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  The CBSO Benevolent Fund Concert CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ There could never have been any doubt of Sakari Oramo’s credentials as an Elgarian – he was awarded the Elgar Medal in 2008 for his efforts in advancing the composer’s music. His 2014 recording of 'Cockaigne', with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, is a personal favourite and Oramo’s grip on its phantasmagoric moods, variety of tone and instant switches between hearty bluster and romantic musing were demonstrated in a brilliantly played CBSO performance. Those difficult to negotiate mood changes start in the first few bars; here it was if we had access to Elgar’s thoughts. The “Stout and steaky” aspects of the overture were rollickingly well done, the musical equivalent of cockneys, thumbs in waistcoat and arms akimbo, strutting down the old Kent Road. The brass and percussion relished the military march but the beautiful melody – sounding like an early draft of the violin concerto – was caressed lovingly b
  I graduated as BMus with Honours from the University of Birmingham in the summer of 1969. That autumn I was thrilled to be commissioned to review for the Birmingham Post a concert promoted by what was then one of the city’s most august musical organisations. It was not long after that that the Post’s music critic, Kenneth Dommett, invited me to become his assistant; musical activity in the city and region was burgeoning, and he could no longer handle it all on his own, particularly since the newspaper had the entree to review events throughout the country, such as at Covent Garden, the Coliseum, Glyndebourne, Aldeburgh, and of course closer festivals, such as the Cheltenham and the Three Choirs. The Birmingham Post had a huge reputation for its arts coverage, not only within these borders, but much further afield, as I was to find when I was appointed Chief Music Critic in 1988. By that time the team of reviewing assistants had increased to six, with often three reviews being submi
                                             SAKARI ORAMO RETURNS TO THE CBSO                                            Symphony Hall **** This triumphant, emotional return of Sakari Oramo to the CBSO whose podium he graced so productively during ten years as music director, had one perhaps unexpected side-effect. So authoritative on the platform is this now principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, so naturally at ease with the players, so thrilling in the effects he conjures, that his presence throws into relief many of the other conductors the CBSO has engaged since his departure in 2008, and makes their contributions appear disappointing in retrospect – rather like Ulysses returning to Penelope, whose many suitors were cast into the shade. It was thrilling to welcome Oramo back, to huge acclaim on both sides of the footlights, and what more fitting programme than one allowing him to bring his experienced insights into the music of his Finnish homeland. A rare perfor
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ No opera is made great by virtue of its libretto and no piece of symphonic music by its programme. An obvious point perhaps but one worth making given the amount of ink expended on the non-musical inspiration behind Elgar’s ‘Variations on an original theme for orchestra’ Op.36, the very name of which has been captured by its subtext ‘Enigma’. Behind the facade of starched collar and moustache Elgar concealed a wicked sense of humour and I suspect he had a good laugh at the expense of would-be codebreakers puzzling out the hidden “dark saying” and  “another and larger theme”. I mention this because given the CBSO chief executive’s “new vision” a future performance of the work could inflict upon us some ghastly multi-media farrago with sepia photographs of Elgar and friends adorned with cryptic clues. Here we had just the music – all that’s ever needed – played with immense vitality, blatant power and subtle shadings, wit and soul from the CBSO under Kazuki Y
                               CBSO YOUTH ORCHESTRA                                                           Symphony Hall ****   It is difficult to know how to approach the writing of this review, torn as it is between the stupendous excellence of the musical achievement and the unfortunate nature of the presentation surrounding it. Let’s begin with the positives. During the ten days of its latest training course the young members of the CBSO Youth Orchestra worked strenuously on Mahler’s Symphony no.5, chiefly trained by CBSO Associate Conductor Michael Seal, arriving at a remarkably mature, well-disciplined performance of this epic work on Sunday afternoon, now under the clear, encouraging and empowering baton of the veteran Dutch conductor Jac van Steen. Not so long ago the symphony was virtually a no-go area for many professional orchestras, but here these youngsters, many of whom were still gleams in their father’s eyes when the CBSOYO was born twenty years ago, played i
                                             SAKARI ORAMO RETURNS TO THE CBSO                                            By Christopher Morley   When Sir Simon Rattle left the CBSO in 1998 after 18 years as principal conductor, everyone knew he would be a hard act to follow. But the management had been busy behind the scenes, ensuring a smooth succession to secure the players’ choice, the young Finn Sakari Oramo, who had so impressed them conducting the orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. I remember a telephone interview with him prior to that concert, and he came across as a bright, personable young man. Now, well over a quarter of a century later, we have had another telephone conversation, he back home in Finland, and the bright, personableness remains. But in the intervening years Sakari has chalked up ten triumphant years at the CBSO before moving on to the position he has made so emphatically his own, principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orche
  Strasbourg Philharmonic at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ The title of Ravel’s ‘La valse’ may suggest cosy images of elegant dancers circling under crystal chandeliers but underneath the glittering surface something violent, dark and disturbing lurks. Composed shortly after World War I had devastated Europe, Ravel’s apotheosis of the quintessential Viennese dance is the soundtrack to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. The Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra under the dynamic Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja captured its essence perfectly from its opening sinister bass rumblings and odd squeaks and creaks from the upper strings – as if the music were assembling itself – to the apocalyptic ending as the waltz gyrates off into oblivion – absolutely splendid. This is not a big-name orchestra but one of quality in all sections. The horns, for example, were tremendous in Franck’s supernatural tone poem ‘Le chasseur maudit’, their opening chorale signalling the dawning Sunday morning was like burnished g
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ This was an exhilarating concert shared between the music of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, culminating in a fulminating display of the latter’s second symphony. I suspect that having seen that it was scheduled for February 14 someone in the marketing department decided to boost it as a St Valentine’s Day event. Not a bad idea commercially – I’ve never seen so many young couples at a CBSO event before, most of them clearly newcomers. I hope any romantic hopes weren’t dashed by the music’s texts and subtexts:the lovers in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ lying dead in each others’ arms; the teenage heroine Tatyana’s amorous illusions shattered as her idealized would-be lover Onegin is revealed as a morally vacuous narcissist; and Beethoven’s concert aria ‘Ah, Perfido!’ where the soprano denounces her lover as “Faithless one, perjured, barbarous betrayer,” as he exits despite her pleas. No happy endings there – just terrific music. The performances of Natalya Rom
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases Berkeley, Pound, Ravel: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson (Chandos CD & SACD) ★★★★★ A disparate collection at first glance but there’s a musical thread connecting these three works. John Wilson has demonstrated great flair as a conductor of Ravel both on disc and in concert with the super Sinfonia of London – their ‘Bolero’ at Symphony Hall was stupendous. Here the stylish pastiche ‘Le tombeau de Couperin’ is airily elegant and delicate. Lennox Berkeley’s music has a similar Francophone grace and his 1943 ‘Divertimento’ is very amenable and its shifting moods well-captured. The British composer Adam Pounds, in his 70 th  year, will be a new name to many. He was a pupil of Berkeley - and has conducted the ‘Divertimento’ – but his Symphony No.3, composed during the Covid lockdown and dedicated to the Sinfonia and Wilson, has a spiky lyricism and mordant wit reminiscent of Shostakovich, as in the ironically barbed waltz. Whe
  A TRADITIONAL-STYLE CONCERT IN MILAN Last weekend I was in Milan on family business, but I took time out on the late Saturday afternoon to attend a concert in the 79th series of Pomeriggi Musicali (“Musical Afternoons “). The excellent, recently refurbished concert-hall in the Teatro Dal Verme in the bustling historic centre of the city was packed. Though there was a busy bar, the only drinks taken into the auditorium were bottles of water, and after a welcoming announcement requesting us to turn off our phones and reminding us that photography and filming were forbidden, 1500 of us in the chiefly Italian audience sat in enthralled silence enjoying a passable performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto, soloist Giuseppe Albanese, and an excellent Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony. Pietari Inkinen was the conductor, and there was a remarkable set of wind principals. There was no applause between movements, but at the end the enthusiasm erupted into many curtain-calls, after which we all spil
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ What at first glance looked like a disparate collection became in performance a thoroughly cohesive selection of music. Fairytale was the thread connecting the three orchestral works which framed two concertos featuring the young British saxophonist Jess Gillam whose playing sparkled even more brightly than her technicolour glittered trousers. The concert was off to a cracking start with the overture from Rossini’s Cinderella comic opera ‘ La Cenerentola’. Brazilian conductor Eduardo Strausser set a spanking pace, the CBSO delivering the composer’s trademark crescendi with gusto with well-characterized humorous interjections from the woodwind. Placing Stravinsky alongside music from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov is always instructive, the young genius learned so much from the old master in terms of orchestral colour and piquant combinations of instruments. The Suite from Rimsky’s opera ‘The Golden Cockerel’ has some of the ingredients Stravinsky adopted, and
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★ One rule-of-thumb to gauge the strength of an orchestra is their ability to pluck soloists from the band. In the space of a week two concerts have shown that the CBSO is in great health. Last week we saw a dazzling Walton Violin Concerto by CBSO leader  Eugene Tzikindelean  now up stepped  Marie-Christine Zupancic and Katherine Thomas for an equally impressive performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. It was a rare combination of instruments in 1778, and still is today, but Mozart’s ability to forge a partnership between the wind section’s most ethereal instrument and what was then considered a plucked piano is amazing – as their joint cadenza testified. The Andantino is the concerto’s highlight, its shimmering heart-easing melody floating to us on a bed of soft strings was magical. The concert opened with a vigorous, romantic and colourful outing for an old favourite, Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ Overture where Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev e
  CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★ Perfect storms are a rare confluence of events which result in apocalyptic weather conditions. The musical equivalent happened here, erupting into a thunderously scorching performance of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’. The CBSO’s players were hyped and pumped like combative athletes directed, cajoled and invigorated by Hurricane Kazuki – the 100mph conducting gale from the east. Kazuki and the players embraced Berlioz’s opium-saturated nightmare and revelled in its extremes, with Tony Alcock’s bass section possessed, a terrifying grinding force of nature. In the ‘Scène aux champs’ the aching nostalgia of the pastoral duet between Rachael Pankhurst’s cor anglais and the offstage oboe was as exquisite as I expected but the mid-movement eruption Yamada engineered – raging, surging energy with a sudden collapse into detumescence – revealed to me that Berlioz had anticipated Strauss’s orchestral depiction of sexual ecstasy in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ by eighty ye
  Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases Chopin & Rachmaninoff: Peter Donohoe (Somm Recordings CD) ★★★★★ Now in his 70 th  year pianist Peter Donohoe shows no sign of slowing down his recording career – praise be. After completing his excellent survey of Mozart’s piano sonatas for Somm his latest release combines two of his favourite composers, Chopin and Rachmaninoff – or is it Rachmaninov, the back cover uses both spellings. Rachmaninoff’s career was bookended by Chopin: he played the Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor at his 1892 graduation recital and at his last public recital in 1943, six weeks before his death. The opening of the Marche funèbre is one piece of Chopin everyone can hum but Donohoe’s magisterial performance strips it of any hint of routine; the central episode is an oasis of calm and solace before a muscular and justifiably brutal return of the march theme. In the Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor Donohoe again ratchets up Chopin’s contrasting ma
                    ANDREW DOWNES MEMORIAL CONCERT                   By Christopher Morley   Despite a life beset with horrendous health problems, Andrew Downes composed a vast output of works in all kinds of genres, and had the satisfaction of knowing his music brought pleasure to listeners and performers alike all over the world.   After his death a year ago the Hagley-based composer’s enormous army of admirers begged his family to promote a “Year of Andrew”, resulting in a continuous string of performances of his compositions all over the country, with enquiries from as far afield as Japan, China, the USA and Canada.   On January 28 the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where Andrew had a long and distinguished career as Head of Composition and Creative Studies, hosts a memorial concert featuring some of his most popular works, as well as the first public performance of “In a Modern City”, a composition from Andrew’s much younger days which had long been forgotten.