Conductor: Michael Seal
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Many people would profess only to a passing acquaintance with classical music and maybe a fear that it will prove difficult to listen to, requiring rather more effort than more contemporary music. However, most of us, albeit unknowingly, are more familiar than we think – even if we can’t name any of them – through the medium of TV and advert themes. And this evening, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra treated the packed auditorium to a selection of the best known, as well as some maybe more obscure pieces. It is testament to the skills of those responsible for choosing such music that they can choose maybe a couple of minutes, maybe only thirty seconds, of a much longer piece, picking out those moments that drill themselves into our memory. It is indeed a pleasure, then, to hear the full length pieces from which they were taken, even if we do find ourselves waiting for the catchy melodies we already know.
One of the joys of such an evening is indeed the familiar themes within the pieces, and a perfect example is the opener, Romeo and Juliet Suite No 2 – Montagues and Capulets, whose stirring theme is used to introduce The Apprentice. But the beginning is of clashes and discordances with cellos emerging, tension building until the familiar section bursts out. That’s followed by a more pastoral segment with flutes before the re-emergence of the powerful theme.
For Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, recognisable as the theme to the Hamlet cigar adverts, Conductor Michael Seal dispenses with his baton to use his expressive, flowing hand gestures instead to coax notes from the orchestra that seem to somehow always have been there. This is played with a great sense of delicacy. By contrast, Seal is much more vigorous for Sibelius’ Karelia Suite – Intermezzo used to introduce This Week. Many might say that it was Phil Spector who invented the ‘Wall of Sound’ but Sibelius might have something to say about that, based on this performance!
Every two or three pieces sees our host, Rebecca Front, introducing them with a quiet humour, even sharing some family secrets about her husband’s musical tastes.
This is not just an evening of orchestral pieces, however. There are two fine soloists to enjoy, both of whom perform and fill the magnificent Symphony Hall without amplification. The first to perform is Portuguese soprano, Susana Gaspar, performing Bellini’s Norma – Casta Diva (used by Le Male by Jean-Paul Gaultier) and the Eliza Aria from Wild Swans by Kats-Chernin (used by Lloyds Bank). In both, her voice soars above the orchestra. She is joined onstage by Kitty Whately, mezzo-soprano and daughter of actor Kevin Whately; together, they sing the delicate Flower duet as used by British Airways. The first half closes with the William Tell Overture. But before we can imagine Clayton Moore shouting ‘Hi, Ho Silver … away!” we have the lesser known opening involving cellos, a crashing crescendo, and a pastoral section evoking wild birds. This is another example of the piece that seems to tease us as we wait for the final gallop (during which Seal does appear to be galloping on his podium), but the whole is quite exquisite.
After the interval, there is further education for us as we listen to Spartacus – Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia by Khachaturian, famously used as the theme to The Onedin Line. This piece rolls and soars, and such is the power of the imagery of the TV series that one can hear the sea and rolling waves throughout. A humorous piece is the Grasshopper’s Dance from Bucalossi and used by the Milk Marketing Board. This is perhaps less well known than some, but is full of bounce with the percussion sounding just like milk bottles clinking together – another excellent choice by whichever agency was responsible for it. Whately returns to the stage for Handel’s Rinaldo – Lascia Ch’io Pianga. Once again, Seal dispenses with his baton to urge mellifluous notes form the orchestra. Whately’s voice ebbs and flows delightfully with a moment of pure silence, almost reverence, at the end before the audience erupts into applause.
After the upbeat Liberty Bell from Souza, made famous, of course, by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but disappointingly devoid of fruity raspberries or cartoon feet, we are treated to the delicate Bolero from Ravel, including some quite jazzy glissandos.
As Front mentions, the CBSO is not only a world class orchestra, but also, “YOUR world class orchestra”; the mixture of familiarity with the lesser known, unused sections played with such authority certainly supports that assertion. They play Friday Night Classics concerts every month – they quality of their playing will repay a visit to future concerts.
Runs until: Reviewed on 24th October