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Friday Night Classics: Abba Symphonic Spectacular – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Stephen Bell

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

The 1970s: the decade that taste forgot as we are reminded by Conductor Stephen Bell as he stands in front of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) with many players resplendent in seventies gear. It’s also the decade that brought us Glam Rock, Punk, the first woman Prime Minister, and, of course, some of the best crafted pure pop ever seen or heard, courtesy of eight albums produced between 1973 and 1981 and a Eurovision win in 1973 for Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid: ABBA.

And now, forty years after ABBA’s heyday, the CBSO under the baton of Bell with singers Dean Collinson, David Combes, Emma Kershaw and Annie Skates pays tribute to thank ABBA for the music. And thank them this audience (predominantly of a certain age that grew up with ABBA first time round and some in seventies dress) does: standing, waving phone torches and dancing in the aisles – this last much to the annoyance of those charged with maintaining health and safety in the hall.

It’s easy to poke affectionate fun at ABBA’s music – the lyrics are simplistic, the structure generally straightforward – but one can’t deny the unashamedly feelgood factor of much of their output, which Bell and his companions seek to reproduce. To modern-day eyes, some of the seventies-inspired dance moves performed on stage are also quaint if not a touch awkward at times, even risible. What isn’t in doubt is how much the singers are loving this opportunity to belt out these tunes to an appreciative audience.

Bell is enthusiastic and energetic as he conducts the CBSO – supplemented tonight by guitars, both electric and acoustic, keyboards and drum kit – to get the orchestra rocking. And judging by the look on the players’ faces, they love the opportunity to rock ‘n’ roll and let their hair down –  even if it is a stage prop for some. Bell and the singers share MC duties, engaging with the audience and each other with warmth and affection.

Our four singers look the part, the girls glamorous and the boys in garishly hideous fuchsia pink and blue frilly one-piece suits for the first half – thankfully for older eyes they all change into an all-white get-up after the interval.

However, the performance struggles to find its feet a bit in the first half: the volume of the electric section threatens to overwhelm the more traditional orchestra behind it as well as the voices of the singers making them seem a touch tinny at first. The songs before the interval – while undoubtedly well-performed – are maybe in ABBA’s second division (if such a thing exists). But any such niggles are soon sorted and one can enjoy the richness, purity and clarity of the singers’ voices.

It’s after the interval that the evening really takes off as it opens with Voulez-Vous and continues with Super Trouper, in which Collinson, whose voice usually has a pleasantly light tone demonstrates a rather fine lower register too. In The Winner Takes It All and I Have a Dream, Skates and Kershaw respectively show that they can really deliver a song with emotional punch and it isn’t long before the audience ditches gentle swaying for outright disco moves. The nature of the music is that the girls largely take centre stage vocally, but the boys support well and occasionally have the opportunity to really shine, for example, we can enjoy the richness of Combes’ voice during SOS.

While it takes a little while to get cranked up and really get going, this is certainly a worthy tribute to Sweden’s biggest export, the band who left such a legacy of upbeat pop; the look on the faces of members of the audience during the concert and as they make their way out of the cocooning warmth of Symphony Hall and into a frosty December night is testament to that.

Reviewed on 1 December 2017 | Image: Contributed

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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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