Best of the West End – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Conductor: Michael England

It’s been a while since we were able to cover one of the lighter, Friday concerts from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), but it has been well worth the wait. This concert features inspired programming, an orchestra at the top of its game and soloists with strikingly different styles but who all, nevertheless, inhabit the song they sing as well as being technically superb. And on this occasion, a British Sign Language interpreter. While the interpreter’s principal role is, of course, to make the evening more accessible to members of the d/Deaf communities, in fact, Paul Whittaker’s movements are similarly delivered with skill, grace and enthusiasm, adding a further dimension to the enjoyment for the entire audience.

The programme covers multiple West End genres over the years. So we have Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific right up to You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hansen via Maybe This Time from Cabaret and I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady: at first it seems as if this is simply an eclectic mix from the world of musical theatre, but the more one attends to the lyrics and performances, the more it feels as if there’s a theme to the evening, an ever-present feeling of longing and aspiration. And this suits the CBSO ideally as many of the pieces start with minimal, introspective orchestration only to build and soar as the message is delivered. Every part of the orchestra is truly in harmony, proving it can communicate so many moods, sometimes with delicacy, at others, raising the roof as it really swings. Many of these songs would usually be heard supported by pit orchestras much smaller than the CBSO, and it is this step change in size that allows the music to swell, ebb and flow so perfectly. This, of course, flows from the baton of conductor, Michael England, himself a veteran of many West End show pit orchestras. But all of that would be as nothing were it not for the acoustics of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, which carry the sound to the farthest reaches with total clarity, ensuring that each instrument, no matter how tiny, can clearly be heard. So we hear every note from percussion to mellifluous strings in the unrelentingly optimistic overture from Gypsy, alongside an ethereal, almost spooky feel to the opening of the second half from Phantom of the Opera.

But musical theatre is, first and foremost, about stories and stories need people to tell and experience them. And this is where the soloists for the evening shine.

Scott Davies has a powerful voice that barely needs the microphone. But he also sings with delicacy and feeling. He projects longing in Some Enchanted Evening and ‘Til I Hear You Sing. But he can rock with the best, as seen in the closing medley from Mamma Mia! David Thaxton’s voice, by contrast, is less operatic in tone, and this suits his renditions of Something’s Coming – where we feel the teenage angst of Tony – and the inspirational You Will Be Found. Louise Dearman’s voice has a bluesy, husky quality with plenty of depth. It’s sultry, almost as if one has turned the bass knob up on the stereo. And this quality is perfect for belting out Maybe This Time and the evergreen Let It Go and Defying Gravity, filling the hall with sound. Sophie Evans, on the other hand, has a voice of purity and crystal clarity so the optimism of I Could Have Danced All Night and Somewhere Over the Rainbow are clearly communicated.

The singers do come together at times too – the opening vocal number is Company from Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name. This is, of course, complex for both orchestra and singers (and BSL interpreter) and allows all to show off their technical skills, although when all are singing, the men’s voices can be lost in the sound mix to an extent – not an issue when signing alone.

It’s difficult to imagine a better homage to musical theatre, leaving the audience uplifted and with a spring in their steps.

Reviewed on 9 June 2023

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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