Christopher Morley looks at the highlights of a busy classical music season in Birmingham.
Major operatic presentations top and tail Symphony Hall and Birmingham Town Hall’s 2013-14 Birmingham International Concert Season.
We begin at the opening of the season with Peter Grimes, the charismatic Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and an array of star soloists.
And the season ends with Richard Strauss’ irresistible Ariadne auf Naxos, Sir Antonio Pappano conducting Covent Garden’s Royal Opera forces with a glittering cast which includes Karita Mattila and Sir Thomas Allen.
Two other operas interleave these offerings. No sooner have we recovered from Peter Grimes than we will reel at Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek, bringing the timeless Oedipus story to EastEnders-land, courtesy of the always excellent Music Theatre Wales.
Book-ended just before Ariadne comes Gotterdammerung, the final installment of what has proved a stunning concert-performance series of Wagner’s Ring cycle from Opera North under conductor Richard Farnes.
These are no stand-and-deliver efforts on a concert stage: visual elements have been so imaginatively inserted into the presentation, no directorial affectations admitted.
But Symphony Hall and Town Hall events are certainly not just about opera, and the season promises an enticing array of orchestral and choral concerts, chamber music and solo recitals.
One of the highlights will undoubtedly be a return visit from the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in the searing Verdi Requiem, Pappano conducting. Another will be the appearance of superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, returning to the hall where he made his UK debut in 1995, and now directing the Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler’s enigmatic, ultimately boisterous Seventh Symphony.
At the other end of the age-range, Sir Roger Norrington conducts the Zurich Chamber Orchestra for his official 80th-birthday concert, an all-Mozart programme.
Michael Tilson Thomas makes two appearances, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a fabulous all-Russian programme which begins with a Rimsky-Korsakov rarity Dubiniushka and ends with Prokofiev’s powerfully motoric Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto interleaving, Evgeny Kissin the soloist.
Another welcome return is that of the violinist Maxim Vengerov, now recovered from a major injury, and directing from his instrument the Polish Chamber Orchestra in works by Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
The perennially youthful Ex Cathedra maintains its strong presence at the Town Hall and Symphony Hall, beginning with Beethoven’s mighty Missa Solemnis, and continuing with Byrd, Gibbons and Tallis contributing to “An Elizabethan Christmas”, moving to a “Musical Eldorado” with a programme of Brazilian baroque music.
And before we leave the anticipation of large-scale concerts, there is a final celebration of Benjamin Britten actually on the day (November 22, the name-day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music) of the composer’s birth 100 years ago. Simon Halsey conducts CBSO choral forces in Rejoice in the Lamb, Hymn to St Cecilia and so much else besides.
Smaller-scale events include a three-concert residency from the Pavel Haas Quartet, bringing works by Shostakovich, Britten, Brahms, Haydn, Dvorak and Beethoven.
There is an exhilarating array of solo recitals, including Thomas Trotter’s 30th anniversary recital as Birmingham City Organist. Tommy has done so much to sustain the musical life of this city: supervising the installation of Symphony Hall’s magnificent Klais organ, nurturing the Town Hall organ during that building’s magnificent refurbishment, and adding lustre to the organ in Birmingham Cathedral.
As ever, Symphony Hall and Town Hall attract some of the world’s most sought-after pianists. In the forthcoming season we can look forward to recitals from Paul Lewis, an all-Chopin programme from the exciting young Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter, Brant International Piano Competition prize-winner Ashley Fripp delivering the concert-paraphrase from Thomas Ades’ sensational opera Powder her Face, and Chinese superstar Lang Lang in a programme yet to be announced.
* Booking details on 0121 780 3333 and www.thsh.co.uk/bics-2013-14.
A burst of Bordeaux brilliance
Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra introduce us to a spicy slice of life in 18th century France on Sunday when they present Marie Fel: Rameau’s Muse at Birmingham Town Hall.
But this glittering diva soprano, born in Bordeaux 300 years ago, unmatched for her artistry, was not only the muse of the great Jean-Philippe Rameau. She also inspired works by de Lalande and Lully, among others, and was the obsession of the besotted Louis XV of France. She also counted Casanova among her lovers, and had three children by three different husbands.
Carolyn Sampson, alumna in English from the University of Birmingham, and an Ex Cathedra graduate who is now herself a superstar on the world stage, sings the music composed for Marie Fel, and Timothy West is the narrator, Louis XV commentating on his shoulder.
* Birmingham Town Hall, Sunday, May 12 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.