In a year of outstanding musical achievement Christopher Morley picks out his favourite classical performances.
Though the current financial climate means the region’s arts organisations are facing funding cuts or possibly even extinction, 2010 has been a tremendous year of achievement in the world of music around these parts.
Leading the pack is the CBSO, celebrating its 90th anniversary with style and a huge confidence that its centenary in ten years time will witness even more elation, and Andris Nelsons, the orchestra’s brilliant music director, and much sought-after all over the world, has told me he wants to be here “if the players still want to have me”.
And they do. I witnessed the orchestra on tour under Nelsons’ galvanising baton twice this year, with spontaneous standing ovations both in the Ruhr-land city of Dortmund in Germany, and in Nelsons’ home city of Riga, Latvia.
The CBSO anniversary itself, 90 years to the day that Elgar conducted the then City of Birmingham Orchestra in Birmingham Town Hall for the first time, was marked by a wonderful programme: Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite, Haydn’s Symphony no.90 ( so stylishly performed as the filling of this arch-romantic sandwich), and Elgar’s Violin Concerto (on the centenary of its premiere).
James Ehnes was the self-effacing soloist and Nelsons conducted all three works with natural empathy.
A blazing reading of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony launched a year-long celebration of the composer as the anniversaries of both his birth and death follow each other, Nelsons following this up later in the autumn with a revelatory account of the composer’s Fifth.
But Nelsons has always been courted elsewhere (Birmingham was so lucky to nail him), and even more so nowadays, not least in opera-houses worldwide where he has recently made his debut: the Metropolitan New York, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, and, most spectacularly, the Wagner Festival Theatre in Bayreuth.
There he conducted the season’s opening production, Wagner’s Lohengrin, but Birmingham had a sneak preview (whatever that means) when Andris Nelsons presided over a tremendous concert-performance of the opera earlier in the summer at Symphony Hall, with the amazing CBSO Chorus literally to the fore in terms of vocal projection and engagement.
On a much smaller scale, a day before the Latvian trip, CBSO concert-master Laurence Jackson and his co-leader desk-partner Zoe Beyers gave a totally persuasive account of the Bach Double Violin Concerto, a tiny CBSO marshalled by the unobtrusive Martin Perkins at the harpsichord. What versatility this orchestra has in its pocket! Let’s not forget a wonderful all-Mozart programme, the Haffner Symphony, and the G major Flute Concerto (Marie-Christine Zupancic the sparkling and expressive soloist), and then the Requiem, Nelsons conducting with gravity and lyrical beauty, and the CBSO Chorus arranged in vocal quartets rather than slabs of voices.
Two student orchestras which both feed the CBSO excelled themselves this year, as they always do. Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra gave an edge-of-the-seat, no-holds-barred account of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Birmingham Town Hall at the end of the academic year, Lionel Friend conducting, and it was Friend again, by now conductor emeritus of the orchestra, who presided over a seamless, flexible reading of the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto from George Caird earlier this month, Caird laying down his mortar-board after 17 highly successful years as principal of the Conservatoire.
And the CBSO Youth Orchestra offered a searing Shostakovich Symphony no.11 at the end of October, the latest in a triumphant series of masterworks rehearsed under intensive coaching from CBSO players during half-term holidays.
Moving to the other end of the spectrum, 2010 has been a bumper year for piano recitals. Alfred Brendel, Leon McCawley and Piotr Anderszewski at Birmingham Town Hall, Mitsuko Uchida at Symphony Hall, Peter Donohoe’s ongoing Beethoven piano sonata cycle at Birmingham Conservatoire, Benjamin Grosvenor (such a mature young performer) at the Forum, Malvern, spring to mind, but there were many others, for which apologies for the lack of mention (as throughout this column for any event in any format which I will have praised to the skies at the time).
Our local choral societies continue to do sterling work, often exploring unusual repertoire instead of stolidly sticking to the basics, but it was particularly good to revisit Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius given in its Birmingham Town Hall birthplace by Jeffrey Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra XL Choir, as this remarkable chorus continued to delight us with its 40th anniversary celebrations.
There were some wonderful things going on out of town, too, not least the premiere in Gloucester Cathedral of this year’s Three Choirs Festival major commission, An English Requiem by the much-loved Moseley-based composer John Joubert. This is an astonishingly subtly structured and grippingly communicative work by this rejuvenated composer now well into his 80s. The musical world beyond our region has rediscovered him, and about time too.
Also in Gloucester, the Gloucester Music Society promotes an intrepid monthly programme. I was tempted down twice, once for a song-recital by Warwickshire-based baritone Roderick Williams premiering a wonderful new work by Worcester-based Ian Venables, and the second time for an absorbing collage of mind-stimulating string quartet music by Bach, Beethoven and Pierre Boulez, no less, the Quatuor Parisii the providers of this intellectual feast.
Over in mid-Wales’ Powys, MidWales Opera opened its new production of Verdi’s Falstaff at the Theatr Hafren in Newtown. This slick, economical staging was brilliantly tailored for an extensive tour around England and Wales, and I was glad to catch up with it again in the Ludlow Assembly Rooms.
Which was where, early in the summer, I heard one of my contemporary music highlights of the year at the intensive and rewarding triennial English Song Festival promoted by the Finzi Friends. This was Lynne Plowman’s simple but so affecting setting of ee cummings’ “I carry your heart”, heart-piercingly delivered by mezzo-soprano Diana Moore.
Soon afterwards, snug in the beautiful Cotswolds, Longborough Festival Opera’s jewel of a little theatre with a Bayreuth-sized pit was the venue for another of my highlights, a well-imagined and triumphantly achieved production of Wagner’s Die Walkure, the latest instalment of what will soon be a complete Ring cycle.
And so back to Birmingham, and an operatic conclusion. Symphony Hall hosted a brilliantly-conceived presentation of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting a Philharmonia Orchestra playing out of its socks, with a fine team of soloists, and with video backdrops which were initially irritating but ultimately cathartic.
Birmingham Opera Company moved out of its usual field by engaging with Stravinsky’s choral ballet Les Noces. Amateur performers from all walks of life were involved in this fascinating production in a disused Jewellery Quarter factory, where we were encouraged to mill around spying on the pre- and post-nuptial activities of over 100 marital couples, while four expert pianists, the singers, and a team of on-heat percussionists delivered this spiky score under Jon Laird’s enthusiastic direction.
We end with Welsh National Opera, bringing Birmingham a revival of its witty and moving Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos, but, above all else, at last a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger we have all been been anticipating from this company for decades.
With a chorus like theirs, an orchestra which rises to every occasion, and principals queuing up to perform with the company, why have WNO waited so long? Perhaps until the perfect Hans Sachs came along – Wales’s own Bryn Terfel, and what a performance he gave.
Tears were in his eyes at the end of this six-hour marathon, as there were in many of ours. Certainly mine. This was my highlight of the year.