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‘A superb evening of music’ with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

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Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla

In the short but excellent pre-concert interview with tonight’s (Thursday, January 18) conductor, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s (CBSO) newly-appointed musical director Mirga Gražinytè-Tyla, the word “energy” recurs many times.

Once she takes to the stage and starts leading the orchestra – a small, wiry presence – you can see why.

Often practically dancing along to the music that she’s leading with her mesmerising presence, during the course of the concert she uses the full range of movement and expression to energise and inspire her musicians. At several points she actually jumps up and down in time with the rhythms being wrought from the orchestra.

It’s an invigorating thing to witness, enhancing what is already a thrilling programme. The early Haydn piece, Symphony No 7 – known as Le Midi – was written for a pared-down orchestra, referring back to the Baroque era’s “Concerto Grosso” form, but there was nothing pared-down about this performance.

Elegant and meticulously executed, the joy here was in the interplay between the different instruments that took centre stage at different points of the symphony: here a gorgeous violin and cello duel, there a glorious bubble of solo flute, now a sombre double bass interjection offset with harpsichord.

Next came a very special piece.

The stage emptied and then refilled with a mix of professional CBSO musicians and youngsters –ranging from pre-teens to some that were almost indistinguishable from the pros – for the premiere of a new work by Bristol composer Richard Barnard, In Cambridge Town. This was a project with young Cambridgeshire musicians, who had been working with the orchestra for several months. Taking three local folk songs as its starting point, the students had contributed their own arrangements and some improvisations to create the – polished, exciting, energetic (that word again!) - finished piece.

It was an inspiration to see so many young people take to the corn exchange, in a fabulous collaboration that will surely bear fruit in terms of future performers and perhaps also composers and conductors.

The last piece before the interval was perhaps the evening’s highlight. Featuring soloist Ning Feng on violin, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy was romantic, elegiac and performed with such virtuosity and beauty that it swept by in its swell of strings and rush of emotions. Feng’s mournful and expressive face perfectly mirrored the gorgeous tones that he wrung from his instrument in a truly outstanding performance: one of the most memorable that I have experienced in the three seasons that I have been coming to the Classical Concert Series.

After a short break the finale was Bartok’s Concerto for Opera. Written when the Hungarian composer was in poor health, echoes of his troubled times can be heard in some of the concerto’s darker moments. The stark appearance of snare drums tapers off to a silence that seems to presage the composer’s death, almost unearthly flute trills appear and re-appear, strings swirl.

It’s a dramatic piece and – yes – a highly energetic performance by the orchestra and their charismatic conductor, and a fitting end to a quite superb evening of music.

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