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Review: Symphony Of A Thousand, Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at Symphony Hall

This was a concert celebrating the orchestra's 75th anniversary, as well as remembering ground-breaking Mahler performances under one-time long-serving conductor Kenneth Page.

Symphony Of A Thousand, Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at Symphony Hall
****
Conductor Michael Lloyd
Conductor Michael Lloyd

I doubt anyone has ever heard Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" given with that number of musicians, but I guess Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra's amazing presentation under Michael Lloyd on Sunday came somewhere near the forces employed by Mahler for the Munich premiere of this Eighth Symphony in 1910 (less than a year before his death from burnout).

Of all the six performances I've heard at Symphony Hall, this had the largest choral contingent I've experienced, formed of the City of Birmingham Choir, a huge University of Birmingham Chorus, and youngsters from St Peter's Collegiate Church and Coppice Performing Arts School, both Wolverhampton, and some of the children, I'm afraid, guilty of fidgeting when not standing to sing.

Choral attack was strong and unanimous, diction clear, and the separation effects from groups spreading around the auditorium from the performing area were stunning. Chorus master Julian Wilkins and sub-conductors Chris Holley and Peter Morris had done a marvellous job.

Lloyd with his operatic background had assembled an impressive octet of vocal soloists, but their delivery was mixed. Tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts showed signs of strain in the difficult writing for Doctor Marianus, and bass Jeremy White sometimes forced his notes over the edge. The female soloists blended beautifully, and soprano Claire Seaton achieved marvels, delivering radiant top C's from an enforced sitting position (she came on stage with a crutch).

The BPO played out of its socks and then some. This was a concert celebrating the orchestra's 75th anniversary, as well as remembering ground-breaking Mahler performances under one-time long-serving conductor Kenneth Page.

Brass were biting as well as noble, strings led by guest concertmaster Peter Thomas (how poignant for him to be back on the stage where he led the CBSO countless times under Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo) were busy and sensitive, woodwinds were eloquent, percussion a kaleidoscopic presence. The four harps made a ravishing impact.

And everything under Michael Lloyd was conveyed with rhythmic impetus, even in the slowest passages, a dynamic enthusiasm and conviction which showed this work as the genuine masterpiece some snobbish pundits have denied it to be (they must have missed its amazing thematic cogency and the chamber-music resourcefulness drawn from these huge forces).

There shouldn't have been an interval between the two movements, though. After the exultant conclusion to the "Veni, Creator Spiritus" we should have moved directly into the hushed otherworldliness of Goethe's "Faust" finale. That way there would have been no need for the audience to resettle itself before this remarkable paean to creativity and redemption progressed to its tear-welling conclusion.

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