Symphony Hall’s 21st Anniversary Celebrated in Style

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Symphony Hall 21st Anniversary Concert: Byrn Terfel (bass-baritone), Christine Rice (mezzo soprano), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simon Halsey & Andris Nelsons (conductors). Symphony Hall, Birmingham 13.6.2012 (JQ)

Glinka: Overture, Russlan and Ludmilla
: The Music Makers, Op. 69
:Toreador’s Song (Carmen)
:Udite, udite, o rustici (L’elisir d’amore)
Arr, Haskell
:Folk Songs from the British Isles
:Te Deum (Tosca)
: Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No 2

This concert, and the identical programme the previous evening, celebrated the 21st anniversary of the official opening by Queen Elizabeth II of Birmingham’s splendid Symphony Hall on 12 June 1991. Since then the hall has established itself as one of the UK’s premier concert venues and leading names from all musical genres regularly grace its stage. The ‘house orchestra’, however, has been and continues to be the CBSO. Under a succession of excellent Music Directors from Sir Simon Rattle through Sakari Oramo to the current incumbent, Andris Nelsons, the orchestra has cemented its reputation as a world-class ensemble. However, while not wishing to underplay in any way the leadership and significant achievements of the various Music Directors, I’m sure all those conductors would readily admit that the fact that the orchestra has a world-class concert hall as its base has played quite a part in its rise to sustained eminence. Indeed, one recalls that Rattle, during his early days in Birmingham, strongly supported the efforts to build Symphony Hall for that very reason. There could have been no choice other than the CBSO to give the anniversary concerts.

And it was good to find them collaborating yet again with their colleagues, the CBSO Chorus whose members have also played a key role in the Symphony Hall story. After Andris Nelsons had led the CBSO in a dashing account of Glinka’s overture he gave way to Simon Halsey, the Chorus Director of the CBSO Chorus for Elgar’s The Music Makers. This was highly appropriate. Halsey has been in charge of the CBSO Chorus for over 25 years now, moulding them into one of the very finest choirs in the UK – and worthy to stand comparison with any similar body, at home or abroad. Most often he comes onto the stage only after the choir has turned in yet another splendid performance to be given his due recognition, so it was especially pleasing to find him on the podium for the Elgar piece. That was an apt and deliberate choice for the work was first heard 100 years ago in this very city; Elgar conducted its first performance in Birmingham Town Hall on 1 October 1912.

Halsey let an urgent and powerful performance. Because Elgar indulged in a good deal of self-quotation in this work a conductor can fall into the trap of making parts of it  sound sentimental and autumnal but there was no danger of that here. Halsey’s tempi, though never excessive, consistently gave the necessary forward momentum to the music; he displayed considerable empathy for Elgar’s writing. Both the orchestra and choir responded keenly to him. The choir sang very well – no surprise there – though it seemed to me that the tenor section was a little short on numbers and so didn’t always make its presence sufficiently felt. Christine Rice was a fine soloist, her voice admirably suited to the role. Though billed, correctly, as a mezzo, her voice has a very strong lower register, which passages of this work need – but all the top notes were there too. It was not her fault that often she got swamped in the section beginning “And therefore today is thrilling”. Elgar’s orchestral scoring is very full hereabouts and if I have a criticism of Mr Halsey’s conducting it would be that here and in other passages he should have reined in the orchestra a bit to the benefit of choir and soloists. I think the issue is that in Elgar’s day orchestras were neither as good as today’s bands nor as sonorous – the brass instruments would have had narrower bores for one thing – so he couldn’t have anticipated the sheer amount of sound that an orchestra such as today’s CBSO can produce at will and without any forcing of the tone. Miss Rice excelled particularly in the closing section of the work, from “Great hail” onwards and she and all the performers delivered Elgar’s final reflections (starting at “Bring us hither your sun and summers”) with genuine eloquence. This was a fine performance.

After the interval Bryn Terfel was the guest soloist. He opened with a swaggering account of Escamillo’s aria. In this his big personality as well as his big voice was very evident. However, to my ears it seemed as if quite a few notes were not hit truly when he was singing full out; his was, in some ways, too forceful a way with Bizet’s music. Dulcamara’s purveying of his quack elixir was more successful. Terfel indulged in some fairly broad comedy – but why not; this was a celebratory occasion – which the audience loved. More to the point, I thought the more open Italian vowels allowed us to hear his voice to better advantage than had been the case when he sang Bizet in French. In this aria I was reminded of what an excellent Figaro and Leporello he has been. Chris Hazell’s pleasant  arrangements of Folk Songs from the British Isles – one from each country – would be ideal for the Last Night of the Proms and Terfel presented them in this spirit, encouraging audience participation in the refrains of Loch Lomond and Molly Malone. By far the best of these four songs, as a piece of singing, was Cariad Cyntaf (First Love), a Welsh song which Terfel sang, simply and touchingly, in his native tongue. To conclude we heard the powerful Te Deum from the end of Act I of Tosca. This performance was in a different league from everything before it. Terfel sang Scarpia’s part with searing intensity – a reminder of his riveting performance in the Royal Opera House production, which I saw on TV a few months ago – and Andris Nelsons motivated the choir and orchestra to match Terfel’s fervour.

Finally, Nelsons and his orchestra came into their own with the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé – another timely selection since this piece was played at the inaugural concert in Symphony Hall in April 1991 and, moreover, the Ballets Russes première was given on 8 June 1912. This was, quite simply, the performance of the evening. ‘Dawn’ was superb. The shimmering start was magically balanced by Nelsons. We heard chattering birds depicted by the CBSO woodwind section and voluptuous washes of orchestral colour, everything expertly controlled by the players and from the rostrum. When it came, the Daybreak was overwhelming, the CBSO Chorus showing why you can only do this music full justice in a performance that includes the choral parts. Nelsons held back the release of this climax in a masterly fashion to enhance its impact. The central ‘Pantomime’ was dominated by the superlative flute playing of Marie-Christine Zupancic, but if her virtuosity stood out due to the prominence of the flute part it was complemented by that of many of her colleagues in a dexterous and subtle performance of this ravishing but technically demanding music. The concluding ‘Danse Genérale’ was thrilling. Nelsons galvanised his players – and singers – into a virtuoso account of Ravel’s tumultuous, hedonistic music. In a few days time one of Nelson’s predecessors, Sir Simon Rattle, brings the Vienna Philharmonic to Symphony Hall. On this showing – which we know is far from untypical – the CBSO has little to fear from any comparisons.

So Symphony Hall’s 21st birthday was celebrated in great style, and rightly so. It is clear from comments in the programme book that its management are looking forward eagerly to the next twenty-one years in the life of this major concert hall. So too are we, the audience.


John Quinn