with a slow-moving, elegiac undertow, keyed percussion glittering like seahorses on the surf, and creates fluent, well-imagined sonorities, often built over motoric figurations, before the music winds down to a questioning conclusion under the keening of a solo viola. This is the marine equivalent of a pastoral tone-poem, and the epic grandeur of Sibelius is often evoked.
But so is the majesty of Debussy's La Mer, which rounded off this wonderful occasion. Gardner drew from this more-than-willing orchestra subtly pulsating undercurrents, alert to the inherent sadness of much of De l'Aube a Midi sur la Mer, and inspiring the cello section in the athleticism of their dance (how unrealistic Debussy was, expecting 16 of them, subdivided into fours).
The shimmering central Jeux de Vagues burst into a swirling waltz, and we then moved straight into the spray-swept drama of the concluding Dialogue du Vent et de la Mer. Gardner captured well the stillness interrupting the inexorable driving forces of the sea until we arrived at the proud, noble ending, sealing a performance so well-balanced and so exhilarating as we breathed the tangy air of nature at its most free.
Christopher Morley

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