CBSO Symphony Hall, Birmingham ????? HHHHH Readers will remember that the Dutch conductor Jac van Steen was high on my shortlist for CBSO principal conductor before the Mirga whirlwind hit us.
On the evidence of this matinee concert given before a packed audience, and the applause he received on both sides of the footlights, he certainly remains a firm favourite in all our hearts. His beat is clear, his gestures are understated but so communicative, and his rapport with the listeners and players is something magical. He balanced the busy textures of excerpts from Smetana's Bartered Bride with smiling precision, coaxing awesome dexterity from the players, and then provided a neat and spirited accompaniment to Steven Osborne's teeming, tireless and exhilarating account of the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto. Bouncy and skirling (what wonderful two-hand unisons in the first movement's Toytown march), Osborne wittily conveyed all the work's mock heroics, and then found unexpected depths in the slow movement's dreamy nocturne. The toccata figurations of the finale fizzed like cheap Russian champagne.
But then came true grandeur from van Steen, with a reading of Schumann's Rhenish Symphony which simply leapt off the page. Its admittedly thick scoring (which actually adds to its fervour) demands noble brass -- here in spades, horns, trumpets, sonorous trombones etching woodcuts of imagery into the texture -- and an inspiriting lift to phrasing and weight upon accents, all of which happened under van Steen's cultured baton.
Christopher Morley ROYAL BIRMINGHAM CONSERVATOIRE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Symphony Hall, Birmingham ????? HHHHH Following on from its recent amazing Rite of Spring, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra gave the CBSO another run for its money with a pre-concert showcase; with the eyes closed one could imagine we were hearing the world-class orchestra itself.
And this can partly be attributed to the kind of training intrinsic to authentic conservatoires, musicians from the local resident orchestra passing on their skills to willing students, as well as to the fact that the inspirational conductor here, Michael Seal, is both a product of the Conservatoire himself, and was for many years a seasoned member of the CBSO, working under so many great conductors.
Under Seal's clear and empowering baton Nielsen's Maskarade Overture was ebullient, precisely buzzed from the upper strings, beefy from the lower strings and brass. I would urge the RBC to put this joyous opera on its short-list for a spring production.
A huge contrast came with the grand guignol of Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin, its cacophony well controlled, brass sleazy and louche, clarinet solos dark and haunting, its erotic waltz softly cushioned, and all its mystery and X-certificate allure combining with the driving impetus Seal propelled with these brilliant young players.