United Kingdom From Monteverdi to Sondheim via Schubert – A Vocal Gala Evening: Performers from the Birmingham Conservatoire – singers from the Vocal and Operatic Department, the Chamber Choir and members of the Orchestra, a programme devised by Julian Pike and Michael Barry. Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 21.6.2016. (GR)
Director: Michael Barry
Conductors: Fraser Goulding, Paul Spicer & Ben Kennedy
Pianists: Jonathan French, Ben Kennedy and Charlie Morgan Jones
Sir Adrian Cedric Boult was a legendary English conductor for much of the twentieth century. From leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1924-30) Boult went on to become Director of Music for the BBC and established their own Symphony Orchestra, enabling him to further champion his passion for British music. Three years after his death in 1983, the Birmingham Conservatoire named their new concert hall in his honour and thirty years later it is about to be closed, demolished in fact. Its closure is a sad day for many, including me.
A two-month long music festival ‘City of Sounds – Saying Goodbye to Birmingham Conservatoire’s Adrian Boult Hall’ that began on May 1st with a celebrity recital from Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway, ends on June 26th when it goes out in style with the Conservatoire performing Verdi’s Requiem, along with Sir Richard Armstrong no less (also be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3). Since its opening in 1986 by HRH the Duchess of Gloucester, ABH has hosted live classical, jazz and experimental music of the highest standard and the programmes aired during its final eight weeks have been no exception. It begs the question ‘Did it have to close?’ So many iconic venues have closed in the name of progress! The musical arm of Birmingham’s City University is destined for a move in 2017 into a brand new £56 million complex, purpose-built, and said to be the first conservatoire of the digital age (although theatre-type facilities may still be lacking). Located just two hundred metres from Birmingham’s HS2 terminal, I sincerely hope it lives up to the hype!
Many of the thousands who are saying goodbye to ABH during the ‘City of Sounds’ festival will have their own personal memories to treasure. May I share one of mine with you? It exemplifies the link the Conservatoire retains with local music-education organisations, embracing the countless school orchestras, ensembles and groups, whose students have perhaps experienced a larger auditorium for the first time, broadcasting their talent to enthusiastic audiences packed with parents and friends. One that sticks with me was in 1988 on 19th November when my daughter, Madeline, led the second violins of the Academy of St Philips; the repertoire on that occasion included Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, the Bach Brandenburg No 2 and a rollicking rendition of Milhaud’s Le Bœuf sur le toit. The Academy was a small elite orchestra, chiefly drawn from members of the Birmingham Schools Symphony Orchestra, conducted by their founder Peter Bridle, a music teacher from King Edward’s Birmingham who for over forty years has made an outstanding contribution to the music-making of young people. Indeed Peter was honoured in 2013 for this by being awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th annual Classic FM Music Teacher of the Year Awards.
ABH has attracted a great variety of attendants, some of them for an isolated visit, others avid supporters. One who is certainly in the second category is Birmingham resident Tim Walton, who has logged up over one thousand performances at the Conservatoire. His first in 1986 was a recital by Ellie Ross with her husband playing the piano, none other than a certain Simon Rattle! This was held in conjunction with the CBSO Concertgoers Association (who remembers them?) and included songs by Schumann, Ravel and Gershwin. Variation was provided by Debussy’s Cello Sonata from Ulrich Heinen (who else?) and Debussy’s Syrinx for unaccompanied flute (Margaret Campbell).
Back to today! Eighteen vocal numbers were offered on the evening of June 21st 2016, all chosen for a ‘farewell’ link with themes of regret and optimism. It was a highly varied programme from baroque to the present-day, with solos, ensembles and choruses, from lieder, opera and musical theatre, sacred and secular. Samantha Oxborough opened proceedings with Ottavia’s Addio Roma from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, her grief upon exile accentuated by the cello of Ursula Miethe Flores and the harpsichord of Rósa Csabaynè Bene. The popular trio Soave sia il vento from Mozart’s Così fan tutte followed, the Fiordiligi of Carrie Ann Williams and Dorabella of Chloë Pardoe wishing their sweethearts a safe journey, together with an impressive Michael Lam as Don Alfonso. Lieder came next with Abschied from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, the six stanzas fused together with the pulsating unrelenting rhythms of Jonathan French on piano; it was given the Birmingham Conservatoire treatment of providing a role to as many singers as possible – not just one soloist but five, individually taking their partings and reminding me somewhat of the von Trapp family. The twentieth century arrived with Andre Previn and Blanche’s beautiful I can smell the sea from A Streetcar Named Desire. Ben Kennedy accompanied a wistful Cecily Redman, dreaming of being buried at sea, exiting with a ravishing final note. This vein continued with mezzo Elouise Waterhouse and Absence from Berlioz’ Les nuits d’été.
One project of Via Nova, a chamber music choir founded in 2013, has been to develop and promote the works of young Birmingham Conservatoire composers. Under their director Daniel Galbreath, they gave us a piece with the witty, verbose title Beverley Hills Cop is probably like this but I’ve not seen it. Complete with its bangs and Californian street noises, composer James Oldham probably got it right! Next, the company piled onto the stage in front of the orchestra to enact their We’ll build our house from Bernstein’s Candide, making plenty of noise as they busily symbolised the current construction of their new base. Another apt choice for the evening was Mitternacht from Martha by Flotow –the quartet of Chloe Salvidge, Ania Szypula, Rob Tilson and Andrew Randall expressing their ‘Goodnight’ to ABH. Va Pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco signalled Viva Conservatoire!
The standard of singing rose dramatically after the interval with Donde lieta usci from Act III of Puccini’s La bohème: Lucinda Scott was a vulnerable, glowing, enthralling Mimi, ably supported by the Rodolfo of Tilson, the Musetta of Aimée Fisk and Marcello of Randall to register a thrilling quartet. Two Schumann numbers followed: first, the all too brief Abschied von Frankreich from Maria Stuart Lieder with Phoebe Eley, and secondly a well-executed Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden from Liederkreis Op. 24, as the adieus kept flowing. And for something completely different there was local Moseley composer John Joubert’s This is the Gate of the Lord, his setting of Psalm CXVIII. How resoundingly the Conservatoire Chamber Choir under Paul Spicer sang the inspiring words; let us hope their new building has an imposing ‘head-stone’ and ‘is marvellous in our eyes’.
Perhaps the longest piece was Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915, once more illustrating the soprano strength at the Conservatoire and notable for the playing of the wind section of the orchestra under Fraser Goulding. The wind-down to the close of the gala began with a duet from Fisk and James Gribble – Goodnight from Marc Shaiman’s musical Catch me if you can, wishing the move a ‘happy ending’ and telling us it was almost ‘time to say goodnight’. But not before Cecily Redman belted out Back to Before from Ahrens and Flaherty’s Ragtime, much to the vociferous delights of the many students offering their appreciation for those on stage. Bernstein and Sondheim concluded the entertainment with further classic musical theatre: Somewhere from West Side Story and Our Time from Merrily we roll along respectively. In the latter the Company were united with an unmistakable family spirit, envisaging a smooth transition to new headquarters to call their own. Let’s hope it is so!
These were magnificent selections made by Julian Pike and Michael Barry, hugely enjoyable presentations from the Conservatoire.