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ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN Birmingham Town Hall On a grey November afternoon a nearpacked Town Hall audience struggled through the Frankfurt Christmas market to enjoy a programme which brought us all back to England in summertime, and how rewarding it was. The Orchestra of the Swan's menu was mainly Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but with a tasty appetiser in John Ireland's Downland Suite.

Originally written for a brass band competition (and one can imagine those sonorities), this lovely music sits so evocatively on string orchestra, and conductor David Curtis, a string-player himself, allowed all its gorgeous details to tell.

As he did in the two masterpieces Elgar penned for the medium, the Serenade for Strings lithe and beautifullydefined, the Introduction and Allegro fizzing in its attack and softly-shaded.

Generally when a conductor is described as "not getting in the way" it means that he realises his ineffectuality and lets the players get on with it; but here that expression is a tribute to Curtis' assiduous rehearsal and deliberately understated presence in performance.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen was soloist in two Vaughan Williams works for violin and orchestra.

To the rare Concerto Accademico she brought a commanding sense of line, yet also an ability to be sweet and flexible, and in the well-loved Lark Ascending she drew us into the music's amazing blend of lyricism and elegiacal stillness.

Christopher Morley CBSO Symphony Hall Martin Fr|st is a brilliant clarinettist and a showman - his eye-catching glam-rock black suit with white piping was a giveaway.

Fr|st's technical wizardry and engagingly extrovert musical personality make him the ideal interpreter of Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson's Concert Fantastique which received its UK premiere with the CBSO conducted by Edward Gardner.

It was heartening to hear a contemporary work being greeted so warmly - deservedly so.

The attention-grabbing opening featured dazzling bravura passages for Fr|st.

Imagine if Gershwin had transcribed The Flight of the Bumblebee for Benny Goodman and you'll get the idea.

The concerto's five sections are full of fantasy and contrasts, from a passage where Fr|st plays a single tone for a minute without a break to a lush romantic melody worthy of Korngold at his Hollywood ripest.

Fr|st's jolly klezmer-inspired encore rounded off the concert's first half perfectly.

Fantasy was the concert's theme. It began with a crisply-played performance of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice. Often the first movement of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, meant by the composer to depict reveries and passions, is made to sound more like alternating lassitude and agitation. Gardner's conducting ensured some genuine romantic angst here and a queasily febrile atmosphere for the nightmare finale.

Norman Stinchcombe ROYAL BALLET SINFONIA Birmingham Cathedral An interesting collaborative evening as the Royal Ballet Sinfonia joined with the Birmingham Cathedral Choir consisting of boys, girls and men.

Acoustically difficult in spite of a reduced orchestra in the first half, rich vocal resonances carried reasonably well over the initial shock of instrumentalists in full sound for Haydn's motet Insanae et Vanae Curae.

Described by the Bishop of Birmingham as having ''a text of majesty'', the world premiere of Alexander Campkin's True Light commissioned by the cathedral, began with a confident fortissimo choir, stereophonic orchestral drums of varying sizes, with underlying repetitive motives from strings.

Solo soprano Felicity Rogers melded with long held violin notes in the central section, but was not always audible in this resonant space. Balance was difficult with seemingly endless fidgety octave intervals eventually leading to a grand climax ''full of grace and truth''.

Marcus Huxley then conducted Mozart's six-part Solemn Vespers with reduced orchestra.

Solo soprano Elizabeth Crawford has a forced edgy sound at times on top notes, but otherwise came over well. The choir was impressive throughout consisting of nine adults with 26 splendid youngsters.

The Saint-Sans Organ Symphony is both blockbuster and corny showpiece. It took time for the orchestra to settle in this awkward space, but when the fat cushioned organ tune first appeared, sentiment was to the fore and there was no looking back. Organist Tim Harper made most of urgent organ blasts in the second movement while conductor Koen Kessels kept a tight rein in this difficult acoustic.

Maggie Cotton AXERXES English Touring Opera at Malvern Festival Theatre The musical values of this English Touring Opera presentation of Xerxes (apparently a comedy, though I never find Handel a barrel of laughs) are extraordinarily high.

Singing is of a uniformly impressive quality from the entire cast, athletic, deftly embellished, sparky at times, engrossingly heartfelt at others.

And the orchestral playing on period instruments from the Old Street Band (you have to hunt through the interesting programme before you can find them credited) is sublime; best, though, not to be distracted by Jonathan Peter Kenny's extragavant conducting gestures.

You can tell a "but" is coming, and here it is. The production is a blatant example of "director's opera", foisting a Second World War setting onto what is admittedly a pretty ludicrous scenario anyway.

So James Conway sets the action in a Spitfire hangar (Sarah Bacon's design), and, occasionally, we get back-projections of bombing raids, tracer-bullets and searchlights - Foyle's War meets 'Allo, 'Allo.

"Ombra mai fu" sung to a Spitfire? In Handel's score it's sung under a plane tree - geddit? The cast cope with all this farrago manfully, including Julia Riley's Xerxes, who swaggers around, smoking a pipe, with the most convincing masculine body-language - memories of Michael Redgrave in war films spring to mind. Clint van der Linde brings a wonderfully burnished countertenor to the role of Arsamenes, but the singer who really brought the show to life for me was Louise Alder, flown down from Perth to understudy the vibrant role of Atalanta.

Christopher Morley THE FAIRY QUEEN English Touring Opera at Malvern Festival Theatre Yes, it might be problematical as to how to stage a 17th-century masque in the 21st, and this production of Purcell's Fairy Queen, at odds with itself, proves the point.

For the tenuous reason that he created a few canvases on the topic of A Midsummer Night's Dream (upon which the Purcell is equally tenuously based), the early 19th-century painter Richard Dadd becomes the pivot of director Thomas Guthrie's conception, set in the Bedlam to which Dadd was consigned, and revolting in its bedpan humour and mocking of the inmates.

Yet there are moments of great compassion, too, from the trio of nurses (difficult to identify them from the castlist), and they often catch the sublimity of Purcell's limpid music.

Under Joseph McHardy's conducting this is a musical performance of almost the highest order, bird-like recorders so evocative, and erasing the memories of grindingly rolling and obvious harpsichord chords. There are also some wonderful balletic offerings, both from the aerial artists and from a sexy couple who had obviously escaped from the witches' coven in Dido and Aeneas.

Christopher Morley AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA Symphony Hall This wonderful concert had more riches than a fat-cat banker's bonus, so beautifully presented by the Australian Chamber Orchestra under the direction of their leader Richard Tognetti. Punk hairstyles much in evidence, these young players disport themselves so elegantly as they stand at their music-desks (cellists are allowed to sit), and communicate with each other so empathetically.

Sunday afternoon's programme was a long one, but what joys it provided. Two Mozart symphonies, no.29 crisp and alert, the ineffable Fortieth (here given in its original clarinetless version) pulsating straight to the heart, and Tchaikovsky's desperately Mozartean Serenade for Strings (he was composing the fustian 1812 Overture at the same time, and needed this as an antidote), which was delivered with such style, elan, and unanimity of attack and conclusion.

But sandwiched between these classical masterpieces came the fizzing First Piano Concerto of Shostakovich, a unique blend of romantic rhetoric and spitfire satire. Freddy Kempf brought awesome power to the piano part, as well as neat Bachian figuration so beloved of the composer.

And Tine Thing Helseth, resplendent in a designer art deco-style dress, waited so serenely in her long silences before delivering the most biting, accurate trumpet contributions.

Christopher Morley HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD!

Symphony Hall Monday is not traditionally a going-out night. But when John Wilson is in town it's a different matter.

Now touring a revamped version of his successful BBC Proms concert, Wilson drew a capacity audience to "the best concert hall in the country" for an evening of seemingly endless highlights.

Heard in the flesh the John Wilson Orchestra has a quality that combines the best symphonic practices - richtoned, attacking strings and a characterful, beautifully coloured wind section - with the raunchy powerhouse brass playing of a big band.

In this venue clarity, balance and precision were all stunning, as was the impact of those glorious arrangements by Hollywood's musical master craftsmen Conrad Salinger, Ray Heindorf, Robert Russell Bennett and others.

Almost as impressive were the four vocalists. In around two dozen numbers Kim Criswell and Matthew Ford's versatility in recreating the style (without resorting to impersonation) of several legendary performers provided several joyous moments; for her part Annalene Beechey did a super Deanna Durbin in Can't Help Singing; and tenor Noah Stewart displayed his operatic credentials to fabulous effect (and also garnered the biggest cheers) with his Serenade from The Student Prince.

Above all, though, it was the music itself that really delivered the goods. John Wilson's energy and enthusiasm is much greater than the single Hooray of the title song (which, surprisingly, we heard as an encore.) He deserves three cheers at the very least.

David Hart
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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