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Review: CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla returned to a packed and adoring Symphony Hall to conduct her second subscription series concert with "her" CBSO.

CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall
*****
Benjamin Ealovega 2016 CBSO musical director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducts the orchestra
CBSO musical director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducts the orchestra

Early last January Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducted her second concert with the CBSO, hastily-arranged after her sensational debut with the orchestra the previous July. Her appointment as music director followed immediately.

Now, just over a year later, last Sunday she returned to a packed and adoring (audience and players alike) Symphony Hall to conduct her second subscription series concert with "her" CBSO, and from the moment she beamed onto the stage we knew this was going to be something very special.

Mirga likes exploring Haydn symphonies, and her programme opened with his Symphony no.31, subtitled 'The Hornsignal', and a rarity, because it requires a quartet of French horns on absolutely top form. The CBSO boasts such a quartet, and wow, didn't it show here, the hornists' virtuosity throughout matched by spectacular solos from so many orchestral principals.

Review: Mirga Conducts Mahler's First, CBSO, at Birmingham Symphony Hall

Orchestral sound was proud, confident and forward, the latter quality perhaps due to Mirga's orchestral layout, crucially cellos next to the first violins and double-basses arrayed behind them, splendidly facing out into the audience.

And layout brought a huge surprise for the performance of Mozart's last piano concerto, his 27th, K595, when we saw the piano being placed, lidless, in the centre of the stage, facing the orchestra -- as would happen were the soloist going to direct as well. Where to put our conductor?

She stood in the middle of the orchestra, facing the soloist (so an amazing amount of eye-contact ensued), but also facing the auditorium, so we could gain added value in observing her persuasive facial expressiveness, allied to her almost choreographic conducting technique (she doesn't actually have to beat time for this orchestra, her body-language says it all).

Francesco Piemontesi was the soloist, his neat, relaxed fingers drawing a warm, pearly tone, if a little distanced (no lid to bounce the sound into the hall), his decoration flowing ripplingly, his added ornaments perfectly fitting, his nuanced phrasing as natural as singing. He conjured a whole range of moods from these deceptively simple textures, and his collaboration with Mirga's orchestra was as empathetic as in chamber-music.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony began arrestingly, with thuds on a muffled drum, and heavy brass intoning a dirge-like march. This isn't in the score: was it from Purcell's music for the funeral of Queen Mary, or something written for the French Revolution?

Whatever the provenance, Mirga immediately launched into a taut, charged account of the symphony, refusing to give it any heavy portentousness but instead revealing its huge sense of zealous struggle. Period timpani rattled ominously during the transition from Scherzo to Finale, where period trumpets were joined by full-throated trombones, sturdy double-bassoon and an excitingly shrilling piccolo to bring an exultant conclusion.

During a charming post-encore speech, elfin-like Mirga, whose voice can reach out to the entire auditorium, explained that the introduction to the Beethoven was to create silence, she praised us for being such an adventurous audience, and then sent us home with a soothing encore, Bach's ineffable Air from his Third Orchestral Suite.

* Repeated Thursday February 2 (2.15pm).

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