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Birmingham's concert scene has been lit up by Mirga effect

Christopher Morley looks back on a spectacular year for classical music in the Midlands

CBSO musical director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducts the orchestra(Image: Benjamin Ealovega 2016)

The year just ending began with one spectacular highlight when, after a long and patient search, the CBSO announced the appointment of a new music director in succession to Andris Nelsons.

We had first seen the young Lithuanian Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla in action with the CBSO when she conducted an irresistible account of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on July 27, 2015.

So excited was the response from players and public alike that a return visit was hastily arranged, and that happened on January 10 this year.

This time, in a programme which included the Schumann Piano Concerto and Sibelius’ Four Lemminkainen Legends, the stand-out performance was of Debussy’s Prelude A l’Apres-midi d’Un Faune when, right from Marie-Christine Zupancic’s sultry opening flute solo, we knew we were in for a very special, deeply sensuous reading of a score which has been overplayed to the point of genteelness.

A few days later the white smoke burst forth, and the announcement of Mirga’s enthronement was made.

The musical world globally was set on fire and the city of Birmingham and its orchestra stood proud.

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Once again the arrival of a talented, relatively unknown conductor had galvanised the media, and mentions of Mirga and the CBSO never cease appearing in some media or other – one such occasion was their ecstatically received BBC Prom on August 27, which featured Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Hans Abrahamsen’s Hamlet-derived Let Me Tell You, when soprano Barbara Hannigan was virtuosically communicative in her delivery of Ophelia’s words.

Mirga’s first subscription concert in her official capacity included a captivating Le Matin symphony, a rarity by one of her great enthusiasms, Josef Haydn, and an evocative Mahler One. It’s such a pity that such a feel-good factor about her appointment should be wet-blanketed by the recent news that Birmingham City Council is slashing funding to the orchestra by 25 per cent from April 2017 (thank goodness for generous private donations already coming in, spurred on by the Mirga effect).

Coinciding with Mirga’s arrival was the departure of Edward Gardner as he came to the end of an already extended tenure as CBSO principal guest conductor.

Edward Gardner

Among the farewell gifts from this hugely popular son of Gloucestershire were a sympathetic Walton Second Symphony with its glorious, great central slow movement (how good to know he brings its predecessor with his own Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra to Symphony Hall next month), dramatic Walton Henry V excerpts (Samuel West the narrator), a glowing Elgar Second Symphony, a fizzing semi-staged Verdi Falstaff, a generous selection from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin as part of the CBSO Benevolent Fund concert, a welcome return to John Adams’ Harmonium of the Rattle era, CBSO Chorus in perennially stunning form, and a sheerly musical collaboration in the Beethoven Concerto with James Ehnes, the elegant, unflashy soloist.

Remaining within the CBSO “family”, Alpesh Chauhan, until recently the orchestra’s assistant conductor, and now with an orchestra of his own in Parma, gave us a flowing, ultimately imperious Sibelius Fifth Symphony and, together with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, shaped a thoughtful, properly symphonic Brahms First Piano Concerto.

Soprano superstar jumped at the chance to support Julian Lloyd Webber's work

Orchestras visiting Symphony Hall included the always welcome Philharmonia who, under the endearing Vladimir Ashkenazy, completed their Rachmaninov symphony cycle with stunning accounts of numbers One and Three; the consistently superlative National Youth Orchestra Of Great Britain bringing a revelatory account of Holst’s Planets under that man again Edward Gardner, and with spine-tingling solo violin contributions from Millie Ashton, a concertmaster about whom I expect to hear great things in the future; and the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, celebrating their 75th anniversary with an astonishingly accomplished performance of Mahler’s Symphony Of A Thousand, Michael Lloyd the empowering conductor.

There was another Mahler 8 at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, Adrian Partington directing the Philharmonia, the Festival Chorus and a phalanx of soloists in a thrustingly persuasive account which set the seal on what had been a magnificently enjoyable festival week.

Also out of town, Ian Venables’ Through These Pale Cold Days, quietly insistent powerful responses to poetry connected with the First World War, made a strong impression at its premiere at Worcester Royal Grammar School on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the Battle of the Somme. Melvyn Tan’s bewitching recital at the Pittville Pump Rooms during the Cheltenham Festival gave us a persuasive account of Jonathan Dove’s beautifully imagined Catching Fire, as well as an incandescent Liszt Sonata.

Angela Hewitt

And another brilliant account of the Liszt was heard at Much Marcle’s Hellensmusic Festival, Christian Blackshaw the soloist, who a couple of days later was joined by friends from European orchestras in a searing account of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet which was very nearly my highlight of the year; and Angela Hewitt came to Codsall with a joyous, confiding account of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a work with which she is so intimate that it breathes out of her very pores.

Back in the city, the Birmingham And Midland Institute is an unsung venue about which we all ought to be made more aware.

Among its promotions this year was an absorbing recital of sonatas by John Ireland and Rachmaninov from cellist Jiaxin Lloyd Webber and pianist Rebeca Omordia; Omordia returned in the autumn to give a tiny but appreciative audience stunning accounts of Ravel’s Gaspard De La Nuit, followed by the John Ireland piano sonata.

Ex Cathedra's expedition to explore the New World

Birmingham Cathedral hosted a heart-warming celebration of the music of Andrew Downes for his 65th birthday, happily still composing immediately communicative, performer-rewarding works despite horrendous health problems. This was promoted by the Central England Camerata, and Anthony Bradbury conducted.

Another aspect of the music of today came from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, celebrating the 25th anniversary of its pioneering crowd-funding Sound Investment scheme with the premiere of Francisco Coll’s Ceci N’est Pas Un Concerto, a delightfully surreal piece of music-theatre in which the page-turner (Elizabeth Atherton the adroit soprano) berates the pianist (the indefatigable Malcolm Wilson, here making his final appearance with BCMG after being there since its inception). It deserves further performances.

There were some absorbing song-recitals: Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis in Malvern and Birmingham, Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside in the Adrian Boult Hall, the exciting young German baritone Benjamin Appl and Gary Matthewman in Birmingham Town Hall.

Birmingham Town Hall was also the venue for what was probably the most moving event of the year, a concert celebrating the life of Karen O’Connor, for so many years a popular oboist with the CBSO.

Classical music star Melvyn Tan.

Colleagues and friends travelled many miles to participate, Karen’s husband Chris Clift presided genially, and we left uplifted rather than saddened. This was a very special occasion.

Other events in the Town Hall included a riveting Bach B minor Mass from Ex Cathedra (earlier in the year on Good Friday they had given a heart-catching St Matthew Passion in Symphony Hall), and a clear-headed and frisky Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks (Bach with a bite) from David Curtis’s Orchestra of the Swan.

But mention of Town Hall and Symphony Hall brings one sadness, with the retirement of Andrew Jowett from his post as director. Under his wise and jovial supervision since 1988, when Symphony Hall first began to grow from a glimmer, Birmingham’s musical life has burgeoned and gained an international reputation.

He has drawn the most illustrious names to the city, Cecilia Bartoli and Valery Gergiev just a couple of examples, and perhaps without realising it, he has himself been a much-loved presence.

Symphony Hall and Andrew’s successor Nick Reed gave him a memorable send-off.

Pianist embraces the raw, immense genius of Brahms

There was another sadness with the demolition of the Adrian Boult Hall – only 30 years old, but an element of Birmingham Conservatoire soon to be eliminated as part of the Paradise Circus redevelopment.

A wonderful programme of events marked the occasion, beginning with a charming Sunday afternoon recital from flautists Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway, continuing through a return visit from the CBSO (the ABH used to be their base until the creation of the CBSO Centre), Conservatoire principal Julian Lloyd Webber collaborating with soloist Eduardo Vassallo in Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto, and ending with a tremendous performance of the Verdi Requiem from the Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the literally 11th-hour baton of the reassuring Barry Wordsworth.

Saying goodbye to the ABH brings compensations, however. Concerts are now given in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall (its original public performance venue), and just last week we were treated to a recital from soprano Danielle de Niese. Jonathan French the sympathetic accompanist, in which performers and audience alike benefited from the enforced intimacy which created a huge frisson of excitement.

Glyndebourne-based de Niese brings us neatly to opera, and memories of Longborough Festival Opera (Glyndebourne without the self-regard), which gave us yet another summer of delights.

Wagner’s Tannhauser unveiled a chorus of huge promise for the future, Anthony Negus conducting as the consummate Wagnerian he is; there was a fizzing, comedic yet occasionally tragic Mozart Marriage Of Figaro, and a shrewdly enigmatic Janacek Jenufa, Lee Bisset the soaring heroine.

Welsh National Opera makes valiant attempts to override today’s demanding financial climate, and its triumph for me this year was the revival of WNO’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, one first seen 20 years ago to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary.

Composer John Joubert(Image: Adrian Pearman)

This is a wonderful achievement, set within a Sicilian village, and reminding us of the social life going on within a southern Italian Christmas crib scene. Carlo Rizzi conducted and unfolded all the score’s glory.

And it is an opera which is, in fact, my highlight of the year. John Joubert, now approaching his 90th birthday, is also approaching the 200th opus number of his compositions, but high among all of these in his heart is his opera Jane Eyre. Composed purely as a labour of love, Jane Eyre had to be pushed on to the back-burner while Joubert dealt with commissioned works, and was only completed a decade or so ago.

At last in October it achieved its professional premiere in concert performance at the awesomely equipped Ruddock Performing Arts Centre at King Edward’s School, Edgbaston.

Kenneth Woods conducted an on-fire English Symphony Orchestra, an array of soloists was headed by the totally committed April Fredrick and David Stout as Jane and Rochester, and the audience response to this gloriously lyrical, excitingly dramatic score was immense.

The highlight for everyone present was seeing John Joubert determinedly rising from his wheelchair to acknowledge applause which went on and on.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime special occasion, and it is good to know that it was captured in an SOMM recording which will be issued in time for John Joubert’s 90th birthday.

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