We Bow to Music Genius; in a Year of Outstanding Musical Achievement Christopher Morley Picks out His Favourite Classical Performances

The Birmingham Post (England), December 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

We Bow to Music Genius; in a Year of Outstanding Musical Achievement Christopher Morley Picks out His Favourite Classical Performances


Though the current financial climate means the region's arts organisations are facing funding cuts or possibly even extinction, 2010 has been a tremendous year of achievement in the world of music around these parts.

Leading the pack is the CBSO, celebrating its 90th anniversary with style and a huge confidence that its centenary in ten years time will witness even more elation, and Andris Nelsons, the orchestra's brilliant music director, and much sought-after all over the world, has told me he wants to be here "if the players still want to have me".

And they do. I witnessed the orchestra on tour under Nelsons' galvanising baton twice this year, with spontaneous standing ovations both in the Ruhr-land city of Dortmund in Germany, and in Nelsons' home city of Riga, Latvia.

The CBSO anniversary itself, 90 years to the day that Elgar conducted the then City of Birmingham Orchestra in Birmingham Town Hall for the first time, was marked by a wonderful programme: Richard Strauss' Rosenkavalier Suite, Haydn's Symphony no.90 ( so stylishly performed as the filling of this arch-romantic sandwich), and Elgar's Violin Concerto (on the centenary of its premiere).

James Ehnes was the self-effacing soloist and Nelsons conducted all three works with natural empathy.

A blazing reading of Mahler's Eighth Symphony launched a year-long celebration of the composer as the anniversaries of both his birth and death follow each other, Nelsons following this up later in the autumn with a revelatory account of the composer's Fifth.

But Nelsons has always been courted elsewhere (Birmingham was so lucky to nail him), and even more so nowadays, not least in opera-houses worldwide where he has recently made his debut: the Metropolitan New York, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, and, most spectacularly, the Wagner Festival Theatre in Bayreuth.

There he conducted the season's opening production, Wagner's Lohengrin, but Birmingham had a sneak preview (whatever that means) when Andris Nelsons presided over a tremendous concert-performance of the opera earlier in the summer at Symphony Hall, with the amazing CBSO Chorus literally to the fore in terms of vocal projection and engagement.

On a much smaller scale, a day before the Latvian trip, CBSO concert-master Laurence Jackson and his co-leader desk-partner Zoe Beyers gave a totally persuasive account of the Bach Double Violin Concerto, a tiny CBSO marshalled by the unobtrusive Martin Perkins at the harpsichord. What versatility this orchestra has in its pocket! Let's not forget a wonderful all-Mozart programme, the Haffner Symphony, and the G major Flute Concerto (Marie-Christine Zupancic the sparkling and expressive soloist), and then the Requiem, Nelsons conducting with gravity and lyrical beauty, and the CBSO Chorus arranged in vocal quartets rather than slabs of voices.

Two student orchestras which both feed the CBSO excelled themselves this year, as they always do. Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra gave an edge-of-the-seat, no-holds-barred account of Mahler's Sixth Symphony in Birmingham Town Hall at the end of the academic year, Lionel Friend conducting, and it was Friend again, by now conductor emeritus of the orchestra, who presided over a seamless, flexible reading of the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto from George Caird earlier this month, Caird laying down his mortar-board after 17 highly successful years as principal of the Conservatoire.

And the CBSO Youth Orchestra offered a searing Shostakovich Symphony no.11 at the end of October, the latest in a triumphant series of masterworks rehearsed under intensive coaching from CBSO players during half-term holidays.

Moving to the other end of the spectrum, 2010 has been a bumper year for piano recitals. Alfred Brendel, Leon McCawley and Piotr Anderszewski at Birmingham Town Hall, Mitsuko Uchida at Symphony Hall, Peter Donohoe's ongoing Beethoven piano sonata cycle at Birmingham Conservatoire, Benjamin Grosvenor (such a mature young performer) at the Forum, Malvern, spring to mind, but there were many others, for which apologies for the lack of mention (as throughout this column for any event in any format which I will have praised to the skies at the time). …

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