A Gimmick Too Far

CBSO at Symphony Hall

Music: + ★★★★★


What a review of a CBSO concert should be exclusively concerned with is the music making. I make this glaringly self-evident and undeniable point simply because the way in which it was presented and packaged makes it impossible to do so. This is a source of regret because the performances of Richard Strauss’s ‘Don Quixote’ and Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’, symphony were not merely very fine but blazed, coruscated and invigorated. The CBSO’s energy and glorious playing, inspired by the irrepressible Kazuki Yamada, were a joy to hear. These performances were gems, brilliant diamonds which deserved a setting worthy of them rather than a visual “Concept” of incredible vacuity, banality and distracting irrelevance.

The CBSO’s new Chief Executive Officer Emma Stenning, microphone in hand, welcomed us to her brave new world and exhorted us to share our opinions of it with her. Read on Ms Stenning. Anyone who missed this can download her two page draft “Vision Statement''. Ezekiel had a vision of God on his throne; St John, one of the Apocalypse; the Holy Spirit was revealed to St Teresa in a vision. To Ms Stenning has been revealed a vision of the CBSO’s future. Moses brought down stone tablets inscribed with Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai – her vision has yielded Five Resolutions. It’s the fashion for Fives nowadays as in Rishi “Stop the Boats” Sunak’s Five Pledges. The Five Resolutions include startling and novel ideas such as: respecting the players, staff and audiences; sharing musical experiences and extending the orchestra’s reputation. Why has no one thought of such things before? Like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk – “to boldly go, where no man has gone before” – Ms Stenning enthusiastically employs the split infinitive promising, “to boldly join the conversation about what future orchestral concerts might become.” This will involve collaboration with a new “Artistic Director (or directors)” in making “transformative” concerts.

This was the first such concert. I have now seen this vision of the future and was made sore afraid. Well no actually, I was immensely irritated, bored witless and occasionally moved to ironic laughter. Here was a brilliant performance of Strauss’s inventive tone poem as he intended with the roles of Don Quixote (cello) and Sancho Panza (viola) taken not by star soloists (as has become the norm) but by orchestral principals – step forward Eduardo Vassallo and Chris Yates. Vassallo was a noble and dignified Don, passionate in his madness and romantic delusions, with Yates a sober and restrained Sancho leaving the humour to the raspberry-blowing lower brass. All the episodes were sharply delineated with some deliciously daft baa-ing sheep. It took the combined talents of Tom Morris, Rod Maclachlan (“renowned video designer”) and lighting designer Zeynep Kepekli to come up with what accompanied it. Three screens showing some of Gustav Dore’s Quixote engravings, close-ups of the players and an embarrassed Vassallo, in the dressing room, waving his bow around like Quixote’s sword. And some cue cards – one was helpfully labelled “Interval” for those who hadn’t worked out why people were leaving their seats and going to the bar. Whatever the hire of the cameras, lighting rig and staff to wield it cost was too much. Ironically a concert designed to be “accessible” involved shutting off all the cheap choir seats.

Kazuki’s approach to the ‘Eroica’ was pleasingly full-bodied, big-boned and old school. No concessions to “authentic” style clipped phrasing and prissiness: right from the off, those two confrontational cards-on-the-table E flat chords we were in for a titanic tussle. Every section of the orchestra was outstanding from the rock-steady basses to the plangent wind in the funeral march and Elspeth Dutch’s horn section on top form. The jazz-band practice of getting soloists to stand when playing was acceptable for wind players – but whole fiddle sections in choreographed up-and-down motion looked daft. No dafter, however, than the accompanying slide show of famous faces. Beethoven and Napoleon (obviously) but also photos of the players’ favourite people. Nice to know someone admires Victoria Wood as much as I do but what's it got to do with Beethoven? I suspect she’ll be laughing at this pretentious nonsense from her place in Comedy Heaven. The orchestra’s performance was greeted with deserved enthusiasm, with a fine send off for second violin section leader Peter Campbell-Kelly after fourteen years service.

Norman Stinchcombe

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