100 years on, an orchestra repeats its opening concertmain
Christopher Morley in Birmingham reviews for Slipedisc the centenary concert of the CBSO.
BBC Radio 3 and online stream *****
Between them the CBSO’s technical wizards and BBC Radio 3 brought about a remarkable example of triumph over adversity in their relaying of the orchestra’s celebratory centenary concert, necessarily disfigured behind the pandemic’s shielding mask.
This concert, filmed and recorded in a deserted Symphony Hall (just imagine how full the joyous auditorium would have been in “normal” circumstances) on the exact date when Elgar conducted the City of Birmingham Orchestra resident in Birmingham Town Hall for the first time one hundred years ago, was packed with joyous affirmation.
The Radio 3 broadcast a couple of days ago allowed us to concentrate on the quality of the music-making from players who have had so little ensemble contact for so many months, and brought us too a wonderfully evocative early history of the CBSO from my colleague Richard Bratby, author of Forward!, a compelling chronicle of the orchestra’s achievements. The streamed relay focussed our attention on the body-language of the musicians, bursting with adrenaline despite the absence of any pumping from the audience.
We eavesdropped on the players assembling in rehearsal mufti, and on contributions from conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (her long blonde locks now cropped a la Marin Alsop and even a la the CBSO’s own principal flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic, object of a lot of camera attention), cor anglais soloist Rachael Pankhurst, a discussion between CBSO cellists Eduardo Vassallo (how good to see him restored to health after a serious battle with Covid-19) and Jackie Tyler and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, soloist in the Elgar Cello Concerto. There was also a most touching and perceptive introduction from the Earl of Wessex, genuinely hands-on Patron of the orchestra and of other Birmingham musical institutions.
And the performances? Two of Sibelius’ Kalevala-inspired tone-poems, Lemminkainen’s Return and the Swan of Tuonela brought dark shadings, timbres judiciously balanced and co-ordinated, Pankhurst plaintively eloquent in the Swan’s extended solos.
Kanneh-Mason played the Elgar (which had featured in that inaugural concert a century ago) with an astonishing maturity, already with a sense of a life already long led, and reminding us of the even younger Yehudi Menuhin’s equally mature response to the Elgar Violin Concerto. It was so revealing to see the facial expressions of the cellist’s immersion into what is actually elusive, evanescent music (he will never diminish it into a mere repertoire war-horse).
Deliberately chosen or not, Beethoven’s Leonore no.3 Overture, a 14-minute opera as Mirga described it, is the quintessential expression of liberation after lockdown, and it was so exhilaratingly given here. The offstage trumpet fanfares melted into the visual images of the CBSO busily rejoicing as this concert moved towards it conclusion, triumphant against all the odds.