CBSO 2014/15 Season; Farewell to Andris Nelsons

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The 2014/15 season will be Andris Nelsons’ seventh and last as the Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Details of the season have just been announced. For this one season he’ll be combining the CBSO role with his new post with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He’s certainly taking his leave of Birmingham in style.

As a curtain raiser to the season he’ll be conducting the orchestra in Elgar’s Second Symphony: an enticing prospect (25 August). The programme also includes excerpts from two Wagner operas: Lohengrin, which he conducted in a concert performance in a previous CBSO season, and Parsifal, of which more in a moment. The season proper starts with Beethoven week. Over the course of the 2012/13 season Nelsons and the orchestra gave an acclaimed Beethoven symphony cycle. For this season they repeat the cycle but this time in a concentrated spell of just five days. Spread over four concerts this should be an intense and memorable experience. (16, 18, 20 & 21 September).

Brahms and Richard Strauss have featured strongly in Nelsons’ programmes in recent years. The two composers will be combined in a programme that couples the Brahms First Symphony and Don Quixote by Strauss (29 & 30 October). With luck this means there’ll soon be a recording of Don Quixote to add to Nelsons’ fine Strauss series of CDs with the CBSO. A month later Nelsons will conduct Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and in the same programme Stephen Hough will play the Schumann Piano Concerto (27 & 29 November). The Nelsons/Hough partnership will be revived later in the season when Hough plays the Dvořák Piano Concerto in a programme that also includes Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, a work that should suit Nelsons to a tee (18 & 19 March). He offers more Russian music with two performances of the Eleventh Symphony of Shostakovich. That’s a work that many people underrate: I shall be very interested to hear what Nelsons makes of it (11 & 15 February). The first of those concerts includes an extended introduction to the symphony by Paul Rissman. The second will substitute some rarely heard pieces written by Elgar during World War I. Nelsons’ next programme promises something special: Mahler’s gripping Sixth Symphony (26 & 28 February)

I mentioned Parsifal. Nelsons has long dreamed of conducting this score, he says, and he’ll lead a concert performance on 17 May. The cast will include Burkhard Fritz in the title role and James Rutherford as Amfortas. And then we come to Nelson’s Birmingham farewell: two performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony. He’s done several Mahler symphonies during his time at Birmingham but I’m not sure the Third has been one of them and this is a mouth- watering prospect. As an upbeat to the symphony there will be the UK première of a short new work, as yet untitled, by Nelsons’ fellow Latvian, Ēriks Ešenvalds. Fittingly, this new piece is a co-commission between the CBSO and Nelson’s new orchestra, the Boston Symphony. This pair of concerts should ring down the curtain on Nelsons’ Birmingham tenure in considerable style (17 & 18 June).

Inevitably, thoughts are already turning to the future and this coming season members of the audience are bound to be playing ‘Spot the Successor’, especially as no less than nine conductors will be making their Birmingham debuts. But before considering what the future might hold, it’s nice to see the orchestra marking the centenary of the birth of one of Nelsons’ predecessors, the Polish-born conductor and composer, Andrjez Panufnik (1914-1991). He was Principal Conductor of the orchestra between 1957 and 1959. On the exact centenary of his birth the CBSO’s Associate Conductor, Michael Seal will conduct a concert including two of his works: the Piano Concerto (Peter Donohoe) and the Second Symphony (24 September).

Among the exciting young conductors who will direct the orchestra this coming season are the Frenchman, Alain Altinoglu. Appropriately, he’ll include French music in his programme: Harold in Italy by Berlioz (with Renaud Capuçon) and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No 2 (22 October). Altinoglu will be followed closely by the Israeli, Lahav Shani, who will conduct Prokofiev (Symphony No 5) and Beethoven (Piano Concerto No 4 with Francesco Piemontesi) (6 November). Then there’ll be an appearance by another young conductor, the Spaniard, Gustavo Gimeno. He’ll also conduct Prokofiev (Piano Concerto No 3 with Simon Trpčeski) and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and Second Symphony (12 & 13 November). Other names to watch out for are the German, David Afkham (14 & 17 January) and Josep Pons, who has made some well-received appearances in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (22 January).

Amid all the newcomers to the CBSO podium there’ll be some familiar and very welcome faces too. Andrew Litton returns to conduct Britten and Elgar as well as the Walton Violin Concerto, played by another Birmingham favourite, James Ehnes (10 & 13 December). It’s Edward Gardner’s last season as the CBSO’s Principal Guest Conductor – surely he must be a strong candidate to succeed Nelsons, though. During the 2013/14 season he led an acclaimed Mendelssohn symphony cycle, which is now being issued on CD (review) and he follows this up with another Mendelssohn programme that includes the complete Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music (16 & 18 April). Among Gardner’s other programmes is an intriguing one in which he pairs works by two of music’s great mavericks: Berlioz and Janáček. This programme including the latter’s wild and exciting Glagolitic Mass (5 March). Also worthy of note is the fairly rare chance that Gardner will give us to hear Tippett’s Second Symphony in a programme of English music in which Alban Gerhardt plays the Elgar Cello Concerto (23 April).

Finally, two very different but equally attractive propositions. One is an American programme conducted by Michael Seal in which Freddy Kempf plays the Gershwin Piano Concerto. That’s a piece that’s no stranger to concert programmes but the Symphony in F sharp by the adopted American, Erich Wolfgang Korngold is much less frequently heard though it’s a ripe, romantic score (28 January).  A few weeks earlier Birmingham hosts what I feel sure will be an important new work: the UK première of James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, a work co-commissioned by the CBSO to mark the 40th anniversary of the CBSO Chorus. The composer will conduct. From what I’ve read, this Passion is likely to be somewhat different to MacMillan’s visceral St. John Passion (review) but I’m sure it will be just as gripping (4 December).

Full details of these and all the other programmes are available online at All concerts are in Symphony Hall. Booking opens on 27 May and can be made on line through the orchestra’s website. Telephone bookings at 0121 345 0499. Bookings can also be made by post or in person at the Symphony Hall booking office. More information about these concerts and about the CBSO can be found on the orchestra’s website.

John Quinn    



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