Sounds of the 1920s – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Conductor: Gavin Sutherland

After a long gestation, on 5th September 1920, the newly formed City of Birmingham Orchestra gave its first concert, with its first symphony concert following in November. We know it today as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and the mathematically astute will realise that it celebrates its centenary year this year, a year including some celebratory concerts, and this concert, Sounds of the 1920s forms part of that series.

Many established standards were written in the 1920s, often for quickly forgotten musicals, but the quality of the music lives on. Vocalist Clare Teal sums it up by saying that the Tin Pan Alley system was so robust that the songs could be adapted for any singer, and, indeed, she sings Nina Simone’s 1950s version of My Baby Just Cares For Me accompanied by piano and rhythm section, the rest of the orchestra smiling and nodding along.

As one might expect, there’s plenty of Gershwin, the composer who epitomises the 1920s. From the energetic opening of Strike Up The Band to the longing that is evident in Teal’s rendition of I’ve Got A Crush On You and The Man I Love, as well as her electric, showstopping performance of Someone To Watch Over Me, the genius of the songwriter is evident. And the CBSO hits the mood too, moving between delicacy and full-on swing with strident brass backed up by sweeping and mellifluous strings.

Our other vocalist, Gary Williams, brings a relaxed, laid back vibe to his performances, including Button Up Your Overcoat, Blue Skies and A Foggy Day (In London Town) – in the introduction to which the CBSO provides an orchestral evocation of London street sounds. And as an antidote to weather-related songs, Williams also treats us to the amusing Show Me The Way To Go Home, encouraging audience participation too. Teal and Williams come together for a duet of Cole Porter’s risqué Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Lovebefore Williams provides some bite with Mack The Knife.

The evening also includes a group of dancers – Bex Leung, Francesca Moffat, Tom Dwyer and Sam Nesti, choreographed for the limited space by Simon Coulthard – which accompanies several of the orchestral pieces, most memorably with an energetic Charleston to the Roaring 20s Medley that closes the main programme.

Gavin Sutherland is our genial conductor for the evening, sharing MC duties with Teal and Williams. He conducts purposefully and also arranged the encore, Tiger Rag, which includes the members of the orchestra lustily singing the chorus, with some decent harmonies too.

What one realises as the evening progresses is how skilful those Tin Pan Alley songwriters were at manipulating emotion, moving from melancholy to gaiety in a breath. And, of course, how skilful the CBSO is with some extremely fine players and soloists.

If there is a criticism of the evening it is that when the CBSO is in full swing mode, the vocals can’t compete and so some are lost in an unequal battle between vocalist and orchestra. However, that can’t take away from the overall quality of the evening, an excellent tribute to that music that’s getting on for 100 years old; as Williams muses at one point, how much popular music of this decade will still be played and enjoyed in 2120?

Reviewed on 21 February 2020

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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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