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Words Academy Of Ancient Music Plays Mozart Symphony Hall WHAT could have been a sad occasion in fact turned out to be one of the most joyous ones ever presented in what is approaching the quarter-century of Symphony Hall's existence.

This all-Mozart programme from the Academy of Ancient Music was to have been conducted by Christopher Hogwood, the orchestra's founder over 40 years ago.

Instead it had the distinction of being the AAM's first concert since Hogwood's death last September, and its presiding genius was Robert Levin, originally billed as soloist in two great Mozart piano concerti, and now directing two orchestral masterpieces as well.

With the conductor's stand in front of him, Levin's conducting was understandably enthusiastic, his readings of the Marriage of Figaro Overture and the Haffner Symphony pumping with adrenaline, tempi authentically on the swift side, fizzing, irresistible and with subtly nuanced dynamics. And seated at the fortepiano (the instrument's first appearance here?) he presided over deliciously alive, alert accounts of the 24th and 25th concerti (C minor and C major respectively), constantly adding piquant details of extemporised ornamentation (his improvised prelude from Figaro's D major to the 24th's C minor was masterly), and reinventing this amazing music in a way which made here-weare-again listeners (even those who know their Mozart inside-out) sit up and take notice.

There was actually little need for Levin immediately to give leads to his players as soon as his hands were off the keyboard.

Everyone was listening to everyone else, and with so much devotion to this miraculous music. And perhaps his instrument should have been orchestra- rather than audience-facing. And perhaps the acoustic canopy should have been lower to give more prominence to this lovely instrument's plaintive, throaty tones.

And perhaps the concert should have been given in the authentically "period" Birmingham Town Hall, more suited to the music and the size of the audience (it is quite a thought that had Mozart lived to longevity, he might well have visited there).

Christopher Morley UK Firsts by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group CBSO Centre IF new music is the game, then Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is the name.

This jewel in Birmingham's cultural crown (although some might describe it differently) has given more than 160 premieres since 1987 - and here we heard five more, plus a repeat of Marc-Andre Dalbavie's Palimpseste from 2002.

This accessible piece was certainly worth revisiting, its spatially-conceived sonorities (flute and clarinet in the gallery are used to reflect and echo proceedings below) executed with delicate vitality and tonal nuances, especially by pianist Malcolm Wilson, whose quiet brilliance was adeptly employed both inside the instrument and on the keys.

Indeed, much of the evening was marked by unfazed virtuosity from the sixteen BCMG regulars (French conductor Franck Ollu held everything together with authorative, fingerled precision), even when some of the music offered few rewards. Ivo Nilsson's Doppler Wobbler was such an example, especially for viola and bassoon soloists Christopher Yates and Gretha Tuls, where repeated cross-string arpeggios (Yates) and isolated long notes (Tuls) substituted for variety and imagination.

Nilsson's other premiered work, Rapidita, seemed almost by a different composer, lighter in mood, inventively scored - and commendably short. Not as short, though, as an Etude by Frederic Durieux, which in three minutes offered little more than an assorted fragment of rhythmic ideas.

The longest composition, Jetzt genau!, by Pascal Dusapin, was something of a "colour" piece, using swabs of instrumental sound against a questing solo piano. Here, Nicolas Hodges brought impressive sensitivity and technical brilliance to its demands, particularly in a frenetic jazz-influenced episode that brought Nancarrow to mind.

Allain Gaussin's Mosaique Celeste was defi-nitely the most satisfying work of all, displaying transparent scoring (Gaussin has a wonderful ear for timbre and balance) and an ability to develop, rather than just manipulate, his material. Exactly what you would expect from someone in his 70s.

David Hart American Classics CBSO at Symphony Hall WE heard two masterpieces in this all-American programme from the CBSO, but we also heard one depressing overblown disappointment.

The first winner was Leonard Bernstein's Divertimento, a sparky masterpiece of sleight-ofhand wizardry bettering Stravinsky's Pulcinella, allowing every section of the orchestra to shine (it was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, so there's a topical connection, Andris Nelsons about to leave the CBSO for that band), and consummately delivered under the efficient and empowering baton of Michael Seal.

The second was George Gershwin's Piano Concerto, the greatest to emerge from the western hemisphere, so redolent of the aspirations of the United States, and delivered with idiomatic flair here by Freddy Kempf's fleet pianism. An initially staid orchestral contribution came to life once Kempf got going, the soloist positively encouraging attentive interplay between himself and the players, and his gorgeously singing cello-like tone in the lyrical episodes drawing an "anything you can do" response.

This was a performance radiating sheer pleasure, and will not easily be forgotten. And I wonder how many noticed what a debt Cole Porter's amazing song The Physician owes to aspects of this shimmering score? And there were debts galore in the Symphony in F sharp (such an uncongenial orchestral key) by Erich Korngold, Viennese child prodigy turned Hollywood filmster.

Long-awaited by many enthusiasts, this performance, for all its devotion and brilliance under Seal, merely revealed what a derivative dinosaur the work is.

Composed in the early 1950s, it has elements of the Bruckner who had died 60 years earlier; of Berg and of Strauss; and I do hope Korngold had asked William Walton if he minded his borrowing the scherzo from the English composer's First Symphony. The best way to listen to this work was to invent silver-screen images - which is in fact what Korngold was best at accompanying.

I'm afraid the horrid expression "more Korn than Gold" was very apt here.

Christopher Morley Best Of The West End CBSO at Symphony Hall MERELY two days after presenting a technically demanding programme which included a substantial rarely-heard symphony, the CBSO was back in Symphony Hall for the latest in its hugely popular series of Friday Night Classics, really putting on the style for Best of the West End.

In a way, Wednesday's composers (Bernstein, Gershwin, Korngold), Hollywood and Broadway rubbing shoulders with their more serious sides, prepared the way for Friday's razzmatazz, though the CBSO has anyway long proved its class in music for the stage.

There was a lot of material to get through on probably a minimum of rehearsal-time, and the occasional rough edges did show, particularly in terms of balance with the singers and an attendant over-miking of the vocalists.

They were a personable quartet, Gina Beck, Jacqui Scott (and what a cornucopia of fabulous frocks for these two!), Michael Xavier and Mark O'Malley moving suavely through a kaleidoscope of material. Only in the ABBAsequence encore (audience anthem-waving as to the manner born) did things become a bit slapstick and silly.

Michael England was the efficient conductor, and the CBSO pulled out all the stops for him, the wonderful strings notable in two Phantom of the Opera extracts, the brass snappily big band in Top Hat's Cheek to Cheek.

Purists might wince at the catchpenny modulations which crowned so many of these songs in such sequential proximity, but no-one could fail to admire the amazing expertise of the CBSO players as these numbers tumbled from their instruments with such dedicated professionalism.

Christopher Morley New Jerusalem - Ex Cathedra Birmingham Town Hall ONE of the many secrets to the success of Ex Cathedra is the way they and director Jeffrey Skidmore have worked together for nearly 50 years, the squad obviously developing and renewing, but always steeping itself in mutual trust and brilliantly efficient rehearsal methods.

And how that paid dividends in Saturday's demanding concert, with two world premieres as well as a taxing lengthy unaccompanied work. The only easy bit was Parry's Jerusalem, where the expert chamber choir was joined by a 1,000-strong audience, all of us conscientiously observing the dynamics conveyed by Skidmore's communicative direction.

New Jerusalem was in fact the theme of the programme, linking the Book of Revelations with the misplaced hope that the end of the First World War would bring about a global rebirth (the shattering of that ideal is implicit in the way we name that conflict).

Further Parry, his Songs of Farewell, poignantly expressed the aspirations of a generous-hearted old man as the end of that War approached. The demands it puts upon the chorus are taxing, requiring a controlled response to such emotional texts, and a huge, lengthy responsibility to maintain pitch, and Skidmore's Ex Cathedra were awesome.

Between the two Parry offerings came the first of the evening's premieres, Roxanna Panufnik's Since We Parted, a wonderfully warm work of immense emotional sincerity interweaving two deeply-felt poems of lovers' separations. Robert Bulwer-Lytton's mid-Victorian eponymous poem fused perfectly with Kathleen Coates' A Year and a Day, written on the brink of the First World War, and Panufnik's well-layered choral textures combined with adroit imagery from a tiny instrumental group to create a heart-stopping 10 minutes.

Four times its length was the evening's other premiere, James MacMillan's Seven Angels, bringing to life the Book of Revelations' Last Judgment and picking up a century later on Elgar's reluctance so to do in his own New Testament trilogy. Sharing with Elgar a desire for performance authenticity, MacMillan makes extensive use of two shofars (temple fanfaring instruments) brilliantly alternating with natural trumpets at the lips of Mark Bennett and Simon Munday, high in the organ-loft. There are also virtuoso parts for solo cello (Andrew Skidmore), harp (Lucy Wakeford) and percussion (Sarah Stuart).

And, of course, the chorus, from which soloists emerge in Ex Cathedra's traditional manner. MacMillan's vocal scoring shares the often improvisatory nature of Penderecki's St Luke Passion, including swooping exhalations, whistling, rapid teeth-palate alternations, humming and the like, all with the effect of setting his more conventional, fully-harmonised choral writing into glorious prominence.

As Seven Angels progresses, naturally structured upon each of the seven angel's fanfaring, towards its visionary conclusion, we arrive at a final F minor chord, and the sound is genuinely ecstatic.

I doubt this performance could ever be bettered. The stunned audience's silence at the end could have gone on forever.

Christopher Morley


Expert chamber choir Ex Cathedra were joined at Birmingham Town Hall by a 1,000-strong audience
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 5, 2015
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