Genoveva, Op. 81 – Overture (1849)
Serenade in E minor, Op. 20 (1892)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 (1872)
The Spark Catchers (2017)
Slumdog Millionaire – Suite (2012)
The Firebird – Suite (1919)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)
Roopa Panesar (sitar)
Adrian Lester (presenter)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 5 September, 2020
Venue: PRG Live Stage Studio, Longbridge, Birmingham
It was not the Centenary Concert intended, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra undoubtedly played to its strengths on this occasion – reunited with one-time music director Simon Rattle for a programme as made a virtue out of necessity in the present circumstances.
Necessities such as extended to this concert’s taking place not in Symphony Hall (which has recently undergone major refurbishment) but in PRG’s Live Stage Studio, described on the orchestra’s website as ‘‘a warehouse and temporary production facility’’ in the outer suburb of Longbridge (formerly one of the largest car manufacturing plants in Western Europe) that had the requisite capacity and so enabled social distancing measures to be observed. Suitably illuminated, it made for an arresting visual setting that, if it conveyed little sense of acoustic ambience, had no lack of sonic definition. Throughout the evening, projections onto a screen complemented the performances with images of the players, of Birmingham and its environs, or visuals deemed apposite to the work at hand that were seldom detrimental to proceedings.
Tonight’s selection did not open with Bantock as in that inaugural concert, but Schumann’s overture to his opera Genoveva launched this evening in fine style. Rattle drew a tangible fatalism from its introduction, then found the right balance between anxiety and resolve in what followed. Horns may not have come through wholly unscathed (most often the case with this piece), though there could be no mistaking the impetus maintained right up to a coda whose surging affirmation left little doubt that here was an orchestra ‘raring to go’.
Elgar’s Serenade for Strings also featured on that 1920 programme and tonight received a performance that amply brought out the suavity of its opening movement. A pity the central Larghetto was overloaded expressively, its eloquence being impeded rather than abetted by the sluggish tempo and saturated textures, but the finale evinced more natural poise – Rattle keeping it flowing as well as eliding nimbly between allusions to earlier themes that afford the deftest of endings; all the while exuding a pathos such as Elgar was to make his own.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been associated with the CBSO from the outset of his brief but eventful career, and confirmed no mean identity with Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto (of which the CBSO made a seminal recording with Paul Tortelier and then principal conductor Louis Frémaux 45 years ago). Formal divisions in this artfully constructed single-movement piece were ably negotiated, creating a momentum allayed but not lost in the central ‘Menuet’ with its archaic elegance, where the rapport between soloist and conductor was at its keenest.
Now in her mid-30s, Hannah Kendall is well established among younger British composers (witness her commission for this year’s First Night of the Proms) and The Spark Catchers – inspired by Lemn Sissay’s poem about resilience in the face of hardship as displayed by 19th century matchgirls – fuses scintillating textures and rhythmic agility recalling early Turnage in onward impetus, with a more subdued central section as contrast. Music apposite for this setting and for this occasion, Rattle drawing suitably virtuosic playing from the musicians.
It hardly seems 16 years since A. R. Rahman led the CBSO in a fraught though exhilarating traversal of Bollywood classics, and his score for Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire made for a viable suite. The ‘Indian’ quotient might hardly have registered over its soporific opening section, but Roopa Panesar’s ensuing solo tantalized with its intricacy and dexterity, and while in the final section the orchestra tended to be playing along with the sitar rather than interacting meaningfully with it, the outcome was never less than engaging.
That Rattle was a keen exponent of the complete score to The Firebird meant Stravinsky’s once ubiquitous 1919 suite became something of a rarity in Birmingham. It made for a fine rounding-off of tonight’s programme, the CBSO strings as atmospheric in the ‘Introduction’ as were the woodwind in the ‘Firebird’s Dance’ and the ‘Princesses’ Khovorod’. Ensemble faltered briefly in the ‘Infernal Dance’, but the ‘Berceuse’ had a limpid soulfulness – with a spellbinding segue into an ‘Apotheosis’ whose splendour was shot through with joyfulness.
The evening was presented by Adrian Lester, his enthusiasm unstinting for all the unforced professionalism with which he carried out several interviews , while there were interpolated tributes from former music directors Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons, along with current Osborn Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. The orchestra’s long-standing Royal Patron, HRH The Earl of Wessex, also sent heartfelt congratulations, as did numerous Birmingham VIPs – not least among them Duran Duran bassist John Taylor. The evening was broadcast live on the CBSO’s YouTube and Facebook channels, where it can be accessed for the next 30 days. Those who see it might also be interested in donating to The Sound of the Future, a five-year project aimed at raising £12.5 million to secure the orchestra’s long-term existence.
A memorable occasion, then, despite – or even because of – the odds against it taking place. The centenary of the CBSO’s inaugural symphonic concert (as presided over by Elgar) falls on November 10th: dare one hope it will be marked by an event of comparable significance?
Tonight’s concert can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emZua–3eIs and at https://www.facebook.com/TheCBSO/videos/749802475810828/?__tn__=HH-R for 30 days
Further information about The Sound of the Future at https://cbso.co.uk/support-us/future