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Yeomen of the Guard

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

GILBERT & Sullivan fans from all over the Midlands packed the Symphony Hall for this concert version of the famous comic opera about love, loss and the threat of a beheading.

There was an additional draw, too, with the presence of charismatic John Wilson, king of light music, conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and a cast of top vocalists.

But what may have surprised many people was the superb performance of the 100-strong University of Birmingham Voices, led by chorus master Julian Wilkins. They provided wonderful chorus support in several of the big numbers, earning enthusiastic applause and cries of ‘bravo’.

Baritone Simon Butteriss, a world-travelled G&S baritone, directed the concert and played the jester, Jack Point, with brilliant comic timing, particularly in singing about the ‘love-lorn loon’ in the tear-jerking finale.

Fine performances, too, from Benjamin Hulett as Colonel Fairfax, a prisoner in the Beauchamp Tower and due to face the axe on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, and Sarah Fox, the strolling singer Elsie Maynard (Point’s fiancée).

Sir Thomas Allen excelled in the role of Sgt Meryll, who had a plan to save the brave Colonel, and Heather Shipp was a joy as Phoebe Meryll, fighting off the attentions of burly jailer and assistant tormentor Wilfred Shadbolt, powerfully played by Bozidar Smijanic, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers sparkled as Dame Carruthers, the tower housekeeper.

The cast performed in colourful costumes of the period, which added to the enjoyment of a fine concert. In the words Dame Carruthers’ song ‘Rapture, rapture’

Paul Marston

04-03-17

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CBSO

Cole Porter: Let’s Do It

Symphony Hall

****

HE’S the top, and this Friday Night Classics concert showed just why Cole Porter built such a colossal reputation for his ability to churn out brilliant songs which people are still getting a kick out of today.

Even when at university he penned 300 tunes, so it seemed inevitable the son of a millionaire would eventually be lured to Broadway and Hollywood to work for the mega musicals.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra did justice to Porter’s genius in a programme containing 24 of his most famous hits, and there were superb performances from West End vocalists Anna O’Byrne, Caroline Sheen, David Thaxton and Jon Boydon.

Much-travelled veteran conductor Roderick Dunk recalled his early days living in Selly Oak, when the first orchestra he heard was the CBSO when they visited his school.

And he mentioned that he had received a note from a 63-year-old lady in the audience who said her partner had bought tickets for the show to mark her birthday and would like to dedicate the song ‘Let’s Do It’ to her.

But by the time Mr Dunk made the announcement the orchestra had already played the couple’s favourite . . . that’s done it!

The programme for the concert mentioned that Cole Porter was gay but devoted to his southern belle wife, Linda Lee Thomas, who was so classy she didn’t even know how to open a door . . . she’d just stand there and wait for a man to open it for her.

The orchestra excelled with Can-Can and overtures at the start of the concert and the beginning of the second act, and many show-stopping moments with the vocalists included a lovely selection from Kiss Me Kate.

It summed up a cracking night . . . Wunderbar.

Paul Marston

10-02-17

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John Williams at The Oscars

CBSO

Symphony Hall

*****

THE extraordinary power of John Williams’ music was there for all to hear in this latest Friday Night Classics with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

People in the movie industry reckon that if you notice a film score, it’s not doing its job, and it is true that when glued to the action on screen you can sometimes miss the quality of the supporting music.

But surely that rarely happens when the music has been composed by the remarkable Williams,85 next week and the second most Oscar-nominated artist in motion picture history . . . second only to Walt Disney.

A near-capacity audience in the Symphony Hall loved the selection of hits, brilliantly played by the superb CBSO, opening with the Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark which starred Harrison Ford, and ending with powerful music from a film about another heroic figure, Superman.

The chilling Shark Theme from Jaws sent a shudder through the hall, but that turned to laughter after the interval when a member of the audience sent a twitter to presenter Tommy Pearson saying he had suggested the music for when his wife came down the aisle at their wedding, but she declined.

Pearson, the well-known BBC radio host, director and musician, said how pleased they were to have so many young students from local schools In the audience, and one five-year-old lad – a Star Wars fan, was there with his parents and would have loved the main theme from the iconic space movies.

Every section of the orchestra, conducted by Michael Seal, performed to the highest level, and there was special applause and cheers for the leader, Andrew Beer, after his stunning violin solos in the theme from Schindler’s List and excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof.

The CBSO deserved an Oscar for this concert which made you realise the impact music has on our appreciation of what we see on the silver screen.

Paul Marston

03-02-17

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Music from the Movies

The John Wilson Orchestra

Symphony Hall

****

TALENTED young conductor John Wilson has proved several times in the past that he can fill Symphony Hall, and a near-capacity audience enjoyed his latest one-nighter dedicated to music from great Hollywood films.

Recently working with the Sydney Symphony and due to take up a new position as Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Gateshead musician has repeatedly thrilled people with his brilliant arrangements and interpretations since becoming a nationwide hit on the BBC Proms.

His hand-picked orchestra, formed in 1994, performed superbly on Sunday evening, although I found the first part of the programme a shade disappointing and even a touch heavy going at times, despite some entertaining contributions from top vocalists Kim Criswell (I’m the Greatest Star, from Funny Girl) and Matt Ford (If Ever I Would Leave You, from Camelot).

But what a transformation after the interval when the orchestra performed the overture from My Fair Lady. Suddenly you could visualize Eliza Doolittle and Professor Higgins on the set of that great film, and the feeling was emphasised by a 15 minute spine-tingling experience when the suite from Gone with the Wind was played. The haunting music clearly gripped the audience.

A number of the musicians made important solo contributions, too, and there was a real surprise packet with some of Scott Bradley’s remarkable tunes for the 114 Tom and Jerry cartoons. Wilson admitted watching about 76 of them while preparing his arrangement, and two of his percussionists – ironically named Tom and Jerry – wore red and yellow safety helmets while creating various sounds, including plate-smashing and even a gunshot.

Criswell, whose remarkable international career has taken in Broadway and the West End, then excelled with The Way He Makes Me Feel, from the Barbra Streisand film Yentl before closing the concert in a duet with Ford, rated the finest big band singer in the UK .

A game of two halves, for sure.

Paul Marston

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27-11-16

Back to Bacharach

Lichfield Garrick

*****

JUKEBOX musicals have become increasingly popular in theatres around the country, presented in a variety of guises. Some construct a biographical narrative (Buddy), others a story (Mamma Mia!), some eschew all peripheral options and go for a straight concert style performance (like Let it Be), the route chosen by the Back to Bacharach company for their presentation of the Burt Bacharach songbook.

Born in 1928, Bacharach has written more than 70 top 40 hits in America, more than 50 in the UK, five of them No 1s, all of which enjoyed worldwide chart success. The majority of his songs were written with Hal David. Their trademark sound comprises mellifluous melody, intricate arrangement, intelligent lyrics, a full band including brass and piano, and instantly accessible and memorable songs.

So the musical raw materials for a successful show are undoubtedly present, the question was whether they could be performed in a way that did justice to their heritage.

Wisely, the production values are in the musicians and vocalists. The stage set is concert style, a backdrop projector provides period images of both music and place, the lighting effective but unobtrusive.

A big advantage in presenting this show is that the majority of the songs have been successfully covered by several artists obviating the need for any physical or costume impersonation. The musicians are dressed in black and white, the vocalists suitably attired for a night out, as much effort has been put into appearance as for the music.

Lead vocalist and MC for the evening was Martin Neeley, a seasoned West End performer with, amongst others, Les Miserables to his credits. That experience showed, as he skilfully eased the evening along with his charm and patter, sharing with us that Lichfield was the birthplace of his mother, so this was a “back to his roots” show.

An assured and versatile singer and performer, his high point of the evening was Twenty-four hours from Tulsa, vocally powerful, he told the story in a way that Gene Pitney would have admired. We felt your dilemma Martin!

For the women, Rietta Austin anchored proceedings. Her professionalism oozed from every note and move. She smiled, she emoted, she made us feel that she didn’t want to be anywhere else but singing that song with us in that moment. Her astonishing four octave range was on show with her tour de force, Anyone Who Had A Heart, which deservedly drew the warmest applause of the evening.

Melone M’Kenzy largely took Dionne Warwick duties, her statuesque beauty and long evening gown making her an imposing figure. Her enthusiasm was palpable, and best deployed during the terrific I Say A Little Prayer For You which she sang, and led, impeccably, supported admirably by the other female singers on backing vocals, with the call and response sections immaculately despatched.

Chloe Dupree and Arabella Rodrigo provided backing vocals, and took some leads, shimmying as if their lives depended upon it. Often the role can be mundane. Not with Bacharach’s music. The harmonies are complex, and a vital part of the songs, get them wrong and the lead vocalist will not be happy. Both Chloe and Arabella never missed a note, physically performed each song as though it was their lead, and were an integral part of the success of each song. On their leads, Chloe performed with effervescence and gusto, while Arabella was so hot I feared she might implode into a black hole.

The band, led by pianist David Foster, comprising drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and three piece brass section, were superb, ably complementing the talented vocalists with arrangements which were demanding to perform as well as sing. Credit should also be given to the uncredited sound engineer who had the daunting task of mixing eleven sound sources and balancing them so well, loud enough to stir, soft enough to stroke.

By chance, I had occasion to chat with the production’s Tour Manager Sue Howell pre show, she enthusiastically declared her passion for the production, a passion which was evident from everyone who took the stage. We started with Magic Moments, where it all started, cried a little during Close to You, sang along during What’s new Pussycat? and gave a standing ovation for the ensemble finale of That’s What Friends Are For.

A fabulous night, from a richly talented company, who generously came front of stage at the end to meet and greet. They were greeted without exception with expressions of gratitude for a memorable night. Back to Bacharach tours nationally, dates from their website: http://www.back-to-bacharach.co.uk/

Gary Longden

14-07-16

Grand Opera Gala

Symphony Hall

*****

EVEN though the season has ended, you can’t avoid soccer in the city, and the Symphony Hall was no exception at this 25th anniversary concert.

Cheers and deafening applause marked tenor Peter Auty’s breathtaking performance of Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, the emotional aria which became a World Cup anthem.

And conductor Andrew Greenwood couldn’t resist the temptation of asking the packed audience if there were any Leicester people present, still celebrating their team’s shock winning of football’s Premier League title.

There were, and Greenwood sighed: “Oh dear, when will Birmingham get a football team together?” Suddenly the Symphony Hall had become the sympathy hall.

But this was a brilliant concert to mark the 25th anniversary of the hall which Greenwood praised as a superb venue for musicians to play in.

Auty was also joined by baritone Mark Stone in the stunning duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishes, and his partnership with soprano Claire Rutter in Puccini’s famous La Boheme duet brought the house down.

Stone was also outstanding with the Toreador Song from Bizet’s Carmen, while mezzo soprano Justina Gringyte excelled in My Heart Opens Up to Your Voice, from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah.

An outstanding performance, too, from the London Concert Orchestra. A very happy birthday party for the Symphony Hall.

Paul Marston

05-16

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Clare Teal & MYJO

Walsall Central Hall

****

CLARE Teal gave an extra boost to this superb Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra concert arranged by the Rotary Club of Walsall at the town’s Central Hall.

The star of Radio 2 Big Band Special, a singer who has been described as the most successful female jazz singer in decades, sounded exactly that as she performed stylishly with songs like I Only Have Eyes For You, Once I Had a Secret Love, Spread a Little Happiness and You’re the Tops.

Clare also shared some amusing moments with a packed audience who helped raise £2,000 for the Rotary Club’s support of The Glebe Centre, Walsall and the Walsall Heartcare Rehabilitation Centre.

One of the highlights came when Clare insisted the award-winning band could sing too, and they proved the point with a particularly catchy number, Tampico. The audience loved it, and many joined in.

The concert opened with Sweet Georgia Brown, featuring impressive solos by Charlie Bates (piano) and Nick Brown (tenor sax), which was followed by Gone Home, written by the orchestra’s lead trombonist, David Sear.

During the second half of the programme, Caught in the Current enabled drummer Charlie Johnson to display his impressive skills with the Birmingham-based MYJO, conducted by their Director of Music, Dr John Ruddick.

The concert was organised by Rotarian Bill Stephens.

Paul Marston

03-16

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Rodgers & Hammerstein

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

LESS than 24 hours before Saturday soccer kicked off around the country, you couldn’t avoid a link with football in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s latest Friday Night Classics.

One of the highlights in this celebration of the timeless music of Rodgers and Hammerstein came just before the interval when quality vocalists Robyn North, Sally Ann Triplett, Michael Xavier and Scott Davies sang You’ll Never Walk Alone, from Carousel.

Years ago, on hearing that Liverpool FC fans were singing that vision of hope from his favourite musical as their Anfield anthem, Rodgers tried to get an injunction against the famous club! The Scouse customers are still singing.

No doubt many in the packed audience for this concert wondered if worried Aston Villa fans might benefit their struggling Premiership club by singing a song from one of the many other Rodgers and Hammerstein musical . . . perhaps the final one on the programme, Climb Every Mountain, from The Sound of Music. That’s the challenge facing the Villa if they drop into The Championship.

Once again the CBSO, conducted by Martin Yates, were in superb form with classics from Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and State Fair, and there was outstanding support from the young University of Birmingham Voices, under their world renowned director, Simon Halsey.

The four vocalists were a delight, sprinkling their performances with tasteful humour.

And unlike at some football matches, no-one left before the end.

Paul Marston

19-02-16

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La Vie En Rose

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

ON a night of terrorist horror in Paris, the audience at Birmingham Symphony Hall were experiencing the musical beauty of France, unaware of the nightmare unfolding across the channel.

It was a shocking reminder of how vulnerable we all are in this day and age, one minute enjoying top quality entertainment, the next minute perhaps facing bullets, bombs and hatred.

Before people from across the Midlands headed home and heard the news, they had enjoyed a delightful concert focused on France in the latest Friday Night Classics staged by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

They had been invited to treat themselves to ‘a little bit of la vie en rose right here in the heart of Brum’.

It was not the life story of former Parisian street singer Edith Piaf, but the Little Sparrow featured strongly in the first half of the programme, with petite vocalist Mary Carewe delivering some of those memorable songs beautifully.

Carewe changed into a full length black dress – Piaf’s favourite colour – and her voice sounded remarkably like the legendary French star, particularly with Non je regrette rien.

The second half of the programme switched mainly to hits from musicals, the other vocialist, Graham Bickley, impressing with Lerner & Loewe’s Gigi, before the concert closed with Carewe and Bickley combining in an enjoyable selection from Les Miserables.

Once again the world class CBSO performed superbly throughout the concert conducted by musical director Richard Balcombe. But what was happening in Paris during the show will live long in the memories of what was a smaller than usual attendance for Friday Night Classics.

Paul Marston

13-11-15

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Gershwin in Hollywood

The John Wilson Orchestra

Symphony Hall

****

IT was a night of premiers for a capacity audience as brilliant conductor-arranger John Wilson showcased some of his latest orchestrations, this time with George Gershwin’s wonderful music.

Many of the original MGM scores have been lost, but some short scores (piano/conductor parts) survived and provided the basis for reconstruction.

That’s where Wilson makes his mark, and it was no surprise that, while many conductors are welcomed with polite applause, he took the stage to enthusiastic cheers.

He told the audience he was ecstatic to be back ‘in this spectacular hall which is something else – marvellous’, and introduced the various sections of his hand-picked orchestra drawn from all over the country and abroad . . . the youngest being a violinist from Birmingham.

After a 12-minute overture from the film Rhapsody in Blue, they were joined by top class vocalists Matt Ford – rated the finest big band singer in the UK – and musical theatre actress Louise Dearman in the duet Treat Me Rough, from Girl Crazy.

The couple excelled in a range other duets and solos from the pen of the remarkable Gershwin who tragically died from a brain tumour at the age of 38.

Highlights included Ford’s version of They can’t take that away from me, then ‘S Wonderful, with a clever whistling section, and Dearman with Oh lady, be good, plus their lively duet in Strike Up the Band.

Ian Buckle’s piano solo in New York rhapsody brought a powerful end to the first act, while Mark Crooks impressed with the clarinet.

John Wilson will be back at the Symphony Hall with the CBSO on February 14.

Paul Marston

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Star Wars

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

IT’s not unusual to hear people leaving City of Birmingham Symphony Hall Concerts saying ‘that was out of this world’.

But this performance went even further, it was out of the universe for Star Wars fans who packed the Symphony Hall to enjoy the dramatic music of the legendary John Williams which adds so much to the thrilling movies.

Many youngsters were there with their parents for the latest Friday Night Classics,  and one man admitted to going down the aisle to Star Wars music….and in full costume.

Williams, a big fan of British orchestras, sent a personal message from Los Angeles thanking the orchestra and conductor Michael Seal for performing so much of his music – written to ‘smack you in the eye’ - and regretting that he couldn’t be in the Symphony Hall for the event.

It proved a memorable evening which actually opened with Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox fanfare which Star Wars creator, George Lucas, insisted should be used on the film to evoke a sense of anticipation and big screen spectacle.

The orchestra followed that with a brilliant performance of some of the most spectacular, soaring, roaring music which thrilled enthusiasts and must have sent others home eager to see one of the films as soon as possible.

The Phantom Menace, Duel of the Fates, The Empire Strikes Back and Princess Leia’s Theme were there and the CBSO Chorus, under chorus master David Lawrence, made a couple of spine-tingling contributions.

An added bonus came with the amusing introductions from actor-writer-producer Marc Silk, the voice of Aks Moe in Star Wars.

Paul Marston

16-10-15

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CBSO

The Ella Fitzgerald Songbook

Symphony Hall

****

YOU had to smile at the programme for the latest Friday Night Classics which included Cole Porter’s steam number from Kiss Me Kate – Too Darn Hot.

Not a bad choice in view of the weather we have been enjoying, and vocalist Claire Martin needed regular drinks from a water bottle as she raced through a string of great hits from the past.

It’s an awesome task to follow Ella Fitzgerald whose performances with the Great American Songbook were the stuff of legends, but attractive blonde Martin, a mother of one from Brighton, was superb and quick to acknowledge the part played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Versatile conductor Laurence Cottle brought the best out of the musicians, and the audience also appreciated some impressive solo contributions from saxophonists, trumpeters and trombonists.

Jazz singer Martin, who said she had been looking forward to her Symphony Hall appearance for two years, opened with Lerner &Loewe’s Almost Like Being in Love, followed that with many other classics, and the audience joined her enthusiastically for the finale, Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye.

Other great numbers by Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin and Irving Berlin made it a Friday night to remember.

Paul Marston

03-07-15

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CBSO

Friday Night Classics – Charlie Chaplin

Symphony Hall

***

THERE is no doubt that veteran movie maestro Carl Davis has achieved something special by reinventing silent films for a new and old generation.

Laughter ringing round the Symphony Hall proved that even in this modern age of colour TV and cinema blockbusters, the old black-and-white movies with captions can still entertain.

But despite the backing of the superb City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, hidden away in the pit below a giant silver screen, a hundred minutes of Charlie Chaplin in baggy pants, a bowler hat, cane and splayed boots can test your patience.

Yes, his slapstick comedy is hilarious at times, but whatever the plot you can eventually tire of cheeky Charlie’s predictable blunders in factories, restaurants, and even prison. Maybe a compromise in which the programme could include half of the old movies followed by more traditional Friday Night classics would suit all tastes.

Nevertheless, Carl Davis received warm applause and a standing ovation from a section of the audience when he appeared on stage at the end of the show.

Davis’s own splendid music was used with the first film, Behind the Screen, a 20-minute mixture of crackpot situations where Chaplin causes mayhem on a film set, shifting props, operating a trap door and getting involved in a custard pie fight.

After the interval the orchestra played Chaplin’s music to the 80-minute Modern Times film which includes the star getting a repetitive job on the production line in a factory, which drives him berserk, and later accidentally thwarting a gaol break, plus a range of other crazy activities.

The CBSO, conducted by the remarkable Davis, certainly gave the films a new dimension in this modern age.

Paul Marston

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Dylan Moran

Off the Hook: Dylan Moran. Photo: Andy Hollingworth

Dylan Moran

Symphony Hall

****

IT IS sometimes difficult to write a comedy review- or at least a good one- I’ll let you, dear reader, judge me on that score.

For me part of the joy of truly great stand up is not knowing what is coming. During a set of genuine class, it is how I imagine being in a bobsled would feel, you are hurtling down the track at breakneck speed, never quite sure what awaits you around the next corner but you can’t wait to find out.

Only in the case of Dylan Moran’s latest show, Off The Hook, at Birmingham Symphony Hall, instead of 4 people being there with you there are 2,000. Yes indeed, great stand up is a beautiful thing and this reviewer will try not ruin that experience by dissecting gags and paraphrasing punchlines.

Symphony Hall is a fantastic, huge, venue, which lesser performers may have seem swamped by, and yet Dylan Moran was able to make it feel intimate.

Like one of his marvellous pieces of art used so subtly, and timed so effectively, as a backdrop to his show; he is never quite what he seems. He flits between thoughts using a myriad of verbal gears, from meandering melancholy to spirited spitting such that it would be easy to find yourself carried away with the rhythmic magnificence of the whole piece and simply let the words wash over you like music.

SENSE OF MISCHIEF

And yet to do so is to do this sublime technician a great disservice. Moran has the ability to say things of great social and moral importance in a way that is bereft of judgement or malice. His almost impish sense of mischief allows him to be a true artist of the obscure, painting with poignant truths that are as thought provoking as they are funny.

Politics, multi-culturalism, family and depression were just some of the topics that Moran tackled; hard hitting subjects delivered with a deftness of tone and comedic touch that made them feel welcoming and relevant but never forceful or part of a contrived agenda.

Given that Dylan Moran is a comedian, actor, writer, and artist, I would think that there is a natural transference of skills and techniques between his considerable artistic disciplines. Should this be the case I would compare the first half the beginning of the painting process.

It felt like Moran was sketching the outlines for his show and adding some base colours, which allowed the audience subconsciously to sneak a peek at not just his ideas but what seemed to matter to him right down to his bones. This contributed, at least to this reviewer, to feeling a very powerful connection between artist and audience. While the first half had fewer belly laughs, than I would have liked; this should not detract from the power of the performance.

Once the foundations were laid, the second half provided a far more rambunctious set which while still retaining the emotional warmth of the first half, also layered on some colourful brushstrokes through great timing, an authentic vulnerability and excellently crafted gags.

The encore was brilliant in its simplicity and execution. It also provided Moran with a showcase for a lesson in heckler management. Again this was done with the skilful aplomb which is a sign of a master of this most difficult of crafts and was a genuine delight to watch.

Moran, the pronunciation of which rhymes with Sporran, which everybody – including the Symphony Hall announcer- seems to get wrong; has lost none of his quality and well deserves his standing as one of the best comics of his or indeed any generation.

Christian Clarke

30-04-15

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CBSO - Friday Night Classics

Queen – Rock And Symphonic Spectacular

Symphony Hall

*****

HAS anyone ever seen or heard the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra like this? I doubt it.

Many of the usually immaculately dressed musicians were in flamboyant costumes, with red, blue, black or pink wigs. One female in the string section had a false moustache and a male violinist wore a mini skirt.

A footnote in the official programme promised they would ‘unleash Queen’s greatest hits like you’ve never heard them before’. And so it proved.

The CBSO performed the rock music superbly, helped by three top guitarists and a brilliant drummer front of stage, and the four vocalists – Jenna Lee-James, Julie Stark, Ricardo Afonso and Oliver Tompsett – delivered the quality expected from stars of London’s smash-hit musical, We Will Rock You.

Jenna, first to attract participation from the capacity audience withRadio Ga Ga, later praised ‘this incredible orchestra’ and, referring to their world tour, she thought the Symphony Hall was probably the best venue.

Alfonso sang his favourite, The Show Must Go On, with genuine emotion, having recalled how Freddie Mercury performed it knowing he was near death.

Many other Queen classics were sung with power and passion, and the final number was, inevitably, Bohemian Rhapsody, though there was still time for a pulsating encore – demanded by the customers - in which the fab four sang We Will Rock You, then a rousing We are the Champions.

Richard Sidwell, who arranged the hits, also conducted the orchestra in a truly classic concert produced by Andrew Wyke.

Paul Marston

27-03-15

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CBSO

21st Century Blockbusters

Symphony Hall

*****

IT’S not too often that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra tackle a Friday Night Classics programme like this, packed with music from great modern movies.

But they swept through it with their usual panache, and the audience, including more youngsters than usual, loved every minute as they visualised dramatic scenes from space films, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, wars, fighting gladiators, and even Bollywood.

The music, much of it by the remarkable John Williams, was powerful and dramatic, providing opportunities for some delightful solo contributions from members of the 80-piece orchestra.

Williams’ Battle of the Heroes from Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, contrasting with his beautiful, more gentle piece, Dartmoor 1912 from War Horse.

Other highlights included Howard Shore’s nostalgic melody for The Hobit: An Unexpected Journey, and James Homer’s stirring theme, I See You, from Avatar.

Another treat for the audience came with the stunning performance by Roopa Panesar, one of the finest sitar players to emerge on the Indian music scene in the UK, when she joined the orchestra for A.A. Rahman’s music for the suite from Slumdog Millionaire.

Broadcaster Tommy Pearson introduced the various pieces with some interesting background, and invited interval tweets which included one from a couple on their first date, several birthdays, and one comment on the concert -  awesome.

Michael Seal, who was appointed the CBSO’s associate conductor in 2011, wielded the baton  . . . or was it a wizard’s wand? Magical.

Paul Marston

06-03-15

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CBSO

Opera Gala

Symphony Hall

****

IT was interesting for the audience to read in this Friday Night Classics’ programme that when they bought their tickets they were paying only about half the cost of getting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on stage to perform.

With public funding having declined by 24 per cent since 2010, private supporters and funders are needed to play vital contribution in keeping things up to speed, and all music lovers should applaud that.

Once again the internationally-acclaimed CBSO, conducted by Stephen Bell, delivered a performance of rich quality with top arias and choruses, proving once again they are a gleaming jewel in the city’s crown.

They excelled in Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and Puccini’s Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut before a pulsating finale with Polovtsian Dances (Borodin’s Prince Igor).

Three outstanding soloists contributed significantly to the concert’s success, Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw excelling in One Fine Day (Puccini’s Madam Butterfly) and delighting the audience in the duet from La Boheme Act 1 finale with excellent tenor Peter Wedd

Baritone Simon Thorpe provided plenty of amusement with his version of Largo al factotum from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, joined Wedd for the famous duet from The Pearl Fishers, and all three combined for a sparkling finale with the Brindisi (drinking song) from La Traviata. Cheers!

They were the professionals, but what a superb performance from the University of Birmingham Voices (conductor Simon Halsey) particularly in The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (Nabucco) and the Anvil Chorus (Il Trovatore).

Paul Marston

20-02-15

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Nils Lofgren

Nils Lofgren

Birmingham Town Hall

*****

ROCK and Roll guitarists do not come with any more impressive resume than that of Nils Lofgren, whose current solo U.K. tour rolled into Birmingham's Town Hall this week.

Most famous as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band, Lofgren has also been a long-time collaborator with Neil Young, performing on some of his most iconic albums.

With a career spanning more than forty years and worthy of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, those seeking to see a bonafide guitar legend in action need look no further.

Lofgren begins the evening by playing a classical harp, centre stage. He's not faking it. The sound is mesmerising and it is the first of many times in the evening that myself and the rest of the audience will be astounded by his prodigious musical talents.

An electric guitar seamlessly replaces the harp as Nils launches into Too Many Miles, one of his more popular solo efforts.

To say he is a master of the guitar would be an understatement and his skills are on full display throughout. His solo arrangements have incredibly complicated structures and it's possible that his fantastic ability has taken him beyond the realms of mainstream musical tastes that made his Boss (and his other Boss, Neil Young) so famous. 

Grin was Lofgren's near-miss band from the early seventies, and several songs from that period are superbly restored to form the heart of his set.

The benefits of being an international rock star were evident as Nils employed a dazzling array of technology to great effect. Early on in the set there was the potential that too many gadgets and trickery would distract from the quality of the music. Ultimately, it was executed with such high skill and taste that this never became the case

Greg Varlotta accompanies Nils on most songs from the keyboard but really shines when he moves to the trumpet. The creative interplay between the guitar and trumpet was exciting and I thought this would be the evening's highlight until Mr. Varlotta stood up from the keyboard and started tap dancing to one of Nils's bluesy riffs.

He wasn't faking it. It was clever, musical and pretty delightful. 

Not to be outdone, Lofgren himself dances with Varlotta in perfect percussive time as they bring the show to a close.

Add tap dancing Lofgren's list of gifts.

An elite guitarist and an ingenious performer, Nils Lofgren is unmissable.

His U.K. tour continues Jan20, The Anvil,  Basingstoke; Jan 22, City Varieties Leeds;, Jan 23, Sage Gateshead;, Jan 24, Glasgow City Hall; Jan 25, The Lowry, Salford Quays; and Jan 26, Alban Arena, St Albans.

Dom Antonucci

19-01-15

The Sound of Musicals

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

*****

ON a bitterly cold evening in that awkward time between Christmas and New Year, something a bit special is required to get the party re-started - The Sound of Musicals fits the bill perfectly.

Good tunes are one thing. Good tunes sung and interpreted with this level of expertise are quite another. Guest singers, Kerry Ellis, Summer Strallen, Tim,Howar and Graham Bickley delight in a well chosen mix of traditional and modern show songs.

Four performers at the very top of their game in a concert hall to rival any in the world. What's not to like? Combine that with energetic and exiting orchestration from the London Concert Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Balcombe, and the evening is unmissable.

Together, the four voices blend well and with real power (once early tiny sound imbalances were corrected) Individually, the different vocal styles are allowed to come to the fore and, at times, produce real hair on the back on the neck moments.

Kerry Ellis glides effortlessly through songs with a unique and emotional tone. Her version of As Long As He Needs Me from Oliver is simply stunning. No vocal gymnastics - just a pure and honest telling of the story.

Tim Howar is the 'rocker' of the quartet. His version of Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar raises the roof . . . and it's a very high roof to raise! From that to the plaintiff sweetness of Bring Him Home from Les Miserables - a masterclass indeed of vocal dexterity.

Summer Srallen brings a refined elegance to the proceedings. Focused and centred throughout, her version of Don't Cry For Me Argentina from Evita is immaculate.

Established West End star Graham Bickley is perhaps the most musical theatre sounding of the four.

Consistent throughout and at total ease with a packed audience. Engagement with a crowd is key to a concert like this and all four get it just right.

Sometimes, what is needed is just pure entertainment. No hidden messages. No sub textihits every note and leaves the audience wanting more. A job very well done.

Tom Roberts

29-12-14

The Glory of Christmas

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

BUSY conductor John Pryce-Jones had more than musicians and singers under his baton at this entertaining Christmas Eve concert.

As a rousing finale, he split the near-capacity audience into 12 sections and drilled them into performing sections of The Twelve Days of Christmas, rising regularly from their seats to sing their part, and even mime appropriately.

Eventually it worked a treat, though what any health and safety officer present thought of it when people on the first balcony had to chip in with Ten Lords a-leaping, is anybody’s guess.

Good exercise, though, and it sent everyone home with a smile on their face.

Earlier the concert had been packed with goodies, and there were special cheers for the talented youngsters of the highly rated Staffordshire Children’s Choir who made impressive contributions throughout the programme.

World renowned trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins was superb with Clarke’s Trumpet Suite in D major and Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat, while tenor Ed Lyon had a memorable impact with Franck’s Panis Angelicus and Schubert’s Ave Maria.

And there was a faultless performance from the stunning Birmingham Choral Union, one of the oldest choirs in the Midlands who excelled in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Organist Tim Byron-Whitfield impressed with Toccata from Symphony No 5in F, and the London Concert Orchestra ensured this Raymond Gubbay concert provided a glorious start to the Christmas celebrations.

Paul Marston

24-12-14

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Cole Porter in Hollywood

The John Wilson Orchestra

Symphony Hall

*****

WHEN a conductor walks on stage to thunderous applause and cheers, you know he must be someone special.

John Wilson is certainly that, and his hand-picked orchestra performed superbly in this concert of Cole Porter classics on the 50th anniversary of the great composer’s death.

Porter’s career also spanned half a century, and his wonderful music was eagerly snapped up by Broadway and for famous Hollywood movies.

In his opening address to the audience, Gateshead-born Wilson praised ‘this top class concert hall’, before the beautifully crafted overture set the scene for a programme simply bursting with memorable hits.

There were outstanding performances from the four vocalists, Anna-Jane Casey, Matthew Ford, Richard Morrison and Scarlett Strallen who sparkled in solos and duets before coming together for a rousing finale with Blow, Gabriel, Blow, from Anything Goes.

Strallen drew a special reaction from the audience with The Physician, from Star!, Morrison impressed with Where is the Life that late I Led? (Kiss Me Kate), and Ford and Casey in Who Wants to be a Millionaire (High Society).

Wilson, who shot to international fame with his televised Prom concert celebrating MGM musicals, brought a comical touch to the Symphony Hall show by an accidental reference to ‘Pole Corter’, urging no sympathetic applause for that slip by adding “That’s what 15 days on the road does for you”.

No sign of tiredness from his orchestra, though. They really were on top form.

Paul Marston

23-11-14

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Songs from the Sixties

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

THE high quality sound was still there, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took on a very different look for this Friday Night Classics performance.

Getting in the mood for the songs from the sixties, the musicians drew gasps from the audience as they took the stage in a range of colourful gear – Sgt Pepper costumes, headbands, wigs and flares.

Only conductor Richard Balcombe retained his usual immaculate appearance with bow tie and dinner jacket, though superb vocalists Graham Bickley, Mary Carewe, Abbie Osmon and Alison Jiear were pretty smart, too.

Bickley opened the concert by recalling that the music on the programme was from a time when petrol was about the equivalent of 25p a gallon and a season ticket at Villa Park probably cost eight pounds!

The choice of numbers was ideal, starting with Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’ then moving on with Burt Bacharach’s Always Something There to Remind Me and Dusty Springfield’s I Only Want to be With You, before the first half closed – appropriately on a rain-drenched night – with Let the Sunshine In.

Orchestra clarinetist John Durant impressed with a solo of Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore, and after the interval the orchestra sparkled with Casino Royale and a roaring medley from Thunderbirds, Mission Impossible, The Avengers and Star Trek.

Paul Marston

21-11-14

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An Evening With Jackson Browne

Symphony Hall

****

JACKSON Browne is perhaps best known in the UK for being the author of smash hit Take it Easy, made famous via the Eagles version in 1972.

At sixty six years of age, Jackson brings with him an extraordinary catalogue of songs that span four decades. Having seen his outstanding acoustic performances in previous years at Birmingham's Symphony Hall the bar was set quite high in my mind, and on the first night of his UK leg of touring, Mr. Browne did not disappoint.

Wading slowly into Barricades of Heaven, the quality of his band is immediately evident. Jackson's long-time collaborator and slide guitar master David Lindley is absent from this line-up and it’s a credit to the band that we miss very few of the guitar parts that bear his signature.

Unlike contemporaries Bob Dylan and Neil Young who have constantly reinvented themselves and experimented, Jackson Browne has always remained true to his own musical sensibilities and has produced a body of work that is remarkably consistent.

Classics Fountain of Sorrow, Running on Empty and The Pretender are placed between lesser known gems on this night. A stunning new version of one of Browne's oldest compositions The Birds of St. Marks, is a highlight of the evening and also appears on his new album Standing in the Breach.

Political  and environmental activism are still very much a part of Browne's work and his sincerity and passion are apparent as he ups his vocal power during songs that carry the more topical lyrics. The sold out Symphony Hall held rapt and respectful attention for a few lengthy political monologues, but were rewarded with a gorgeous rendition of These Days and a storming encore of Take it Easy.

Jackson Browne was the first pop/rock concert I ever attended. My father took me to see him when I was a boy and I have followed his career since then. Looking around the auditorium at the faces enjoying his music and singing along word for word, I didn't feel one bit alone with my nostalgia.

A superb craftsman, still well worth seeing.

Browne's UK tour continues at the Albert Hall Monday 24 Nov.

Dominic Antonucci

17-11-14

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Seeing an ad moon rising

CBSO

TV and Advert Classics

Symphony Hall

****

CAN you imagine one of the great composers of the past leaning back after producing a masterpiece and thinking ‘that might sell a few cigars or even a pint or two of lager’. Perhaps not.

But a large audience at the Symphony Hall for the latest Friday Night Classics concert were reminded about the power of quality music in today’s commercial market place.

As an item in the programme pointed out, when referring to The Dambuster’s March, by Eric Coates: “It takes a special kind of genius to write a melody that even a football crowd can yell in tune, which is no doubt why Carling Black Label used if for not one, but two typically irreverent TV adverts inspired by the film”.

Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries was used by British Gas, and Verdi’s La forza del destino by Stella Artois, while various TV series have also been boosted by music – perhaps none more so than Khachaturian for The Onedin Line and Rossini’s William Tell Overture that suited The Lone Ranger so well.

The various pieces were introduced by actress Rebecca Front who admitted she had ‘never been to this amazing venue’ before and praised the ‘World Class’ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Seal, while urging support for their appeal fund, currently standing at £47,000.

Two superb singers, Susana Gaspar (soprano) and Kitty Whately (mezzo soprano), excelled in duets, Delibes Lakme, and Bacarolle from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann – featured in British Airways and Audi ads.

As for the CBSO, who closed the concert with Ravel’s Bolero (Dancing on Ice) . . . the brilliant orchestra sells itself.

Paul Marston

24-10-14

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Singer and song in harmony

kerry Ellis

Kerry Ellis

Birmingham Town Hall

*****

Kerry Ellis is described in the programme notes as ' The First Lady of West End Musicals ' . No pressure there then .

A proven track record on the Musical Theatre circuit is one thing. Cutting it as solo singer in more intimate venues is quite another.

Ellis has certainly done the rounds when it comes to the big shows. Stints in hits such as Les Miserables, Oliver , We Will Rock You  and  Miss Saigon have propelled her to the top of her game and given her a loyal fan base .

It's little wonder she wants to expand her repertoire and explore tunes outside her usual play list.

From an opening medley of Bond favourites (never a bad way to start a show ) through to stylish new arrangements of old musical numbers and bang up to date covers of songs from the likes of Ed Sheeran and Pharell Williams, the set list flows well and allows Ellis to show she is comfortable with a wide range of styles and genres.

Tasteful new arrangements showcase Ellis's effortless ability to switch from sweet soul to belting rock, often in the same song.

Classic numbers like I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair lady remain loyal to the original score but with a contemporary flavour.

What is evident is that good tunes never date. One such tune, the superbMADD choir As Long As He Needs Me from Oliver is given full justice here and retains its simple power to tug at the heart strings. If it ain't broke, don't fix it . . . or maybe just slightly re- arrange it.

Kerry Ellis, centre, surrounded by the choir from The Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama (MADD) from Nottingham after the show

As good as any singer is, though, it's not enough to simply sing songs well. There has to be a connection with an audience.  Ellis achieves this well, taking time to chat and show a real grounded side to her personality. 

Stripped of her lavish costumes and heavy show make up, she has to work harder at being herself, unsupported by special effects and technical wizardry. It's just about the songs and it's a transition she makes beautifully.

A more upbeat Act 2 stretches Ellis a little more, with numbers such as Adele's Rolling in the Deep moving away from the more traditional feel of Act 1

Ellis remains pitch perfect throughout, savouring notes instead of showing off with them. Lyrics are crystal clear and the stories within the songs are told with colour. Hallmarks of a good Musical Theatre performer, for sure, but equally important in the context of this kind of concert.

It's not all about Miss Ellis, of course. The band is tightly marshalled by musical director Craig Adams and the two female backing singers are refreshingly high in the mix. Welsh tenor, Rhydian , also pops up to give us his Impossible Dream while Kerry slips into another frock.

Huge credit also to the choir of The Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama (MADD) from Nottingham.

When a choir is as good as this, songs are instantly more joyous and lifted to another level. I wanted more!!

Some singers have songs they dare not leave out. For Kerry Ellis- it's Defying Gravity  . . .  Denying Defying would not do at all.  It's included of course, but sung simply and none the worse for that. Stripped of its theatrical attack it's a rather pretty song that works just as well at this pace.

Great arrangements of good tunes sang very well. What's not to like?

The tour continues around the UK for a limited period. Catch it if you can!

Tom Roberts

09-10-14

Tour details: http://www.kerryellis.com/
Kerry Returns to te Midlands on 18-10-14 at the Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury.

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Jaleo Flamenco Dance Company’s A Compas

mac

****

Formed in 1988 with dancers and musicians from Seville, Jaleo Flamenco Company has gone on to become renowned well beyond its homeland.

What matters to the company is the true spirit of flamenco – in all its passionate, raw and improvised energy.

Featuring dancers Ana Maria Blanco, Adolfo Vega and Maria Jose Leon, guitarists Carlos Ayala and El Ingles plus singer David Hornillo, the company is small but perfectly formed.

A Compas, (in rhythm) is a mix of different traditions of dance which takes us across the Andalucian cities of Malaga, Seville, Ronda and Cadiz – the very heartland of flamenco. But it also steps beyond the traditional by including guajiras which developed thousands of miles away in the streets of Havana in Cuba.flmenco dancer

From the passionate siguiriyas to the fun of the alegrias, a Compas is an energetic journey through a range of emotions, rhythms and footwork. 

The production begins with a martinete in which there is no guitar but the rhythm is hammered out with sticks. Traditionally linked to the gypsy smithies, the martinete then allows for plenty of freedom for the dancer to create their own frenetic footwork.

Through the range of dance we then reach the finale, fiesta por buleria – a party of flamenco in which the speed of the footwork and the whirling body motions could really take your breath away.

And it is great to see a touch of humour as guitarist El Ingles, The English guy, is encouraged on to the dance floor where he joins the foot stomping to great applause. What can we say – stick to the guitar!

Flamenco has become increasingly popular in the UK with both performances and classes bringing in people of all ages and backgrounds. And when you see a performance with this much energy and excitement, it’s easy to understand why.

Diane Parkes

27-09-14

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Shelfield Male Voice Choir

Pelsall Community Centre

THERE was an emotional climax to the annual summer concert organised by the choir’s ladies section provided by their guest artist, Burntwood soprano Sharron Burns, who sang Keep the Home Fires Burning in a tribute to those who lost their lives in the Great War and other conflicts.

She invited the audience to join her in the chorus, and there was a heart-warming response.

Sharron also impressed with I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Miserables, I’m Just a Girl who Can’t Say No (Oklahoma) and Ave Maria.

The choir, raising thousands for local charities for more than 40 years, gave a powerful performance in their varied programme with You Raise Me Up, Sailing, Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific) and With Cat Like Tread (Pirates of Penzance).

Andrew Webb was musical director, Nicola Bennett accompanist and Michael Smith provided some amusing anecdotes as compere.

Paul Marston

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The Royal Opera: Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

SOMETIMES amid all those Traviatas and Bohemes and all the women expiring from consumption it can be easy to forget that opera can also be humorous.

And Richard Strauss was at the forefront of reinventing the ideas and structures around ‘classic’ opera.

At first glance Ariadne auf Naxos may not appear to lend itself to comedy. After all Ariadne is the classical heroine doomed to loneliness after being unceremoniously dumped by hero Theseus.

But Strauss here plays around with the idea of an opera within an opera and sets the scene of a company performing Ariadne auf Naxos to an after dinner party.

All is immediately thrown into disarray when the company learn they are to share the performance space with an opera buffa company – whose sole aim is to make the audience laugh.

The early angst is brilliantly portrayed in this production by a devastated Composer played by Ruxandra Donose. Is all her hard work to be interrupted by inane jokes by a group of foolish players?

Sir Thomas Allen is really engaging as the Music Master who, like an avuncular uncle, attempts to keep the peace, ensure the show goes on – and does a good amount of eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising to the audience. What a man has to bear to earn a living, he seems to say.

MASTERSTROKE

Leading the comedy cast is Jane Archibald as Zerbinetta who is happy to flirt with anyone if it helps her achieve her aim. We see the masterstroke of Strauss in Zerbinetta though because while she appears a superficial butterfly, her words belie a deeper desire to be truly loved and to love in return, creating a parallel with Ariadne.

Karita Mattila is the Prima Donna engaged to play Ariadne. She is imperious and supercilious in the first act but really comes into her own in the second as she takes on the role of the abandoned Ariadne. Here is a woman singing her soul out as she shares her loneliness and begs to die.

Her agony ensures the juxtaposition when the comedy troupe come onstage is all the stronger. She may be in the depths of despair but Zerbinetta and her friends tell us a woman can jump from one man to another with ease.

There are moments of real comedy genius in Ariadne auf Naxos and that humour comes out of the disjoint between the two companies and their outlooks. When the opera company stress that Ariadne is alone and broken-hearted on her island the comic return that it’s a good job they are going to come along to keep her company. Their complete lack of awareness of the spirit of opera makes every opera-goer in the audience smile.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House is conducted with plenty of enthusiasm by Sit Antonio Pappano who teases out the subtleties of Strauss’s music but also ensures gusto when needed.

The concert production doesn’t appear to lack anything by being performed without sets – if anything it concentrates the audience’s attention on Strauss’s lyrical wit.

Diane Parkes

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Friday Night Classics – New York, New York

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

IT was, as conductor Michael England pointed out, entirely appropriate that this concert was being staged on July 4 – American Independence Day.

After all, the latest Friday Night Classics featured the music of two famous composers from the USA, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, and they would have been proud of the reception it received in England’s second city.

The concert was billed as a Gershwin and Bernstein Gala, and if it had been a competition Bernstein would probably have won on points.

Why? Because the three soloists, Leila Benn Harris, Caroline Sheen and Norman Bowman, made a much bigger impression in the second half of the programme when they were singing to Bernstein’s music . . . particularly the selection from West Side Story, including Tonight, Somewhere and A Boy Like That.

But, had there been an individual prize, it would surely have gone to the superb pianist, Victor Sangiorgio. Born in Sicily, he moved to Western Australia when he was four and gave his first public performance a year later.

At the end of the first act, he played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with a quality that earned rapturous applause from a large audience.

The CBSO played with their usual admirable skill throughout, and earned a special tribute from conductor England who praised ‘the versatility of this extraordinary orchestra’.

The orchestra excelled in a Gershwin medley and the overture from Candide – ironically Bernstein’s first big Broadway flop.

Paul Marston

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Conductor Andris Nelsons in rehearsal.

Conductor Andris Nelsons in rehearsal. Picture Neil Pugh

Andris and Hakan in Concert

CBSO

Symphony Hall

***

THIS concert at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall formed part of a double bill over two days featuring CBSO and renowned Swedish trumpet player Hakan Hardenberger.

The two concerts shared their opening and concluding pieces – Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but then featured different works at the centre.

The evening performance marked the UK premiere of Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae. A CBSO co-commission, Dean’s work is inspired by the idea of a superhero.

In this case the hero is taken on by the trumpet soloist –Acclaimed Swedish trumpet player Hakan Hardenberger. and it’s no mean feat. In the first movement Hardenberger almost seems to be fighting against rather than joining with the orchestra as both strive for supremacy.

The second movement sees a much more gentle tone – gone are the strident heraldic and huntsman-like calls to be replaced with a gentle ‘Soliloquy’, a conversation with the audience.

And finally the trumpet soloist reaches his destination, alongside the other musicians. This is visualised by Hardenberger leaving the front of the stage and taking his place among the brass section.

Acclaimed Swedish trumpet player Hakan Hardenberger. Picture: Marco Borggreve

 

It is a challenging work – and not just for the orchestra. I had to smile when I heard someone saying in the interval ‘well I doubt we’ll be hearing that on Classic FM’. But CBSO certainly gave it plenty of energy and Hardenberger showed why he is one of the most in-demand trumpet soloists today.

While Dean may not be easy listening, it has to be said that Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.

A series of short pieces all strung together by a recurring Promenade, the piece was inspired by an exhibition of pictures by architect Victor Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky.

It is very much a musical journey with the composer walking round the pictures and responding to each one. There is plenty of variety, a touch of humour and lots of grandeur from the busyness of the Limoges market to the impressive Great Gate of Kiev.

And if the audience wasn’t sure which picture we were looking at, we were given a helping hand with surtitles informing us throughout the work.

Under the baton of CBSO musical director Andris Nelsons, the orchestra seemed just a little hesitant to really give full throttle to this work. But by the closing pieces, the somewhat crazed Baba Yaga and the dramatic Gate of Kiev, they had it more in their stride.

The orchestra revelled in Ravel’s Le Tombeau of Couperin – dancing back and forth between strings and woodwind. Although this piece is a memorial to French composer Francois Couperin, it is anything but funereal and gives little hint of the angst being experienced by Ravel at the time.

Diane Parkes

29-05-14

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48th Annual Concert of Remembrance

Birmingham Canoldir Male Choir

Birmingham Town Hall

*****

THIS three hour concert of magical music proved a fitting tribute to the fallen in the choir’s fund-raising efforts for Help for Heroes.

It was moving and inspirational evening which opened with compere Mel Thomas, sword in one hand, crown in the other, delivering a Henry V call to arms speech.

Then the choir took over with The Creation and a premier performance of Robert Ramskill’s arrangement of Bridge Over Troubled Water, followed by an awesome contribution from the brilliant Chinese pianist, Di Xiao, who teaches at the Birmingham Conservatoire

She played beautifully in both halves of the concert, her fingers gliding hypnotically over the keyboard, and other highlights were provided by exciting Welsh soprano Menna Davies who invited the audience to singalong with her in I Could Have Danced All Night.

What a special treat came, too with songs by the 60-strong Four Oaks Cluster Choir, made up of children aged aged nine to 13 drawn from the Sutton Coldfield and Four Oaks area, under musical directors Richard Jeffries and Liz Birch, with accompanist Matt Walker . . . a cluster with a lustre, said the MC.

Their singing, coupled with amusing animated movement, thrilled the audience.

The concert had many humorous moments, too, Canoldir Choir director and conductor James Llewelyn Jones causing a burst of laughter by suggesting the mature gentlemen – one is 90 years old  - had choreographed a special dance to accompany their singing of Fascinating Rhythm, but it was ruled out by Health and Safety!

At one point the choir were joined by members of the Heroes Choir for Unchained Melody and Bring Him Home, and there were outstanding performances from accompanists Jill Godsall and Heather Howell, and organist Charles Matthews.

A superb concert closed with the building of a drumhead altar, prayers, the haunting theme from Shindler’s List, played by violinist Jodie Smith, and Anthem from the musical, Chess.

Paul Marston

18-05-14

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Shelfield Male Voice Choir

St John’s Methodist Church, Bloxwich

****

STAGING their annual gala concert, it was fitting that the choir gave one of their best performance for some time.

The quality of their singing in wide range of music was impressive, whether it was hymns, songs from hit shows, or spirituals like My Lord, What a Mornin’.

The choir peaked with Can You Feel the Love Tonight, from the Lion King, You Raise Me Up (Keith Goode, soloists), An American Trilogy, Some Enchanted Evening and the Gilbert & Sullivan classic, With Cat-Like Tread.

And providing a contrasting but very enjoyable switch of style, the folk group The Staffordshire Men made an enterprising contribution – four guitars, a bhodran, five voices and bags of humour.

Barry Yates, John Upton, John Carver, Richard Salt and Hal Eardley even introduced a touch of audience participation.

The majority of Shelfield Male Voice Choir are veterans, but they have very promising young people, too, in musical director Andrew Webb and accompanist Nicola Bennett.

The concert was also boosted by articulate compere Michael Smith and organist Christopher Booth.

Paul Marston

10-05-14

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At the Crossroads

Bible, Burlesque and the Blues

Lichfield Garrick Studio
***

CITIES have always, since Sodom and Gomorrah, attracted and repelled in equal measure. In modern times, the grandeur of Place de la Concorde and Buckingham Palace are counterpointed by the festering banlieue and council tower blocks.

Contemporary pop culture also celebrates its allure, from Joy Division’s Shadowplay, “ in the centre of the city where all roads meet waiting for you” to Suedes’ Asphalt World, “Sometimes we ride in a taxi to the ends of the city, Like big stars in the back seat like skeletons ever so pretty”. Thus, it represents fertile ground for Simon Quinn and Mal Dewhirst, director and writer respectively, for a modern day parable of the bible Story.

The Blues are synonymous with urban poverty, giving a voice to the underclass, as Jesus did, so the anachronistic juxtaposition is shrewdly made. What unfolds is an episodic modern reimagining of Bible tales rounded off by the crucifixion, interspersed with Blues standards.

The songs are sung live, sometimes as solos, sometimes as ensemble, the music is a backing track with live guitar played by axeman Ben Macnair. Ben plays impressive Blues slide guitar in a style reminiscent of Ry Cooder adding atmosphere and authenticity to proceedings. A more prominent place in the sound mix would not have gone amiss.

A large and enthusiastic cast doubled up on roles offering commitment and enthusiasm. Emma Allen is a wonderfully greedy Greed, amassing cash with an avarice which will surely have Barclays knocking on her door soon.

She also played a Burlesque dancer with elan, and a smile, as well as possessing one of the best singing voices on the night. Simon Quinn was disturbingly convincing as Letch, with a voice culled from Alfred Steptoe, and a persona from Tommy’s Uncle Ernie, he illuminated every scene he appeared in, with a flash.

The part of The Messiah is always a tricky one to cast. In this productio

BEST SINGING VOICE

n convention is bravely turned on its head by casting him as an old man, rather than bearded thirty-something. He is an anti-hero, a little fey, sometimes bemused and confused, and given the run around by the Devil for whom he is no match.

His crucifixion is portrayed as no triumph, his quiescence to his persecution and beating, meted out with considerable enthusiasm by the female guards, offering an ambiguous reading of who wins. His closing performance of Nobody’s fault But Mine was delivered with pathos and conviction, one of the shows vocal highlights. The song itself was an inspired choice.

However the star of the show, in the tradition that the devil has the best tunes, is The Devil, played by Ruth Adams. Sexy, sassy and coy, quite frankly she could lead anyone astray, and does ,with a performance which is a delight. Her solo of Little Red Rooster smouldered with an intensity which was surely stoked by the fires of Hell. She strutted along Aspiration Blvd, she shimmied in the X Bar, and seduced in Hotel De Luded. Who wouldn’t want to go down to the crossroads?

The episodic and multi-character nature of the script meant that you sometimes had to listen hard to appreciate an eloquent and humorous script. “There’s no money in poetry and no poetry in money” will have been well received by the several poets present, the rhyming of derriere with chair is probably a first.

An intriguing, and witty, sub-plot also emerged as parallels were drawn between the Red Devils and the Devil. We are told that fair justice is the basis for building a defence- is that where Moyes went wrong using Cleverly instead? Was Moyes the Chosen One? Was Sir Alex a False Prophet of whom we should beware? Did the orange capes of the guards anticipate the appointment of Van Gaal?

For poignancy and power, the best cameo performance came from an actor not in the room. It came in the form of a movingly filmed crucifixion scene, shot in Wade St Methodist Church Lichfield with Anthony Webster a convincing and compelling dying Christ. An honourable mention is also due to Neil Thorne’s Pontius Pilate acted out as a flouncy Game show host in a scene which begged for more time.

In an era of jukebox musicals it is a pleasure to see innovative, imaginative new work being commissioned and written. Credit and thanks should be offered to the Lichfield Mysteries and BBC Performing Arts Fund for their support, and to the Fired Up Theatre company for offering amateurs in the community the opportunity to be involved in a professional quality production. To 10-05-15.
Gary Longden

09-05-14

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Silent Heroes – Buster Keaton

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

THE silent movies are coming back into fashion in Birmingham, thanks to the remarkable musician Carl Davis and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Although the audience was smaller than usual for Friday Night Classics, the customers clearly enjoyed watching two old black-and-white films on a huge silver screen, given a new lease of life by modern music.

It really was a special experience to see the antics of the legendary Buster Keaton while listening to Davis’s music, beautifully played by the CBSO, particularly in the main feature, The General, lasting 76 minutes.

Keaton plays railroad engineer Johnnie Gray who is rejected by the Confederate Army because his train driving skills are thought to be too valuable for the war effort, and his girlfriend thinks he is a coward.

But he wins back her love after chasing a small band of Union soldiers who steal his train ‘The General’. The highs and lows of the music add real colour to the drama as Keaton performs his own stunts in the hilarious pursuit.

Before the interval the audience were treated to a shorter Keaton film, The Playhouse, in which he takes every part, including all eight musicians in a minstrel show.

At the end of the main movie, veteran Carl Davis, who conducted the CBSO, left the orchestra pit and appeared on stage where he received warm applause and even a standing ovation from some people in the stalls.

Paul Marston

09-05-14

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A line-up set to test

Rachmaninov and Shostakovich

CBSO, Symphony Hall

****

CONDUCTOR Andrés Orozco-Estrada has a way about him. The Colombian, who returned to Birmingham Symphony Hall to conduct this programme with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is a fluid and florid mover whose entire body follows his baton. His style of conducting is not only engaging, it does have a tendency to draw the eye.

And Orozco-Estrada certainly had plenty to dance about with this programme featuring Ravel and two of the Russian titans Shostakovich and Rachmaninov.Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada who brings animation to the rostrum. Picture by: Peter Rigaud

The evening began with a quick fire piece from Ravel. It may be just seven minutes but his Alborada del gracioso certainly packs a lot into it. Fun and lively, it is heavily influenced by Spanish rhythms and instrumentation with guitar and castanet sounds interspersing the woodwinds.

Simone Lamsma then took on the monumental task of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1. This is a work which demands a lot from its soloist who dominates the music throughout.

Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada who brings animation to the rostrum. Picture: Peter Rigaud

In the first and third movements, the violin is hauntingly melancholic almost digging deep into the soul of the troubled composer who wrote this work while out in the cold during the Stalinist regime. But in the second and final movements the violin takes on an almost fiendish power as it soars and dives seemingly without taking a breath. This is very much a work which takes no prisoners.

Rachmaninov brought back a touch of lightness to the evening with the Symphonic Dances. His final work, it harks back to many of the ideas he had developed through a lifetime of composition and performance.

It draws heavily on the orchestra as rhythm and mood switches back and forth both across and within the three movements. It is certainly a tour de force which could only have been created by someone with Rachmaninov’s vast musical experience.

CBSO certainly didn’t pick the easiest of programmes as much of this music asks a good deal from its orchestra but it was a performance packed full of vigour and energy.

Diane Parkes

08-05-14

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Belshazzar's Feast

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

CELEBRATING the 40th anniversary of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus, this programme at Symphony Hall showed the versatility of those singers.

Conducted by John Storgards, it  featured 20th century choral music with Holst's The Hymn of Jesus, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Walton's mighty Belshazzar's Feast.

Walton's piece with a libretto by Osbert Sitwell is based on the Biblical story of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon. It begins with a gentle lament from those slaves as they sit by the waters of Babylon and ask the question of the exile 'how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?'

Forced to turn over their Temple riches to King Belshazzar for his feast, they fear their faith and heritage are being crushed before their very eyes. But God's punishment for Belshazzar's pride is rapid – the writing appears on the wall and he is warned he is doomed.

And so we go from the soft sorrow to shouts of acclamation and exultation. As Walton ups the ante, bringing in shrilling trumpets in place of lilting harps, the chorus becomes loud and proud.

Mark Stone sang the baritone role here, perfectly complementing the chorus and occasionally slowing down the action for a moment of reflection.

By its rousing Alleluias at the finale, there was no doubt that the chorus was thoroughly enjoying tackling the piece, which is not the easiest to carry off well.

There was also plenty of life in Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Ever the showman, Bernstein may have taken the words from the Biblical Psalms but at times the pieces sound more akin to a music hall show than a church.

The Lord is My Shepherd has plenty of moments of calm and was beautifully sung by Trinity Boys Choir member William Gardner. But Bernstein quickly introduces a riot of percussion so we can almost imagine the chorus taking to the stage to dance in a West Side Story like showstopper. It was also a great opportunity for the CBSO to get to grips with lots of fun and exuberant music.

Holst's The Hymn of Jesus is largely taken from the Biblical book of Acts and picks up the joyful images of dance and song. This was a chance for nearly 200 singers from the CBSO Chorus and the CBSO Youth Chorus to hold centre stage.

Over the last 40 years the CBSO Chorus has won its place in the hearts of music lovers in the city. It has performed all over the globe but remains centred on Birmingham's Symphony Hall. This concert was both a celebration and a reminder of just why the chorus is held in such high regard.

Diane Parkes

26-04-14

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Last Night of the Spring Proms

Birmingham Symphony Hall

*****

AS this concert was staged in the afternoon, the title was inaccurate, but everything else proved to be so perfect for the flag-waving near capacity audience.

Whenever charismatic conductor Anthony Inglis is in town he usually manages to bring something special to the occasion, and he managed to stamp his impish personality on the proms.

It was Mother’s Day, and after a little harmless amusing dig at women, he added, with a smile: “Men who have lost their intelligence are called ‘widowers’.”

At one point Inglis moved into the front stalls and selected Diane and Georgia, a mother and daughter from Leicester, on to the stage where they made a reasonable job of conducting the excellent London Concert Orchestra in Hornpipe from Fantasia on British Sea Songs.

But it was the professionals who made the concert such an outstanding success, particularly soloists James Edwards (tenor) and Stephanie Corley (soprano) who set the pace with an early duet, O soave fanciulla, from Puccini’s La Boheme, then Verdi’s Brindisi, the drinking song from La Traviata.

In second half, Corley led the audience in Rule, Britannia, followed by Edwards singing the show stopper, Nessun Dorma, from Puccini’s Turandot. Can it ever have been performed better in the Symphony Hall? I doubt it.

Throughout, the orchestra played with considerable skill, especially in Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever and a selection from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

It was value for money, alright, and the audience even received free tea or coffee and cakes at the interval before returning and creating a sea of waving Union flags for the big finish with Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory.

Paul Marston

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Ballroom to Broadway

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

ONE of the big stars from TV’s Strictly Come Dancing, Anton Du Beke brought all the glamour and glitz of the hit show to the Midlands with his own song and dance spectacular.

His usual partner, Erin Boag, was missing because she is expecting her first baby any time soon, but he has certainly found a super sub in Summer Strallen who bears a striking resemblance to her aunt, Bonnie Langford.

Actress Strallen is a remarkably athletic dancer who can sing too, and the pair thrilled a near-capacity audience drawn from all over the Midlands and beyond, as they performed with excellent backing from the London Concert Orchestra, conducted by Richard Balcombe.

The programme was packed with big numbers like Shall We Dance, Begin the Beguine, Embraceable You and Dancing in the Dark, while Anton and Faye Huddleston danced a beautiful foxtrot to Music of the Night.

Du Beke has an endearing personality, but at times his chat sessions lasted a little too long, though the question-and-answer interlude produced some amusing ‘Strictly’ insights, especially about Nancy Dell’Olio, the women so many viewers seemed to hate. His revelation that she considered herself the best dancer SHE had ever danced with, produced a roar of laughter.

The voice of Strictly, Lance Ellington, was as smooth as ever, particularly with Mack the Knife, and he proved to be a pretty useful dancer too, while there were terrific contributions from the five ensemble dancers, Gemma Facinelli, Crystal Hantig, Simon Coulthard, Scott Coldwell and Sam Patrick.

The show ended with a lively Anything Goes medley, followed by a standing ovation from some members of the audience.

Paul Marston

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Shostakovich Symphony No 5

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

THERE was a distinctly Russian flavour to this programme featuring works by Shchedrin, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

But the music was far from uniform.

Shchedrin's Carmen Suite is a lively, playful piece in which the composer picks up the music from Bizet's famous opera, shakes it about and breathes a different kind of life into it. For the percussion session, this work is a dream as much of its quirkiness is provided by the vast array of percussion instruments chiming in at different times.

And for the rest of the CBSO and conductor Michael Seal, the work was fun – their enjoyment clear as those familiar tunes reappeared with a touch of the unfamiliar and the surprising.

I'm sure Shchedrin would have loved the comment heard afterwards 'What was that music? I thought I had heard it before!'

Certainly many in the audience would have heard the next piece before – Rachmaninov's much-loved Piano Concerto No 2.

In the hands of Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, the music flowed through from its powerful first movement into its more sombre adagio. There is something a little sad, even morose, in Rachmaninov's music which makes this adagio so touchingly powerful which is precisely why David Lean chose it for his film Brief Encounter. And then into the strident final movement for its grand finale.

Montero then offered to do an encore improvisation if an audience member could suggest a well known tune – and be prepared to sing it. Rather unexpectedly the suggestion was Madonna's Like a Virgin which Montero then used as the basis for a short piece of lively piano composition.

There is no doubting Montero's talent seen both in her mastery of Rachmaninov's notoriously tricky concerto and her readiness to experiment with something so totally different.

Finally the orchestra gave full vent to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Written during a time of great repression, an embattled Shostakovich hoped this symphony would keep him safe in Stalinist Russia – which explains why it is slightly more traditional than much of his other work.

It is certainly powerful and gave CBSO plenty of opportunity to flex its muscles – whether it be searing strings, a gentle harp or a good old crash of the cymbals and a bang of the drums.

CBSO and Michael Seal perform Shostakovich's Fifth again on Saturday for a Tuned In Concert in which the music will be preceded by an illustrated talk on the work. 06-03-14

Diane Parkes

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Vienna Tonkunstler Orchestra

and John Lill play Beethoven

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

THE weather outside was atrocious but with a triple bill of Beethoven on the programme there was plenty to attract the audience to Symphony Hall.

Two symphonies and a piano concerto certainly made for a packed evening with barely time to breathe.

Colombian conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada coaxed every nuance of Beethoven's music out of the Vienna Tonkunstler, ensuring just the correct balance between dramatic overload and rippling melody.

To begin with, we had the mighty composer in playful mode with the Pastoral Symphony No 6. Its light-hearted frolics were deftly thrown into the air and then caught by the orchestra as they ricocheted back and forth between birdsong, country revels and the whole world of nature – including the powerful storm of movement IV.

John Lill then took his seat for the Piano Concerto No 4. One of today's foremost pianists, Lill is internationally renowned for his skills with Beethoven concertos and this proved to be no exception. There were moments when the entire audience seemed to hold its breath waiting for the next key stroke while Lill also managed apparently effortless interplay with the orchestra.

Finally we had the great Symphony No 5. While conflicting theories attend the famous opening bars, no-one can deny the complete mastery of form in this symphony. Beethoven takes those first notes and then plays them and replays them, building their context, their delivery and their role so that they remain at the heart of the music.

It's a wonderful piece of composition and the Vienna Tonkunstler succeeded in doing it justice. The performance could be said to be slightly underplayed but it kept its momentum – a risk when too much emphasis is placed on the beginning.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 which hopefully means thousands more shared the experience with was so thoroughly enjoyed in Symphony Hall. 03-14

Diane Parkes

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Songs for Swingin’ Orchestras

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

PUT the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra together with globe-trotting conductor Richard Balcombe and two top notch vocalists and the popular Friday Night Classics was transported to The Sands Hotel, Las Vegas.

At least that’s what the large audience was asked to imagine, which was easy enough with a string of sparkling numbers from legendary crooners, composers and arrangers whose work lives on.

So it was entirely appropriate that Catherine Porter, an American actress, singer and songwriter, was chosen to perform some of the great hits, along with West End star Graham Bickley.

They proved to be an impressive partnership in duets like Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It from the Parisian musical, Can-Can, and Lover Come Back to Me from the 1926 operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein.

The concert opened with the orchestra in great form with Nelson Riddle’s Sinatra Film suite, and Bickley’s singing of The Lady is a Tramp brought memories of Ol’ Blue Eyes flooding back.

Porter excelled in Beginner’s Luck and Stuff Like That, while the quality of the CBSO’s playing of Let’s Face the Music and Dance and other arrangements prompted Bickley to invite the audience to give special applause for ‘this stupendous orchestra’.

Paul Marston

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Love Classics

Symphony Hall

*****

LOVERS of all ages were in the audience for this inspirational concert featuring music inspired by some of the world’s greatest love stories.

On the most romantic night of the year it was cold and wet outside but all that was forgotten inside where the London Concert Orchestra produced a heart-warming performance.

A Valentines event to remember, full of emotion and passion – no vocalists, no speeches. The music did the talking.

There was a perfect opening to the programme with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, considered to be one of the most famous of all pieces of classical music.

And in the run-up to the interval, award-winning pianist Viv McLean played Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor superbly, sending the customers out in high spirits for their free Valentine’s cocktail.

After the break the orchestra excelled in Bizet’s Carmen Suite, with the immaculately dressed young conductor Toby Purser looking every inch the ‘toreador’ as he coaxed and challenged his musicians. Purser has conducted productions in various prisons, with a cast of inmates performing alongside professionals in repertoire. He certainly held the Symphony Hall audience captive.

More magic came with Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticanaand Roses from the South by Johann Strauss II, before the evening ended on a high note with the haunting Ravel’s Bolero.

If Music be the Food of Love, Play On!

Paul Marston

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Irving Berlin: From Rags to Ritzes

Symphony Hall

****

THIS concert was a celebration of 125 years of one of America’s greatest songwriters whose music lives on and is still being heard and enjoyed across the globe today.

By Symphony Hall standards the audience was rather small, and after jokingly demanding a better reception for his second arrival on stage, orchestra conductor Pete Long glanced at some of the empty seats and said: “Is this a celebration of the national day of the chair?”

The absentees missed a treat, with the Pete Long Orchestra playing superbly and top quality vocalists Matthew Ford, Sophie Evans, Tom Langham and Mary Carewe singing some of the great man’s finest numbers.

Introducing the various items, Leo Green provided a fascinating, eloquent insight into the life of Berlin who, aged four, arrived with his family in America having been forced to flee their native Russia. He grew up to be hugely patriotic to his new country and even joined the army, aged 58, during the Second World War.

That prompted him to write This is the Army Mr Jones, and many considered his God Bless America a virtual national anthem.

The audience were treated to mega hits like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, How Deep is the Ocean, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Blue Skies, What’ll I Do, Dancing Cheek to Cheek, White Christmas,  Easter Parade, Stepping Out and many more. Even We’re Having a Heatwave . . . nice thought!

For a big finish the vocalists combined in There’s No Business Like Show business.

Paul Marston

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Friday Night Classics

Gilbert And Sullivan Gala

Symphony Hall

*****

PUT together the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and brilliant conductor John Wilson and you are guaranteed a concert of special quality.

Somehow Wilson always seems to raise the bar, and hundreds of Gilbert and Sullivan fans in the large audience couldn’t help noticing the extra quality he and the musicians brought to some of the much loved classics.

The programme was split into two halves, the first packed with amusing songs from operettas which have become such a heart-warming part of English life with their sparkling wit, and after the interval the cast performed a concert version of Trial By Jury.

And playing no small part were students representing the Birmingham University Singers, under chorus director Simon Halsey. They made a huge impression on the audience throughout, and  particularly in Ring Forth, Ye Bells, from The Sorcerer.

One of many highlights  came with baritone Richard Suart singing about the ‘little list of people who never would be missed’ from The Mikado, updating it with ‘crazy English cricketers who have a lot of trouble connecting ball to bat’, the French President, motorway drivers causing traffic jams, twerking, and the SNP.

Sarah Fox (soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor), Simon Butteriss (baritone) and Matthew Hargreaves (bass) were also impressive in items from such classics as The Gondoliers, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Pirates of Penzance, Princess Ida and Ruddigore.

The CBSO performed superbly, opening with The Gondoliers overture – quite apt at a time when many of our roads are looking like canal

Paul Marston

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Saint-Saens Symphony No 3

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

THERE was a hint of what was to come when the doors supporting Symphony Hall's famous acoustics were thrown open at the interval.

And Saint-Saens' Symphony No 3, also known as The Organ Symphony, certainly needs that surround sound. From its somewhat humble beginnings the music swells, building slowly until the moment when the organ really hits. By this time the orchestra is in full swing so that the music becomes a real crescendo of sound, organ vying with strings which are vying with the brass section for overall dominance.

In this performance, conducted by Kazuki Yamada, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was so enthusiastic it risked drowning out the actual organ – which is no mean feat.

At the hands of Stephen Farr, the organ just about won out, but it was a hard-pitched battle. As the orchestra reached its triumphant conclusion even the audience felt a little exhausted by the energy.

Farr did have his moment in the sun with Widor's Toccata from his Organ Symphony No 5, a rich and colourful piece which really allows any organist the chance to revel in his, or her, skills.

When it comes to dexterity, pianist Francesco Piemontesi had it at his fingertips as he masterfully handled Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. One moment he was playing lightly with the orchestra, passing the musical baton back and forth, the next he was duelling with them, taking control of Rachmaninov's delightful variations.

Beginning the programme was Fauré's Pelleas and Melisande Suite in which the composer takes us on a journey through the doomed romance of the famous lovers.

Yamada had an easy rapport with the CBSO, clearly comfortable with all of the pieces of music and enjoying the experience of working with the orchestra. Together with Piemontesi, they took the audience through a range of quite varied music with apparent ease.

Diane Parkes

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Abba – Symphonic Spectacular

CBSO

Symphony Hall

*****

THE audience had been invited to dig out their flares, put on the dancing shoes and be prepared to party, but very few did at this Friday Night Classics.

Instead it was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra who, in the main, abandoned their usual impeccable sartorial elegance and went for it, big time.

Colourful clothing – even a leopard skin coat - a few hats, and a whole range of wigs….blonde, black, brown, pink  and yellow were paraded by the musicians, and one member of the trumpet section was a ringer for Worzel Gummidge!

Conductor Stephen Bell, wearing a black shirt, black trousers and black shoes, looked apologetically over his shoulder and admitted: “I have never felt so under-dressed”.

Even though they hadn’t dressed up, though, the audience didn’t take long to join in the fun, clapping, swaying and waving their arms to the much loved music of Abba, Sweden’s greatest export since Volvo.

There were 21 hits on the programme following a splendid overture by the orchestra, and they were sung with all the enthusiasm and skill you might expect by the suitably attired Capital Voices – Annie Skates, Kate Graham, David Combes and Dean Collinson.

All the favourites were there . . . Super Trouper, S.O.S, The Winner Takes it All, Voulez-Vous, Chiquitita,  and Mamma Mia, with a natural finale, Thank You for the Music.

But the audience demanded more, and got it with Waterloo and Dancing Queen. Just about everyone in the hall were on their feet by then, singing and applauding.

Paul Marston

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Strictly a touch of class

Words of wit and wisdom from from Craig Revel Horwood, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli

Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour 2014

NIA Birmingham

**** 

THE Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour 2014 kicked off at Birmingham’s NIA and fans of the show won’t be disappointed. 

Following the well oiled format of past years the celebrity dancers each undertake two dances, and are duly scored by the judging panel - in order to give a guide to the audience who text their votes with 10p of each text going towards Sport Relief. 

Providing comic relief on the night are the hosts - Len, Craig and Bruno and host for the night Lisa Riley. 

Though a veteran of Strictly, this was Lisa’s first year as host, taking over from the previous hostess with the mostess, Kate Thornton. They’re big shoes to fill and it’s too early to tell whether Lisa will host with the same assurance as Kate but she was game for a laugh and tried her best. I’d say with such a demanding role, we’ll know the answer closer to the end of the run than the start of it but her start was solid enough. 

There are no such doubts about the judges - who are on top form from start to finish. Craig, ever the pantomime villain is as harsh as ever - the favourite quote of the night was when he was asked by Lisa ‘does that performance deserve some R-E-S-P-E-C-T?’ and his reply was a simple ‘Noo!’. 

Len was as agile as ever with his turn of phrase, producing more sparkling gems than Elizabeth Taylor in her prime; “that was like eating through a really chewy toffee”, “you’re like an evening under a comfy blanket, very warm and cuddly but uncomfortable at times” and my personal favourite of the night was the use of the term “nicky-nacky-noo”, a term criminally underused in my book. 

Bruno was as rampant as ever, ladling on more innuendo than a collection of saucy seaside postcards and pulling no punches with his critiques nor his affection for the mighty Ben Cohen.

And the bulging muscles of Ben lead us nicely on to the celebrity dancers and their partners.  With a range of abilities and the three finalists from the 2013 series, there really is something for all tastes. The partnerships are: Abbey Clancy dancing with Aljaž Skorjanec; Ben Cohen dancing with Kristina Rihanoff; Deborah Meaden dancing with Robin Windsor; Mark Benton dancing with Iveta Lukosiute; Natalie Gumede dancing with Artem Chigvintsev; Nicky Byrne dancing with Karen Hauer and Susanna Reid dancing with Kevin Clifton. 

If you’re a fan of the series then there’s little to tell you tabout their performances that you do not already know.

Natalie Gumede dancing with partner Artem Chigvintsev finally showed off their jinxed jive

The exception to that rule being that Natalie and Artem finally get to perform the ill-fated Jive that TV audiences never saw (Natalie collapsed in practice thus was given a bye that week). It is most definitely worth the wait, full of verve and vigour and Tina Turner inspired moves.

Their Viennese Waltz was probably the most beautiful dance of the night, and rightly scored perfect tens and in all truth it was the dance that almost certainly swung it for the audience too - who voted them their winners for the opening show - beating Abbey and Aljaz who scored perfect tens for both their dances. Other notable performances were Susanna’s Paso Doble and Nicky’s Charleston - both were even better than they appeared on TV. 

For those members of the audience less bothered about the quality of pivot turns and feathersteps on display Mark Benton provided the comic relief. In person you realise how little dancing he actually does - indeed how little movement he does full stop - but his entertainment value is right up there; whether it be via his MC Hammer cha cha cha or his comment to Craig “I wish you were a statue and I was a pigeon”. The live show needs that contrast, no matter what the purists say and he’s a super performer.    

One thing the purists have got right though is the need for a quality production with a bit of razzle dazzle. It’s lovely when, in a time when presentation and costings must be scrutinized by the bean counters, that a show like SCD continues to show no evidence of cutbacks in production values. The staging looks lovely and the live band and singers are superb, all adding to the special feeling of the night.

Indeed time is given to the singers to showcase their eclectic talents and rightly so - this interlude also gave the opportunity for some dance numbers from the professionals. Shorn of their celebrity partners (at times the dancing equivalent of stabilisers) it’s nice to see them let rip and really go for it. They’re joined in their ranks by Natalie Lowe, who happily has recovered from her foot injury which kept her out of SCD 2013.  

The tour has two more dates in Birmingham, with evening and matinee performances, until it sets off round the country culminating in the o2 Arena dates - if you can get yourself a ticket, it’s highly recommended. A classy production from start to finish. To 19-01-14.

Theo Clarke

For other dates: http://strictlycomedancinglive.com/

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Last Night of the Christmas Proms

Symphony Hall

*****

HOW good to see so many people are still proud of Britain – and not afraid to show it.

A near-capacity audience at this concert produced a sea of Union flags, and others, in a remarkable expression of joy as the London Concert Orchestra played Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory.

World class vocalists Philip O’Brien (tenor) and James Cleverton (baritone) led the singing and, perhaps as a token acknowledgement to Europe, the orchestra then played the French Can-Can!

Charismatic conductor Hilary Davan Wetton linked the programme together with some amusing comments after opening by telling the audience they were in for much better entertainment than sitting at home watching TV. And he was so right.

Cleverton excelled with the Toreador song from Carmen and Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville, while O’Brien was impressive in La donna e mobile (Rigoletto) before earning cheers and thunderous applause for a particularly powerful performance of Nessun dorma (Turandot).

One of many other highlights came with the orchestra playing Ravel’s hypnotic Bolero, beginning with a lone side drummer tapping gently and building during the 15-minute piece till his sticks were going head high and all the musicians had joined in, section by section. Superb.

Then, the playing of Rossini’s William Tell Overture was breathtaking.

Paul Marston

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Rodgers, Hammerstein & Hart

Symphony Hall

****

EVEN before a note was sung this concert was a sure fire winner with a glittering array of songs created by the legendary Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart.

The audience were not disappointed as four top class soloists and the Manchester Concert Orchestra performed superbly with classics from a range of memorable musicals which are still delighting people around the world.

The opening number featured all four vocalists with Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific, which was something of a surprise as it is normally an emotion-packed solo and would have been better left to Matthew Cammelle who has played Emile de Becque, the French planter who falls for an American military nurse.

Cammelle seemed to underline the point later in the programme with a particularly powerful delivery of This Nearly Was Mine, from the same show.

But that was a minor blip in a mouth-watering concert which also featured action-man conductor David Shrubsole. His own love for the music was obvious, and under his guidance the orchestra excelled throughout.

The soloists produced some special moments – Canadian Tim Howar with the soliloquy from Carousel, Celia Graham (Something Wonderful, from The King and I) and Gillian Bevan (Bewitched, from Pal Joey).

All four came together for a beautifully sung medley from South Pacific.

Paul Marston

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Reet gradely seasonal cheer

Kate Rusby at Christmas

Malvern Theatres

*****

THE penultimate concert in her traditional Christmas tour, this evening of festive entertainment promised to fill even the most Scrooge-like of souls with yuletide excitement and cheer.

Kate Rusby uses this annual Christmas show to share songs and carols which she learned in her native South Yorkshire as a child. Born into a musical family, Rusby has been performing on the folk scene for more than two decades.

She clearly relishes this time of year and the celebrations that go with it, and two of her eleven albums, Sweet Bells (2008) and While Mortals Sleep (2011) feature the variations of familiar carols and more familiar old favourites which Rusby treats us to on these special December dates.

Rusby began by introducing Cranbrook:  ‘The words of one song,’ she explained, ‘to the tune of another. There’s going to be a lot of that.’

Cranbrook was the night’s first of no less than three versions of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, this one set to what is now recognised as the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at, with a hint of Jingle Bells. In fact, although some of these renditions of carols may be new to audiences, many are in fact simply old or original versions which over time have been altered or set to different tunes to suit the church or the preferences of a certain era.

Throughout the evening, Rusby introduced each song, giving us its background and explaining any traditions that originally went with it. There was Poor Old Horse, which is apparently based on the old Sheffield tradition of groups of men drawing straws to decide who would be dressed as a raggedy horse and led on a rope from door to door to ask for money. I’m not sure when this custom died out but I certainly never witnessed it when I lived in the heart of Sheffield nor when I moved to the city’s edge at the gateway to the beautiful Peak District.

I do remember hearty autumnal ale house merriment involving harvest songs and farmhouse cider, but am disappointed that I didn’t know more about these yuletide Yorkshire public house practices when I lived up that way or I would have sought them out.

Kate Rusby, keeping alive traditions and music from her native South Yorkshire.

Rusby explained to us that certain carols were throw out of the church in Victorian times for being too rousing and jolly, but that undeterred, the good folk of Yorkshire took to the pubs every weekend from Armistice Day to New Year to continue the celebrations, with the addition of beer serving to amplify the volume and joviality of the proceedings.

 Rusby was taken along to these family events as a child, then as an adult, realising that most of these songs and carols were unknown outside her county, decided she would take them to audiences around the whole of Britain. A keen ambassador both of folk and of her home town of Barnsley, Rusby urged us to go and experience these stirring seasonal gatherings should we ever get the chance.

A striking interpretative singer who is regarded by many as an earthbound angel, Rusby charmed and enthralled the audience with her down to earth humour and her clear and gentle voice. She talked enthusiastically about her children and her musical heritage, and joked about her own diminutive size and her unruly hair inherited from her father and passed on to her older daughter. She appeared to be genuinely delighted to be back in Malvern and still thrilled to able to make a living sharing her passion for folk music. Audiences could not fail to warm to Rusby’s cheer and enthusiasm, and she is such a natural and affable performer that her ramblings between songs are just as entertaining as the music itself.

The stage was delightfully yet simply set, with fairy lights and giant snowflakes forming the backdrop. With shifts in mood or tempo or tune, the lighting would change from white, to red, to green, to blue, to yellow, to purple and back again.

Rusby was accompanied on stage by her band of four talented musicians who played various instruments depending on the song, including guitar, accordion, double bass and banjo. Many sections of the show were augmented by the addition of a five-piece brass section, and at one point in the second half, Rusby left the stage to allow the full band to shine and demonstrate their musicianship. This set of tunes cleverly interwove phrases of traditional Christmas melodies with an Irish reel as well as tunes written by individual band members (My Lovely Horse with its nod to Father Ted, and the Peppa Pig inspired Jumping In Puddles).

Not all of the songs were Christmas ones but that was the evening’s focus, and other numbers from the night included Kris Kringle, Little Town Of Bethlehem, Here We Come A-Wassailing, Holmfirth Anthem and The Holly and The Ivy. Rusby ended the second half with the song most of the audience were hoping for, the delightful Sweet Bells.

The audience’s stamping feet demanded an encore and Rusby was more than happy to oblige with Hail Chime On, her third version of While Shepherds Watched. There are around thirty adaptations of this carol sung in pubs, she explained, of which she knows eighteen. She joked that at some point she may plan a tour of concerts featuring just this one song. Or at least I think it was a joke. I’m sure it would sell out anyway. The evening was rounded up with the Yorkshire version of We Wish You A Merry Christmas and huge applause. We had had two hours of Rusby but would have welcomed more.

 You may be too late to catch her Christmas tour this year, but I don’t think this is a tradition that she plans to give up any time soon, and she has a vast catalogue of non-seasonal music to entertain audiences so I would recommend going to listen to her whatever the time of year. This was a wonderful evening in the lead-up to Christmas, and with her unassuming talent, her contagious mirth and her obvious love for life and people and music, if I could give Kate Rusby six stars out of five I would. Kate Rusby plays in Huddersfield on 21/12/13, and her UK spring tour begins in April. 20-12-13.

Amy Rainbow

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The Glory of Christmas

Symphony Hall

****

JUST a few hours before Santa was due, a children’s choir delivered their own gift of music for a large audience at this lively concert.

But John Pryce-Jones, conductor of the London Concert Orchestra, clearly hadn’t done his homework when he announced that the St Michael’s Primary School Choir had come a long way, from Walsall, adding “Wherever that is”.

After the interval he decided to ask the 36-strong choir where, in fact, their school was, and a few of the youngsters piped up “Pelsall” (a village within Walsall), but that clearly confused him even more. So, with a shake of his head, Pryce-Jones continued the second half of the programme.

He did point out that children’s voices made people feel happy, and the young choir – ages ranging from seven to 11 - received the warmest applause and even cheers from the audience for their impressive contributions.

Pryce-Jones got his directions right when he invited a couple from row K of the stalls on to the stage. It had been arranged by Neil Gascoigne, from Leicester, who promptly dropped on to one knee and proposed to girlfriend Nicky Howard. She accepted, on the anniversary of their second date – at the Symphony Hall. She accepted.

The concert also featured superb performances by the Birmingham Choral Union, world-ranked trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins, and Daniel Norman (tenor). It closed with Pryce-Jones dividing up the audience to sing an amusing and animated version of the Twelve Days of Christmas. 24-12=13

Paul Marston

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A never-ending spectacle

I Believe I Can Fly! Peter Pan soars high into the arena with no wires, flying balanced on a jet of air - a world's first

Peter Pan – The Never Ending Story

National Indoor Arena, Birmingham

*****

If you want to make a big impression, make something big. That’s exactly what Artistic director Geert Allaert did fours year ago with this astonishing multimedia, staged spectacular of the story of J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan.

It’s a production that fuses mapped set projection, pyrotechnics, choreography, music and song together with aerial and ground acrobatics and theatre, into a mind blowing visual treat similar to a closing event of the Olympics.

The production has toured some 15 major international cities to date and now has landed perfectly at the NIA Birmingham in time for Christmas.  

Peter, Sandor Stubel, and Wendy played by Lilly Jane Young

It’s actually hard to single out any one part of this show as it a seamless flow of technical wizardry with impressive live performances all under the Direction of Luc Petit. His experience with the Cirque de Soleil and other Las Vegas shows is evident as every facet is honed to perfection.

The fact that there is such a high degree of computer controlled effects, such as the Mapped project ion which can turn the entire set from a raging sea into a jungle and hundreds of other animated scenes in an instant, that are coordinated perfectly with live performances is a testament to the precision of this event.

Musically it features a blend of pop classics with a touch of opera with new arrangements by Matt Dunkley (Moulin Rouge, Batman: The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: , Love Actually, The Quiet American etc). Whilst some of these seem a little out of place and not quite fitting in one or two places it does give a level of familiarity to the audience.

The leads of Peter and Wendy are played by Dutchman Sandor Stubel and Lilly Jane Young from the UK respectively and both work hard throughout performing vocally from the ground and in the air.

Adding a little Operatic class to the pop standards is the dastardly Captain Hook delivered by Flemish actor Wim Van Den Driessche whose version of Nessun Dorma got the crowd going in the early part of the show.

Pan battling Captain Hook, played by Flemish operatic baritone  Wim Van Den Driessche

One of the key highlights is X Factor runner up and Celebrity Jungle Survivor, Stacey Solomon as the reincarnated Tinkerbelle. She performs a superb version of You Raise Me Up floating 20 feet above the main stage and all against twinkling starlight setting that fills the entire set and stage. 

Another wow factor is the stunts and acrobatics with physical action and tumbling performed at break neck speed.

Peter Pan, The never ending story, is on such a huge visual scale that practically you do not know what part of the stage to look at as there is so much happening at once but the sum of the entire production is simply world class. If you have a head for heights it will certainly get you flying, young or old, nicely into a season of magical Christmas spirit. To 15-12-13.

Jeff Grant

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Wonderful Christmastime

Symphony Hall

****

AS an opener for some sparkling Christmas shows at the Symphony Hall, this Friday Night Classics concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was the perfect recipe.

From the moment veteran conductor Carl Davis stepped on stage in his flamboyant knee length white coat, two large silver fish logos on his waistcoat (he could hardly have turkeys) the audience knew they were in for something special.

A note in the programme pointed out that there used to be two basic types of carol - the ones you sang in church, usually about shepherds, angels and Baby Jesus, and others that were sung outside, mostly about getting drunk!

But this concert was to celebrate true Christmas classics, with the CBSO in festive mood and two excellent vocalists in Lance Ellington and Katy Treharne providing some delightful duets and solos.

Ellington, a regular singer in Strictly Come Dancing, excelled in the emotional I'll Be Home for Christmas, by Walter Kent, while Treharne, who has a distinctive and crystal clear voice, impressed with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Walking in the Air.

The second half opened with a number of the orchestra turning up in casual jumpers and Christmas hats, while conductor Davis arrived in a long red coat and matching comfy shoes. The concert closed with the audience joining in White Christmas

Paul Marston

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Vivat! present Five Gold Rings

St Paul's Church, Hockley, Birmingham

****

THE West Midlands Police Choir Vivat! heralded Christmas with an evening of festive favourites.

Taking place in the beautiful setting of the Jewellery Quarter's St Paul's Church, this Five Gold Rings concert featured a range of sacred and secular songs and readings all with one theme in common – Christmas.

There were well-known hymns such as Once in Royal David's City and O Come, O Come Emmanuel which saw the entire choir in full voice while for other songs such as The Christmas Song, smaller groups gathered around the piano.

Led by musical director Matthew Lever and accompanied by assistant musical director Dr Richard Edwards, the evening also featured Silent Night sung in three languages – German, French and English, the Sussex Carol and traditional songs such as Gaudete and The Holly and the Ivy.

We were told that a version of The First Nowell set to Pachelbel's Canon is a firm favourite with the choir and its gently lilting melodies quickly endeared it to the audience.

There was some great character reading with pieces from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Wendy Cope's poem Washing Up and a great rendition of Christmas Cake with an increasingly slurred rendition from a bottle-swigging Mariette Hughes.

It was all rounded off with a lively Twelve Days of Christmas with the audience encouraged to join in the words and the actions. And then it was upstairs to the gallery for complementary mince pies and mulled wine.

At what must have been short notice, St Paul’s vicar the Rev Mary Gilbert also led a tribute to former South African president Nelson Mandela and the choir broke into the South African song Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

The concert was the launch for the new CD by Vivat! Be Uplifted which is aiming to raise money for Birmingham's John Taylor Hospice. For more information see www.johntaylorhospice.org.uk

09-12-13

Diane Parkes

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 An Evening with the City of Birmingham Brass Band

Sutton Coldfield Town Hall

****

AFTER a rather subdued first half of this concert, the band provided a real lift-off with a premiere performance of Waiting to be Reached, by their musical director, Warren Belshaw.

To celebrate the band's new residency at the Joseph Chamberlain College, he had written the special piece reflecting a fantasy mission to Mars in which the audience could envisage the rockets roaring, astronauts floating in space and even the tension of awaiting touch-down.

It proved a rousing 13-minute launch as the concert resumed after the interval, and the rest of the programme continued at the same impressive pace, with Dave Bacon providing a superb flugel horn solo in Try a Little Tenderness.

Follow that! And Ceri West certainly did with a storming glockenspiel contribution in the Devli's Gallop, the Old Dick Barton Special Agent theme tune, before the band scored again in music for the latest James Bond film, Sky Fall, and the Sunset Boulevard classic, With One Look.

The first half had opened, appropriately, with the Spitfire Prelude, since the band was formed at a Birmingham factory which built that magnificent fighter plane, and guest soloist Paul White then demonstrated his skill with the cornet in To Everything there is a Season.

As a seasonal finale, the band played a lively medley, including The Twelve Days of Christmas, in which the audience participated, and the sporting Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Mike Leddy, wearing his heavy gold chain of office, made several athletic jumps from his front row seat when the piece reached Ten Lords A-Leaping. A warm round of applause was received by the city's chief citizen.

Paul Marston

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Gabriel Fauré Requiem

 & Gustav Mahler Fourth Symphony

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia and Birmingham Cathedral Choir

Birmingham Cathedral

****

GO to listen to the CBSO, The Hallé, Liverpool Phil or whoever and you see the deep rich lustre of the strings, the glittering shine of the brass and the black and white formal splendour of the players all orchestrated by some charismatic figure with waving arms and baton. It all conveys authority, giving weight to expectation.

Go to see Birmingham Royal Ballet and you see an ethereal glow in front of the stage with perhaps a waving baton and the top of flowing locks, or a less hirsute pate, glimpsed above the parapets from time to time. Even those in elevated seats only see only part of a jumble of seated players and lit music stands and instrument cases looking like a crowded rehearsal room in the basement of some church hall. Orchestra pits are not glamorous places.

Above the musicians is a net, whether to protect them from things falling in or to protect us from them getting out is never fully explained but it helps to hide them away in the theatrical underworld making it is easy to forget that ballet is a partnership between dancer and musician.

Anyone who has watched the often excellent performances by smaller touring East European ballet companies who use recorded music to save production costs will know what is lost without the intimacy and urgency brought to the music by an orchestra hidden away in the depths, yet somehow it is easily overlooked that not only have you seen a ballet but have also heard a concert by a symphony orchestra. Two for the price of one.

And when they are allowed out above ground and into the light to play, you then realise what a fine orchestra they are.

This third collaboration with Birmingham Cathedral Choir opened with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem from 1890 which is a short and unassuming piece, around 35 minutes, when compared with other, grander requiems from the likes of Brahms, Britten, Verdi or Dvořák – whose Requiem in B-flat minor, incidentally, had its premier in October, 1891, conducted by the composer himself, in Birmingham.

BEST KNOWN

It is perhaps the relative brevity and simplicity which adds to the appeal of the piece which saw soloists baritone David Wigy, who performed in the Offertory and Libera me, first written as an independent piece in 1877,  and soprano Felicity Rogers who provided a lovely clear Pie Jesu, perhaps the best known of the seven movements

The whole was beautifully sung by the cathedral choir, all conducted by the choir’s music director, Marcus Huxley and the rather hard acoustics of a church seem to suit what is essentially religious music, a choir and orchestra setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead.

The acoustics are perhaps less sympathetic to the second piece, Mahler’s fourth symphony which involved bringing the smaller numbers of musicians required for the Requiem up to symphonic strength. One hesitates to suggests this merely needed a shout across the Cathedral green to the Old Joint Stock . . . but they are musicians . . .

This also brought in BRB’s Belgian music director Koen Kessels who is usually only seen when he appears at the end of ballets to take a bow on behalf of the orchestra. And here is a conductor who comes alive through the music, enthusing over every note, a performance denied to the audience at at every ballet.

The two pieces are of a similar age, with the Requiem first being performed in its current from in 1890 while Mahler’s fourth premiered in 1901 although, like the Requiem it also incorporated an earlier song, Das himmlische Leben, from 1892, which gives a child’s vision of heaven.

The song, which was beautifully performed by the Belgian operatic soprano Ilse Eerens who has a voice of lovely clarity, is the basis of the whole work with the first three movements exploring its musical themes before the full song is performed in the final movement.

Mahler’s fourth is perhaps the most popular of his symphonies for the simple reason it is both the shortest, around an hour, and, unlike his other symphonies, does not require orchestra numbers that would outnumber the average audience if you want to perform it as Mahler had written it – he did like big sounds.

The acoustics of the cathedral give a slightly harsh tone, rather like small speakers which cannot provide any depth, but that is to be expected from hard stone walls and pillars – churches and cathedrals were not designed as concert halls so will always have that hollow sound and slight echo.

But that hardly detracted from an evening of fine music and a collaboration which is paying dividends for both parties.21-11-13

Roger Clarke

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That's Entertainment

The John Wilson Orchestra

Symphony Hall

*****

HE shot to international fame celebrating 75 years of MGM musicals on the 2009 Proms concerts, and now John Wilson continues to pull in huge audiences during his UK tours.

His latest visit to Birmingham was a sell-out, but during a break in the gem-packed programme he pointed out, with a braod smile, that he would be back with a repeat, including a few changes, on Friday November 29.

Wilson's hand-picked orchestra performed superbly, particularly with the High Society overture, followed by I Love You Samantha from the same musical when Staffordshire's Michael Lovatt, a Professor of trumpet, had a remarkable solo spot that earned an impressive ovation.

Lovatt also figured prominently in the finale, George Gershwin's American in Paris Ballet, and there was a special mention from the conductor for his orchestra's leader, violinist Andrew Haveron, whose contributions were 'exquisite'.

Two of Wilson's favourite vocalists, Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew Ford, maintained the highest standard in solos and duets, including Sterephonic Sound, from Cole Porter's Silk Stockings, A Couple of Swells (Easter Parade), How Could You Believe Me (Royal Wedding), More Than You Know (Hit the Deck) and Can't Help Lovin' That Man (Show Boat).

That really was entertainment.

Paul Marston

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The greatest story well told

Tim Minchin as Judas and Ben Forster as Jesus clash among the flames  in front of the huge video screen

Jesus Christ Superstar - The Arena Tour 

National Indoor Arena, Birmingham 

***** 

ANDREW Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar  has stood the test of time since it's Broadway opening in 1971. 

The reason, put simply, is because it is very good. In the right hands, it's compelling. On a damp night in the middle of Birmingham, as part of its short second leg of a UK arena tour,  it proved an absolute revelation.

I confess to an initial  degree of scepticism at the idea of staging a musical in a vast arena, more suited to rock bands and sporting events. Wouldn't subtle  nuances be lost?  Would the sound balance work?  Would  lyrics be distinguishable?  Would facial expressions be unseen?

I need not have worried. Every element of this extraordinary ‘experience' was both creatively and technically outstanding , losing none of the intimacy and power it needs to achieve. This is, after all, ‘the greatest story ever told'

The show pulsates from every nook and cranny. There are no simply no lulls, no drops in energy and no errors. It's one of those rare times when everything gels perfectly together and leaves you spellbound and even somewhat shell shocked.

Clearly, in a venue this size, some help is needed for those at the back to see faces and smaller exchanges. Camera operators cover all the bases, giving crystal clear, filmic images on a huge backdrop screen.

Shots not only mirrored the action but also gave stunning alternatives to watching it ‘ live' .  A close up of a glass of whisky in Caiaphas hand whilst Judas broods menacingly in the background is beautifully symbolic .

Sometimes the still and simple things have the most power. At times, camera operators actually film onstage, among the performers. Even this doesn't feel out of place.  Filming rioters baying for Jesus's death look like a TV crew covering a story - perfectly acceptable in this modern day setting.

The set, a huge flight of steps which open up to provide entry and exit points for performers is a blank canvass for the huge amount of colour and vibrancy which the cast  bring to it. The band line each side, whilst state of the art projections add location and atmosphere in almost ‘ cinemascope' fashion.

Mel C is a revelation as the reformed prostitute Mary Magdalene

Ben Forster, as Jesus, plays torment to a tee and delivers the songs with rock star attack. His take on Gethsemane , one of the toughest musical theatre songs to get right, is jaw droppingly impressive, prompting a  prolonged ovation.

Tim Minchin revels in the part of traitor, Judas. He prowls the stage like a disgruntled rat, plotting and scheming to superb effect. His ultimate desperate suicide  is a breathtaking piece of theatre combing clever special effects with  musical tension from Lloyd Webber at his best.

Mel C, as Mary Magdalene  is something of a revelation. Arguably, the performer with the most to prove, she genuinely tugs at heartstrings with the classic I Don't Know How To Love Him. It's a strong piece of acting too - played well to both camera and audience.

Alex Hanson is suitably slimy as Pilate  - a lovely mix of subtle acting and powerful singing.  

Chris Moyles does the job in his one scene as King Herod.  Its something of a gift for a cameo, made all the more watchable by the sheer campness of it all. Moyles, in a red velvet suite, hams it up with some style.

Cavin Cornwall as the imposing Caiaphas has a bass voice that almost shook the foundations of this massive arena. Suited and booted in Armani, he struts the stage with real menace.

A strong ensemble, vital in a show this big, provided consistent and exciting support throughout.  Tumbling, backflipping, dancing, singing and rioting - multi tasking at it's very best.

There are few times when a piece of theatre delivers as powerfully as this does. If you get a chance to catch it on its travels, take it with both hands. It may not come this way again.

Simply sensational.

Tom Roberts

Next tour dates: Tuesday 9 October, Belfast Odyssey; Friday 12 October, Dublin O2; Tuesday 16 October, Liverpool Echo Arena; Friday 19 October, Nottingham Capital FM Arena;  Sunday 21 October, Sheffield Motorpoint

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Crazy for Gershwin

Symphony Hall

****

A NEAR capacity audience enjoyed a selection of George Gershwin's finest music, with singing, a little ballroom dancing and tap too in this well balance concert.

But the loudest applause was reserved, quite rightly, for a brilliant performance by Manchester-born pianist Jonathan Scott with Rhapsody in Blue after the interval.

Well supported by the Manchester Concert Orchestra, he played the piece beautifully, demonstrating just why he has won prizes at many international competitions.

Conductor Gavin Sutherland pointed out that in 21 years as a professional composer, Gershwin had produced something like 11,000 musical items. What a record.

The programme began with the orchestra on a 'whistle stop' tour of the superb musician's works, followed by Meeta Raval, the soprano with a remarkable voice, singing But Not For Me, then ballroom dancers Jaclyn Spencer and Danny Stowell gliding across stage to S'Wonderful.

Raval and Rodney Earl Clarke have voices best suited to opera and were understandably at their best with a selection from Porgy and Bess, said to be Gershwin's most ambitious creation.

Emma Rogers and Douglas Mills contributed some impressive tap dancing, and everyone on stage joined in the final explosive number, Strike Up the Band.10-13

Paul Marston

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Three Phantoms

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

****

THE West End came to Wolverhampton with a bang as a talented cast of nine talented singers and musicians delivered some of the greatest hits from several top musicals.

They were led by a trio of men who have played the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster, Phantom of the Opera, in addition to starring in several other stunning musicals, and it was entertainment designed to thrill.

After a slightly disapppointing opening to the show, Matthew Cammelle, Stephen John Davis (he appeared in the 10,000th performance of Phantom) and Glyn Kerslake really got into their stride with songs that that have delighted more than 30,000 people since they began their tours.

Yet remarkably, a show-stopper turned up in female form during the first half of the concert - Rebecca Caine, the lady in red, who received a tremendous ovation for I Could Have Danced All Night, from My Fair Lady.

Before the interval the entire cast, who sang to music provided by piano and cello, performed a superb selection from the world's most popular musical, Les Miserables, and the show closed with songs from Phantom, the three unmasked phantoms closing with Music of the Night.

Anthony Gabriele was was musical director of a cracking concert which benefited from impressive lighting. 

Paul Marston

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Walsall Gilbert & Sullivan Society Gala Concert

Forest Arts Centre, Walsall

****

STAGED in party style with the audience seated at round tables, this concert proved a fitting celebration of the society's 50th anniversary.

The cast wore costumes representing just about every one of the operettas presented during that golden period, and a special presentation was made to member, Dylys Bradbury, who hasn't missed a show since the company's formation.

In addition to G&S numbers, the 35 items on the two-act programme included classics from other musicals, including Vilia from The Merry Widow, beautifully sung by Pam Robinson.

Pictures were projected regularly on the stage – shots of Venice for The Gondoliers and the Tower of London for The Yeomen of the Guard – as well as numerous photos of old programmes and cast members in costume.

Some of the chorus work was outstanding including items from HMS Pinafore, the society's next major production in February.

Paul Marston

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Ben E King

The Jam House, Birmingham

****

A very small number of songs are iconic enough to cross genre and age divides, but Stand By Me is one of them. Indeed the song is such a classic that the title is often prefixed with Ben E. King's name, which gives an indication of just how good the original song was. And it was apt that such an iconic figure was hosted in an equally iconic venue, The Jam House in Birmingham. 

Mr King was supported on the night by Jimmy James, and both were backed by the rather marvellous seven piece band The Vagabonds. The band had an excellent horn section who not only understood the importance of their own choreography (their back dips were particularly splendid) but added real gravitas to the performance.  The band in general provided genuinely beautiful harmonies to back both Jimmy and Ben E. King. 

It was also nice for the event to take place in an arena which is so steeped in musical history and appreciation. The Jamhouse crowd were enthusiastic and you could see real admiration of both the artistes and their repertoire; which extended beyond than usual classics to some less well known pieces, but ultimately it was about giving the people what they wanted. Jimmy James' version of My girl was a great example of incorporating the audience, and he was a master at engaging the audience members around the venue, even interacting with members of the crowd in the bar on the level below the stage. He started off slow but grew as the night went on  and after the first intermission provided some genuine quality and crowd pleasing songs.  

Audiences are still standing by the legendary Ben E King

Ben E King showcased all his showmanship even on his entries to the stage, which were dripping with dramatic effect as he descended from the top balcony like royalty walking through his subjects- but in a nice way.  The sound set-ups were slightly large also be to protect Mr King's slightly diminished voice, but to be honest I had no issue with this and it did not attract from the experience. Indeed the audience members, some of whom were simmering on maturity were whipped into a veritable frenzy every time Mr King sang.  Despite some loss in range and power there is still an intimate warmth to his voice that is really quite beguiling. His version of under the boardwalk was beautiful. 

Stand by Me was, as you would expect, a stand out moment.  At first I was a little disappointed that on his signature tune I could hear more of the band and the audience singing than Mr. King; but in a strange way it was a lovely example of what the night was about.  There was genuine love and respect in the room for two great artistes and the audience accompanied their idol through his most famous of songs with gusto.     

When talking to some fans after wards they enquired as to how many stars I was going to give the performance.  When I suggested three and a half, they were it's fair to say incredulous and near enough demanded I reconsider to a five star review. I explained my reasoning and they hit back immediately by saying how many74-year-olds you know who could do that that? I must admit I find it hard to disagree.  

To their credit both acts seemed genuinely delighted to be on stage and you really felt gave everything they had for the audience, and if they are this good now it is frightening to think how good they would have been in their prime. While Ben E King's voice may have lost some of his power, he has lost none of his charisma.

Christian Clarke 

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