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Friday Night Classics: Rainer Hersch: Comedy Meets the Orchestra – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Rainer Hersch
Reviewer:  Selwyn Knight

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) likes a bit of a laugh. Yes, they can be serious when playing heavyweight classics with the players in formal dress, but they also love to let their collective hair down for their lighter shows, Friday Night Classics. We’ve seen the musicians in fancy dress as ABBA members or film stars and generally showing their human sides. And while there is often an amiable conductor or presenter dishing out bons mots about the pieces played, it’s always the music that is central and always played with supreme professionalism and skill.

So what are we to make of Rainer Hersch and his particular brand of performance? The show title seems to lack imagination, the programme notes tell us that we are to enjoy an evening of comedy (and as the audience enters a screen above the stage serves to reinforce that) but we’re also told that the music is not there in a supporting role: the music is to take centre-stage and be funny itself. One can’t help wondering exactly how that might work.

Then we see him – bounding on to the stage like an over-excited child and looking like the archetypal absent-minded professor who started to dress for a night of conducting but forgot halfway through and appears before us in a suit and plimsolls. There is banter with the audience – Hersch is immediately likeable and tells an anecdote with the best of them. But yes, it really is the music that is still central and the quality of the CBSO still shines through.

We realise what sort of evening it will be as it opens dramatically with Bach’s Toccata in D Minor in all is portentive glory. Hersch strikes a pose and looks every inch the authoritative conductor, conducting the piece with sharp and well-defined movements. Then, suddenly, we hear bongos and get an upbeat, disco mood that segues seamlessly into the Mambo section of Dance at the Gym from West Side Story.  As an aside, this piece of music also answers some burning questions, for example, which Radio 4 show Hersch would cancel – to answer the orchestra plays The Archers theme tune which somehow is morphed into Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets. Later, we will hear Ode to Joy played in lots of different styles, based on the outcomes of an audience vote, that include Techno, Country, Reggae, Disco, Punk and, memorably, Latin.

His actual jokes might be simplistic, but the quality of the music, including a recorder recital – who knew that the CBSO included recorder aficionados among its number – and its own humour shine through. There are roads more travelled– getting audience members conducting on stage or clapping along to the Sailors’ Hornpipe have been done before, but one cannot help but warm to Hersch’s childlike enthusiasm. His deep-seated love of music is clear. And judging by the looks on the musician’s faces and the shaking of their shoulders, the CBSO clearly loves an evening when, occasionally, they are encouraged to fool around and even play a little like Les Dawson.

So this evening with Rainer Hersch does what it seeks to and does live up to that rather flat title, combining fabulous musicianship with jokes both about and within the music played. A feelgood evening leaving you with a smile on your face – and a new take on The Archers…

Reviewed on 10 March 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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  1. The whole experience was fantastic. Not only was Rainer Hersch very funny, but members the CBSO demonstrated their versatility and discipline in following his lead.

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