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Saints march in with a few surprises up their sleeve...

Christopher Morley previews a busy few weeks ahead on the classical scene, including an enterprising mix of the known and not-so-known from the Orchestra of St John

Chris Nottingham Benjamin Frith
Benjamin Frith

With springtime bringing longer daylight to our evenings city residents might feel tempted to venture out into the region to sample the musical events on offer.

The enterprising Orchestra of St John, based in Bromsgrove’s Parish Church of that name, and its specially-assembled Choir are currently tuning up for a generous concert there next Saturday, April 29 (7.30pm).

Pianist Benjamin Frith will be particularly busy, playing as soloist in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto as well in two rarely heard works for piano, orchestra and choir.

Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande, with its art deco text by Sacheverell Sitwell, is infectiously jazzy (it was composed in 1927) and demands a colourful percussion section. It is paired with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, one of that composer’s wildest and most visionary works.

When I conducted the piece as a music undergraduate at the University of Birmingham in the late 1960s we students had a wonderful time rehearsing and performing it.

Raphael Wallfisch.
Raphael Wallfisch.

It begins with what was originally a lengthy piano improvisation (Beethoven himself at the premiere), before the orchestra gradually creeps in, introducing a set of variations on a simple theme which all listeners will recognise as an early version of the “Ode to Joy”.

And then, just as in the looming Ninth Symphony, vocal soloists and chorus crown the proceedings, singing an idealistic text (apparently Beethoven’s own) extolling the unifying power of music.

Its premiere broke down, thanks to under-rehearsal and deterioration of relations between the composer and his performers.

No such danger for this OSJ concert – which also included the little matter of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony - under the genial directorship of Richard Jenkinson.

The same evening the Solihull Choral Society under its new conductor Oliver Walker performs an attractive pairing of works by the eminently approachable John Rutter, his Requiem and his Magnificat.

The SCS is joined by the Sinfonia of Birmingham for this concert in Solihull School Chapel, Warwick Road (7.30pm).

Baritone Roderick Williams
Baritone Roderick Williams

Meanwhile, the Sutton Coldfield Choral Society is set to celebrate 25 years under its music director Richard Mason. Sutton Coldfield Town Hall is the venue for its performance on May 14 of Haydn’s genial and descriptive oratorio The Seasons (7.30pm). The festival season is stirring into life, with the biennial Hagley Music Festival kicking off on May 5, with events taking place at various venues in this North Worcestershire village. Among its varied presentations are a visit to St John’s Church within the grounds of Hagley Hall from the popular clarinettist Emma Johnson, with her jazz-inspired “Clarinet Goes to Town” programme (7.30pm).

Ex Cathedra round off a day with pupils of Hagley Primary School with a performance at St Saviour’s Church (May 8, 7.30pm), and the early music group The Denner Ensemble plays and recounts bawdy stories in Hagley Hall on May 12 (7.30pm).

Birmingham Symphonic Winds perform a mixed programme of big band, jazz, film themes and “a touch of classical” in St John’s Church on May 13 (7.30pm), and the next evening at the same time at the venue there is a “Come and Sing” session on the Mozart Requiem. The event also features a performance from the Central England Camerata of the Second Symphony of local composer Andrew Downes.

Hagley’s concluding concert comes on May 20 (7.30pm), when Thomas Trotter commemorates the 30th anniversary of the rebuilding of the organ at St John’s with a programme of works by Bach, Mozart, Leroy Anderson, Widor, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Mendelssohn.

A specially-installed video screen will allow audience-members to view all aspects of Trotter’s performance (I always regret the fact that organists, who are among the most visual of performers, what with all that footwork and stop-manipulating, are generally out of the audience’s view).

John Hipkiss The choir of Ex Cathedra.
The choir of Ex Cathedra.

Meanwhile, Leamington Spa is preparing its latest Music Festival Weekend (April 28-May 2) at the town’s Royal Pump Rooms. Some illustrious names are scheduled to appear: Dame Felicity Lott and clarinettist Michael Collins on April 29 in a delicious programme (7.30pm); Raphael Wallfisch (cello) and pianist John York the next day (noon), in a programme of Schumann, Schubert (the wonderful Arpeggione Sonata) and Franck; and two concerts with baritone Roderick Williams, when he is joined on April 30 by Iain Burnside for Schubert’s great song-cycle Die Schone Mullerin (7.30pm) and by Ensemble 360 on May 1 for a repeat performance of Howard Skempton’s impressive Rime of the Ancient Mariner (7.30pm).

* Orchestra of St John 01527 577330.

* Solihull Choral Society 0121 705 0311.

* Sutton Coldfield Choral Society 0121 296 9543.

* Hagley Festival 01562 886363.

* Leamington Festival 01926 334418.

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