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

Conductor: Stephen Bell
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight


Hmm… the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) playing a concert of 1970s disco classics … seems a bit oxymoronic, no? No. Regular attendees at the CBSO’s popular series of light classical concerts, Friday Night Classics, know that the CBSO can and will turn their talented hands to most genres, and tonight proves that disco is included, especially when one recalls that disco often included cascading strings and strident brass. And the evening attracts a whole new batch of watchers into Symphony Hall to get a taste of the quality of their playing and of Symphony Hall’s peerless acoustics.

The members of the CBSO certainly throw themselves into the evening. The majority are dressed in wildly exotic clothing – flares, glitter, afro wigs, platform shoes. Even conductor Stephen Bell has made the effort, running to his podium in wig, sparkly cerise jacket and oversized Elton John glasses. Indeed, his movements as he conducts the upbeat numbers seem to mimic those of disco dancers themselves.

The evening opens with Discoture that includes many of the themes we are to hear and which allows the CBSO to show off its talents. And, as might be expected, there are driving beats from the percussion and rhythm sections, penetrating horns, crashing cymbals and some amplified guitars and keyboards. The CBSO is playing at disco volume, although occasionally the percussion will drown out other instruments. This is already joyously cheesy, but the cheesiness index only rises as the four featured singers – also bedecked in period costume – arrive on stage to provide the vocal power.

Well known to Symphony Hall patrons are the silky tones of Lance Ellington who takes the lead for, among others, Disco Inferno. His voice has the perfect register for these songs, making his singing effortless. Andrew Playfoot brings a wealth of musical theatre experience and an impressive vocal range, including a fine and unforced falsetto during the Bee Gees medley in the second half. A Sister Sledge medley allows the two girl singers, Annie Skates and Hazel Fernandes, to show off their skills. Fernandes’ voice is bluesy but with an edge, as she demonstrates in Young Hearts Run Free. For some reason, she seems to lack the volume of the other singers despite clearly belting out the numbers; maybe there was an issue with her microphone or the balance on the night. Skates’ voice is higher and purer, floating over the background, for example, in We Are Family.

Before the interval the singers and Bell occasionally exhort the audience to clap or even dance, an invitation accepted by a few hardy souls. Afterwards, however, larger portions of the auditorium begin to resemble a turbulent sea of humanity during, for example, Boogie Nights. We even have waving lights during Three Times A Lady and its simple arrangement that allows the focus to rest on Ellington’s voice. As the evening begins to draw to a close, we even have members of the orchestra joining in the dancing on the platform. And what better encore piece than YMCA, allowing the evening to end on an adrenaline high.

So, not a stereotypical evening with the CBSO, and not its stereotypical audience, but nevertheless an evening of feelgood fun and frivolity.

Reviewed on 11 March 2016 | 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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