Conductor: Richard Balcombe
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) presents music from, and inspired by, France in this latest of its series of Friday Night Classics concerts of light orchestral music. So, as conductor Richard Balcombe mentions, there is plenty from the pen of Michel Legrand; classical songs associated with The Little Sparrow, Edith Piaf; and show tunes from Les Misérables and from Hollywood’s tale on all things Parisian, Gigi.
The evening begins with an orchestral overture including nods to I Love Paris in the Springtime, Gigi, The Can Can and even, with accordion accompaniment from Mark Bousie, David Croft and Ray Moore’s them to ‘Allo ‘Allo, London Calling. It’s not usual to see an accordion playing with an orchestra, but somehow it makes almost anything sound French. Balcombe conducts with energy, often dispensing with the traditional baton.
Joining the CBSO are the featured soloists, Mary Carewe and Graham Bickley. The first few songs are performed a touch hesitantly with some questionable phrasing and voices that sound a little rough around the edges. There are some higher points – a notable example being the duet of A Man and a Woman, in which the two voices meld together in harmony, Bickley’s tone being warm, Carewe’s more brittle. The orchestral piece, How Do You keep the Music Playing?, allows the CBSO to show off its versatility, with changes in mood from moments of great delicacy to stridency. This is reinforced in the second half with Nelson Riddle’s orchestration of Cole Porter’s Adam and Eve Ballet – based on I Love Paris in the Springtime – and ending with a stirring big band sound.
However, as we close the first half with the tribute to Piaf including La vie en rose, L’Accordéoniste, Hymne à l’Amour and, of course, Non, je ne regrette rien, the whole thing moves up a gear. Carewe’s vocals perfectly suit the songs and, although not an overt imitation of Piaf’s style (who could hope to copy her?), evoke her memory. Carewe’s voice is totally at home in this register and she becomes a magnetic focal point. This segment is a tour de force.
And any lingering questions about the singing quality are dismissed in the second half. Bickley returns with Gigi and shows that he is a masterful interpreter of songs. A pleasure to listen to. Later, he returns with What Are You Doing With the Rest of Your Life?, giving a majestic performance, topped only by his I Am What I Am.
And the quality builds. Carewe takes up the baton and shows she, too, can interpret a song with Papa Can You Hear Me? from Yentl.
The main part set closes with a selection from Les Misérables featuring both singers, a stirring, moving and fitting close.
So, overall something of a curate’s egg – a hesitant beginning that suddenly morphs into towering performances.
Reviewed on 13 November 2015 | Image: Contributed