Birmingham celebrates Symphony Hall’s coming of age in style

Birmingham celebrates Symphony Hall’s coming of age in style (JQ)

It was something of a surprise to find, on receiving the prospectus for the 2011/12 Birmingham International Concert Season 2011/12, that Symphony Hall is about to host its twenty-first anniversary season. How time flies! Over the years the International Concert Season has offered some enticing annual programmes but one feels that this time the management has pulled out all the stops for a year-long twenty-first birthday party.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall’s resident orchestra, has its own parallel season, of course, but, rightly, it contributes to the ICS series too. In particular, joined by the CBSO Chorus, it will give a gala concert under its Music Director, Andris Nelsons to mark the exact anniversary of the opening of the hall by Her Majesty the Queen (12 & 13 June). Bryn Terfel will be the celebrity soloist, singing in a selection of operatic arias and choruses. The programme also offers Elgar’s The Music Makers, a work written for Birmingham a century earlier, and the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, which was heard in the very first Symphony Hall concert in 1991.

Another important event featuring Nelsons and the CBSO is their concert performance of Tristan und Isolde (3 March). Indeed, Wagnerians are exceptionally well catered for in this season. The Opera North ‘Ring’ cycle reaches is second instalment with Die Walküre (30 June) while Antonio Pappano leads a concert performance of the Royal Opera’s acclaimed production of Die Meistersinger (11 January). Bryn Terfel is Hans Sachs and a strong cast also includes Sir John Tomlinson as Pogner. I’ll come to one more Wagner treat in a moment.

Besides the CBSO, the other resident Birmingham ensemble that features is the choir Ex Cathedra. They offer a wonderful opportunity to hear Rachmaninov’s Vespers by candlelight and to add to the attraction, they’ll be joined by that fine pianist, Stephen Osborne, who will play a selection of Rachmaninov’s Preludes (2 October). Ex Cathedra have also established a tradition of singing one of Bach’s Passions on Good Friday. In 2012 it will be the turn of the St John Passion but the performance will take place on Maundy Thursday (5 April). Why this departure from tradition? The answer is, in order to make way for a Good Friday performance of Parsifal by the forces of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg under the charismatic Valery Gergiev (6 April).

Other orchestral concerts that have caught my eye include Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Monteverdi Choir in Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony (16 December); and Sir Simon Rattle brings the Vienna Philharmonic in a programme that includes the third symphonies of Brahms and Schumann (16 June).
Other exciting prospects include Andreas Scholl in a Bach programme that includes two exquisite cantatas, BWV 82 and BWV 106 (1 February). Bach enthusiasts can also indulge themselves in an extended weekend mini-festival of his music under the title ‘Bach: A Beautiful Mind’ (8-11 March), the delights of which include The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Thomanerchor, Leipzig in the St Matthew Passion (9 March) and Angela Hewitt in a recital of Bach’s keyboard music (11 March).

Under the heading of ‘intriguing’, watch out also for the Scott of the Antarctic Centenary Concert when Stephen Layton, The Holst Singers and the City of London Sinfonia present excerpts from Vaughan Williams’ music for the film Scott of the Antarctic as well as Sinfonia Antarctica and the première of a new work by Cecilia McDowell. During the symphony the audience will be able to see a projection of selection of photographs taken on Scott’s ill-fated expedition (3 February)

As usual, there is a fine selection of piano recitals during the season. These include (in chronological order): Lang Lang (17 September); András Schiff (15 November); John Lill (12 February); and Leif Ove Andsnes (28 March). There are also several important chamber music recitals.

All the above concerts and the others in the season are given by the musicians of today but let the final mention go to a concert by the professional musicians of tomorrow. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain never opts for safe programmes; the whole object is to challenge the young players. And there are few greater challenges than Messiaen’s vast and exotic Turangalîla-Symphonie. For this they’ll be joined by their Principal Conductor, the exciting Vasily Petrenko, and by pianist Joanna MacGregor (1 August). Although, as I write, that concert is over a year away I’m already looking forward to it enormously.

Full details of the entire season are at where on line bookings can also be made. Alternatively, you can book by phone on 0121 780 3333 or in person at the Symphony Hall box office.

John Quinn