Friday Night Classics: First Ladies of Swing – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Guy Barker

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

With a wry smile, Clare Teal explains that this concert, First Ladies of Swing, has been two years in the planning.  Since its genesis, there was the Swing Jazz Prom in 2017 that featured tonight’s guest vocalists – all of whom are male. Later, conductor Guy Barker leads a tribute that he arranged to ‘that well known First Lady of Swing, Ray Charles’. Misnomer aside, this concert does form an exceptionally fine tribute to such queens of swing as Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, as well as swing in general.

The stars of the show are undoubtedly Clare Teal and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) under the baton of Barker, who also arranged most of the evening’s music. Teal acts both as vocalist and MC, singing with aplomb and discussing the music with wit and warmth. Her voice has a richness to it and she can certainly deliver a song. She also gives every indication of thoroughly enjoying the entire evening –  as do the members of the CBSO whose heads often bob in time as they await their cues. Teal is equally at home with the upbeat, for example, Singin’ in the Rain as the wistful Secret Love, which also benefits from an atmospheric string section. Throughout, Barker conducts with authority and efficiency of movement, leading the CBSO to effortlessly strike just the right mood.

Teal emphasises the importance of supporting live music and the bringing on of new talent – borne out in the choice of guest vocalists, all of whom are young men who are supremely talented: this evening is a real treat for the ears. We are introduced to Scandinavian Mads Mathias as he sings Some Day You’ll Be Sorry. There’s a lovely crooning tone to his voice, recalling a younger Jamie Cullum.

Later we meet Ben Cipolla who, Teal says, she first came cross when he was busking. He reminds one of a young Sinatra when he sings Young at Heart in the first half, but any suggestion that that’s all he is is soon dismissed when he sings I Only Have Eyes for You accompanying himself on guitar. This is a truly magical performance from Cipolla and one that justly brings tumultuous applause. The final guest vocalist, ROB.GREEN, also produces a moment of pure magic with Georgia On My Mind – ROB.GREEN and his performance are really something specialThese young singers produce truly memorable performances for all the right reasons. What is gratifying to see is how much all the vocalists appear to enjoy the evening and each other’s company, as shown when they share singing duties, for example, in their fun rendition of Hernando’s Hideaway.  Their enjoyment raises the performances to a higher level as their enthusiasm infects the audience.

The orchestra also has the opportunity to show off its skills in two tributes, one to Ray Charles, the other to Quincy Jones. Here, as elsewhere, they show they can really swing causing almost involuntary swaying and foot-tapping throughout the auditorium.

However, when the CBSO is really swinging it can overwhelm the singers’ voices meaning that some lines are inaudible, especially before the interval, which causes some frustration to the listener.

Nevertheless, this evening proves that the future of Swing is secure when there are performances of the calibre seen tonight, performances from rising stars who are surely destined for the very top of the tree.

Reviewed on 18 May 2018  | Image: Contributed

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It REALLY swings!

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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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