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 it with confidence, dedication, and total immersion in its complexities.

String sound was rich and dark, ensemble was impressive (such thudding pizzicato from the double-basses), woodwind were pithy and eloquent, brass were sturdy and never over-the-top, percussion were nimble and characterful. And there was one other star to be named shortly. Only towards the end of these draining 72 minutes did these young players start to tire, though van Steen had paced them cautiously and considerately throughout.

Solos were taken with confidence, despite the added strains imposed by the presentation (see below). The principal trumpet fanfared the very opening of the symphony commandingly, the principal horn was tireless, indefatigable in the lengthy middle movement of the five, and harpist Stien de Neef rhapsodised tellingly in the famous Adagietto.

These players rose to all the challenges of the imposed ideas of a full-strength team of theatrical and lighting directors and designers with aplomb, spotlit as they stood for major contributions (what the stress on the opening’s trumpeter must have been I dread to imagine), and subjected to endlessly shifting lighting colours, allegedly reflecting the current mood of the music, ultimately alienating in effect and decidedly ragged towards the conclusion (did they have anyone able to read a score giving the cues? And heaven knows the expense of engaging all these supernumeraries, their CVs taking up many pages in the programme-booklet). “I don’t need colours to help me respond to the music,” grumbled one lady behind me.

The only time this “creative” approach to lighting worked was in “Contemplative”, the central movement of the Percussion Concerto Juvenalia by Robert Honstein, when a soft blue timbre reinforced the ruminative nature of the music here, sandwiched between two hectic movements whose material actually failed to justify their length. 2022 BBC Young Musician Jordan Ashman of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire was the extraordinary soloist, his mind- and muscle-memory totally in control of a huge panoply of percussion instruments, from stick-juggling on the kit to gentle, sensitively phrased caressing of the tuned percussion, and the composer was in the audience to enjoy this impressive performance.

There were, however, instances of “For this relief, much thanks” in this concert. It had been billed as the second of the CBSO’s new concept of wraparound presentation, drinks freely allowed in the auditorium, clapping encouraged at the audience’s will , the introduction in the booklet inviting us so to do, filming not frowned upon.

In the event, there was no applause until the enthusiastic explosions at the end of both works. I saw no drinks being brought into the sacred auditorium. And the use of phone cameras was very few and far between.

But the most spectacular pull-back from what had been announced was the total absence of any video distractions (okay, there were some stupid Mills & Boon-type titles flashed up for each movement of the Mahler). I had been dreading any visual commentary prompting me how to respond to a work I have known intimately since I watched in the wings as Leonard Bernstein conducted it in Venice in 1968.

I was fully expecting to be watching Dirk Bogarde dying in Visconti’s film Death in Venice as the Mahler Adagietto was playing…

And just as a footnote concerning Mahler: he actually specified in his scores when he wanted his players to stand, and that was at the conclusion of his First Symphony.

Christopher Morley

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