Symphony Hall ****
There was something decidedly Hollywood about the works framing this mouthwatering programme, John Adams’ The Chairman Dances glitzily cinematographic, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances a swansong reflecting the American influences interweaving with his Russian roots. The word “Dances” is an obvious link, too, and there is plenty of rhythmic life energising both scores.
Under Ryan Bancroft’s shapely, batonless conducting the CBSO gave a neat, pulsating account of the Adams, dynamics ebbing and flowing like a heartbeat, bass lines chugging and driving, the entire textures building both tension and exhilaration. Episodes – a schmaltzy waltz, a louche fox-trot -- were well characterised, and the horns set up a noble peroration before the music faded away, Dawn Hardwick’s piano tinkling over exotically atmospheric percussion.
Physical (if not emotional) respite came with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, CBSO Principal Oliver Janes the soloist popular with orchestra and packed audience (gratifyingly with many school parties) alike. His was a rippling, flowing account, his tone on a conventional instrument (without the basset-clarinet lower extension) soothingly even throughout the range, and with a well-judged ability to highlight important notes within the busy figurations.
A reduced CBSO listened to their colleague with sympathetic ears, they and Bancroft responding to every nuance of the slightest rubato, and it was heartwarming how Janes joined in with his mates for the concluding tutti.
(Then came a personal shock: I don’t really think classical audiences welcome the kind of muzak playing in the loos during the interval).
Sir Simon Rattle once told me how he at last found the CBSO “sound” when he recorded the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances with them at the Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh. Since then, of course, the orchestra has had the work very much in its blood, and what showed in Bancroft’s account was the sheer gorgeousness of string sound (not least the violas, with a deservedly extended ovation at the end, the interweaving flexibility of the woodwind (wonderfully emotive saxophony from Kyle Horch, the incisiveness of the brass (never stentorian), and the deft detail of the percussion, Matthew Hardy’s timpani truly scary in what is basically a dance of death – ending with redemption brought by a quote from Rachmaninov’s disastrously-premiered First Symphony conquering the Dies Irae chant which had been a thread through all his composing career.
My only quibble was Bancroft sometimes overdoing the languorousness of episodes setting up the next outburst of energy. I’ll forgive the enthusiasm of the audience erupting in applause while the concluding tam-tam stroke was dying away, an effect Rachmaninov worked so hard on, and on which Simon Rattle determinedly insisted.
PS As a footnote, I am about to lock horns with Birmingham City Council (somehow operating under the mysterious name Navigation Street Car Park) about a fine I incurred whilst reviewing this concert. I had secured the dreamiest parking space in Kingston Row, but the vending machine wasn’t working. I walked to the next one, miles away in Edward Street; that wasn’t working either. I tried to pay the £3.70 charge from my mobile, but apparently that facility has been suspended because something went wrong when I was parking in St Ives, Huntingdon, 16 months ago. By this time it was too late to fiddle with trying to download apps and what-have-you, so I wrote an explanatory note and left it clearly visible on the dashboard. Obviously the Civil Enforcement Officer thought I was a liar, trying it on.