Scratch orchestras don't usually display unanimity of intonation, they don't suffuse a bloom of tone, nor do they project any personality. But the Birmingham Festival Orchestra spectacularly does.
Formed by Jamie Phillips when he was still a student, it pays tribute to his people-gifts, with members flocking to Birmingham, drawn from student-days, youth orchestra-days, all willing to sleep on people’s floors during the run-up to the latest concert.
And what a concert this was, beefy, ambitious, and brilliantly achieved. Keep reading for its highlight, which is an early entry for my highlight of the year.
Meanwhile, what might have been a disappointment (the indisposition of Alexandra Dariescu as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.25) resulted in a triumph. It is the greatest compliment to last-minute stand-in Erdem Misirlioglu that we were scarcely aware of his presence as he discreetly did his best for this not among the greatest of Mozart’s piano concertos (though no other composer has given us more).
Articulation was pearly in its clarity, phrasing beautifully shaped. Misilioglu is a pianist to watch out for. Phillips’s orchestral accompaniment was alert, but ever so slightly heavy.
Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben was a brave choice. The BFO played out of its collective skin in this most self-indulgent of scores (only Wagner’s Tristan approaches it), and Phillips had a secure grip upon its rambling structure. Concertmaster Michael Jones deserved his accolades for the prowess of his garrulous violin solos.
But the jewel in the crown was the concert-opener, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This came across as no patronising warhorse, but as a genuine vehicle to display this ensemble’s dizzying array of talents. I don’t think I will ever forget the harp’s glittering contribution, but that was only part of the whole.
How Phillips has been able to project such personality into an orchestra which only gets together now and again defeats me. What he must be achieving as assistant conductor at Manchester’s Halle is something I look forward to sussing out.