City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at The National Concert Hall, 31 August 2017

Excitement is in the air this week as summer comes to an end and the new school year begins. There’s a similar mood in the National Concert Hall, as it begins its 2017/2018 International Concert Series with a visit from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble’s new conductor, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, brings a wonderful energy and personality to the podium. The photograph on the cover of tonight’s programme captures her in a powerful, kinetic stance, fingers outstretched, head whipped around, baton raised high in anticipation of the great moment to come. A moment that Benjamin Ealovega’s photograph brilliantly and perpetually keeps from us.

The opening piece, Cantabile by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, immediately presents some interesting choices. The word ‘cantabile’ is usually translated as ‘in a singing style’ and Gražinyte-Tyla directs the string ensemble using just her hands, as if they were a choir. Her movements are large and graceful. She is less concerned, as the music becomes more involved and entangled, with showing the beat and more with demonstrating the flow. Cantabile is a passionate work, with a sad-eyed outlook on a breathtakingly beautiful and complex world. The CBSO strings pull off a magical ending – the last chord exquisitely dissolving into silence.

The seating is rejigged; the wind, brass, and percussion players who’ve been waiting in the wings take their positions and soloist Gautier Capuçon strides onstage with his cello. The Elgar Cello Concerto is a stunning work, packed with drama. There is so much physicality to the cello that Elgar’s concerto effectively spotlights, and Capuçon is commanding in the role. It’s big screen, cinematic stuff, conjuring up images of great ships on the high seas, brave and foolhardy deeds of derring-do, tender embraces, yearning, parting, living to fight another day. Who knows?! It’s all of this and it’s none of it, that’s the extraordinary thing about this artform. Music at this scale is almost impossibly vital – when you think about it, it’s such an auducious thing to attempt! It must be constantly reenacted: a recording simply cannot fully satisfy our highly visual brains. Don’t get me wrong, I’m stupefied and thankful that I can listen to Sol Gabetta’s brilliant recording of this concerto on Spotify, but it’s so much more alive coupled with my memories of Gautier Capuçon’s suave incarnation of it tonight.

As an encore, the cello section of the orchestra play with Capuçon in a performance of Pablo Casals’ evocative Song Of The Birds. It’s not conducted and Gražinyte-Tyla slips in at the back to listen. It’s a short piece, a magical flight of fancy, and the audience holds its breath for a second at the end before applauding.

After the interval: Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, a work that, despite the composer’s popularity, is rarely performed. Given pride of place tonight, its manifold delights are allowed to shine. The opening melody has a haunting, folkloric character (and there lies one of the broad themes of tonight’s programme), played in unison by the unusual sound combination of high cello, muted horn, and clarinet. A rattle of drums breaks the spell and the first movement ignites with a flash before settling into a dialogue between broad, string melodies and faster, nippy wind melodies. There are a lot of familiar musical memes in the writing and orchestration of this symphony, familiar to us because of their prominence in film music. At one point the violas have a crisp, marching rhythm that makes a corner of the modern brain flash “Star Wars!”. The scampering xylophone, the staple of classic cartoon music, is paired here with darker music, reminding us that it historically had a skeletal connotation.

The clear orchestral writing is given exhilarating expression by the CBSO musicians. Melodies pass mercurially between sections of the orchestra and Gražinyte-Tyla expertly shifts our focus as the tableau unfolds. The second movement is particularly remarkable in this respect, and conductor and orchestra make it seem easy.

Gražinyte-Tyla announces that they have a special birthday present as an encore. Marking the 99th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth earlier this week, we hear his Waltz (from the 1980 ‘Divertimento’ suite) – a cheeky, super-catchy 7/8 number that our maestra casually directs with her left hand, the right hung by her side.

One final gesture encapsulates the confidence with which Gražinyte-Tyla directs her orchestra – they all turn on her signal to acknowledge the applause of the choir balcony behind them. Brava!

[Quick pronunciation sidebar: Gra (as in ‘grab’) ži (like the French ‘je’) ny (like ‘knee’) te (like Lough Tay) Ty (like ‘tea’) la (like, well, ‘la’).]

Programme:

Peteris Vasks – Cantabile
Edward Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85
Pablo Casals – Song Of The Birds (encore)
Sergei Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op. 44
Leonard Bernstein – Waltz from ‘Divertimento’ (encore)

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