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Andris and Kristine in Concert

Birmingham Town Hall

*****

HUSBAND and wife team Andris Nelsons and Kristine Opolais are certainly a force to be reckoned with.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra music director Nelsons led the musicians a merry dance through works by Dvorak, Verdi and Johann Strauss II while soprano Opolais changed the tone with arias from Verdi's Otello and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

Performing an excerpt from an opera mid concert can be challenging. With no context, character or plot development, it can be hard to carry the audience unless you turn to a well-known ‘tune'.

Which made Opolais' spine-tingling performance of Desdemona's Willow Song and Ave Maria all the more impressive. 

Without costumes, set or fellow actors, Opolais seemed to become Desdemona, clinging to her last moments of life, struggling between faith in and fear of the husband who is about to murder her. Her stunning voice and heart-felt characterisation took us from Town Hall into her bedroom as she prepared to die. Hands held up in prayer, we really did feel she was begging for some form of salvation.

Opolais then turned her attention to the famous Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, again immediately capturing the essence of the uncertain Tatyana as she vacillates between declaring or silencing her sudden rapture for Onegin. Swinging between hope of a happy future and fear of shaming herself, she verbally paces back and forth in indecision.

She was given more than sterling support by the orchestra under the baton of Nelsons although there were a few moments early in the Tchaikovsky where she risked being drowned out.

In contrast to the soul-searching of the arias, the rest of the concert was very light-hearted. At its fore was Dvorak's Eighth Symphony with its lovely lilting allegretto and forceful finale. Heavily inspired by the countryside and country people of Dvorak's Czech homeland, it picks up traditional dances and tosses them around with lots of panache and gusto.

Short but finely tuned was the Overture to Verdi's opera La Forza del destino with its oh too familiar interplay of flutes, oboe and clarinet with strings.

And then to keep us on our toes we were treated to a trio of dances – The Polonaise from Eugene Onegin and Strauss's Emperor Waltz and Thunder and Lightning Polka.

Nelsons' clear enthusiasm for the programme (he was doing quite a bit of dancing himself) ensured the orchestra gave plenty of life and exuberance to the pieces so that we all left feeling just that little bit more cheerful.

Diane Parkes

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Shelfield Male Voice Choir

Pelsall Community Centre

***

THERE was a spectacular downpour outside, but the hammering on the roof didn't deter the Shelfield Male Voice Choir who reached their usual high standards, singing while it rained.

The annual summer concert had been arranged by the ladies' section who held a sale of produce before the men took the stage with a pleasant range of music, inevitably including some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classics and items from Les Miserables.

Memory, from Cats, Love Changes Everything, from Aspects of Love and Bring Him Home (Les Mis) were beautifully sung, and the first half of the programme ended on a high note with the Rodgers & Hammerstein hit You'll Never Walk Alone (Carousel), featuring a solo contribution by Len Greenwood.

The spiritual, Ride the Chariot (featuring Derek Pugh, Michael Atkinson and Neil Watson), and Solitaire by Neil Sedaka and Philip Cody provided a useful contrast and there was a rousing presentation of When the Saints Go Marching In.

While men dominated the event, the choir chose a woman as their guest singer, and Alison Room - accompanied by her husband, Ian, on the keyboard - delighted the audience with I'm In Love with a Wonderful Guy, and Nothing, from A Chorus Line, before earning a stunning ovation for As Long As He Needs Me, which she sang when playing Nancy in a recent production of Oliver at Lichfield Garrick.

Andrew Webb conducted the choir, with Nicola Bennett the accompanist.

Paul Marston

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John Williams Blockbusters

CBSO

Symphony Hall 

HOW many people really appreciate the music which accompanies great movies they are watching? Quite a lot judging by the size of the audience at the latest Friday Night Classics.

Some gave the superb City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra a standing ovation at the end of the concert that featured the most memorable of John Williams' glorious themes which illuminated films ranging from Jurassic Park with monsters from the past, to the glimpse of the future in the Star Wars Suite.

And what an encore. After a blistering performance with Superman, one of the musicians ripped open his shirt to reveal a huge 'S' logo on his vest. It was second flute Colin Lilley who was making his final appearance before retiring after 42 years devoted service with the orchestra.

Colin had plenty of opportunity to display his talent in a hugely enjoyable programme which opened with the Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which conductor Dirk Brosse displayed so much panache he might have been one of Harrison Ford's sidekicks.

Popular broadcaster Tommy Pearson, the presenter, invited members of the audience Tweet him during the interval with any comments, and one man said it was the first orchestral concert he had attended, and he was loving it.

Pearson also revealed an 'exclusive'. Conductor Brosse had that day become Sir Dirk in his native Belgium. Definitely a night to remember.

Paul Marston

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Simon Boccanegra

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

VERDI'S opera takes us into the complex politics of the city states of early Renaissance Italy. It is 14th century Genoa and just about everyone is vying for power and influence. A maritime state, the city votes in favour of former pirate Simon Boccanegra as Doge - but keeping his seat is to be no easy task.

Like Verdi's epic historical dramas Aida and Nabucco, Simon Boccanegra sets the domestic against the political. While warring factions are fighting over the future of Genoa, Simon has his own conflicts to battle against. As he tries to identify friend over foe, he is also embroiled in his own domestic drama when the daughter he believed lost reappears – only to be madly in love with one of his sworn enemies.

It is true to say that the story is considerably more complicated than that – but we could go on for ever if we go through all of the plot's twists and turns.

This Royal Opera concert performance certainly kept us all on our toes as it succeeded in bringing to life the troubled city state and the joys and pains of its characters.

Thomas Hampson was an imposing Boccanegra who balanced his formidable and ruthless might as a leader with compassion and love for his daughter. He was thoroughly believable in both public and private mode – with his final collapse into his daughter's arms a really tragic moment.

Hibla Gerzmava was a gentle Amelia who also betrayed her own fire in the belly when she felt either her lover or her father were in danger.

Playing that lover Adorno, Russell Thomas swept us all of our feet with his beautifully rich tenor voice while Boccanegra's long term foe Fiesco was played with just the right amount of anger by Ferruccio Furlanetto.

The Machiavellian Paolo, Dimitri Platanias, sat at the centre of his spider's web, attempting to entrap those around him but ultimately failing for putting his passions ahead of his reason.

Conductor Sir Antonio Pappano ensured the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House mastered Verdi's score while the Royal Opera Chorus packed plenty of punch.

Diane Parkes

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The Birmingham Beethoven

 Cycle: Symphonies 8 and 9

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

A PACKED Symphony Hall turned out to see this grand finale of the Beethoven Cycle which has brought together so much talent from CBSO and Town Hall Symphony Hall.

In many ways it's inevitable that Beethoven's mighty Ninth should be the closer of the cycle – it is after all one of classical music's best known and best loved pieces.

And it worked wonderfully well paired with Symphony No 8 – if only because the two symphonies show what a master of contrast Beethoven could be.

Where 9 is bursting with power, drama and intensity, 8 is not only phenomenally shorter, it is also a much lighter piece. In many ways it draws us into the Viennese dance halls with a sense of lyricism and harmony. But with Beethoven, there is always that little bit more and every now and then it dances off into unfamiliar territory, making us re-think where it is all heading.

No 9 may be very familiar but it still never ceases to grab an audience by the throat when it is performed live. From the first notes it dives in and never lets go. Through an intense first movement, into a lively second, a more serene third and then into the choral fourth movement, it showcases Beethoven's brilliance.

Conducted by music director Andris Nelsons, the orchestra was comfortable and confident with the symphony's challenges, rising to the occasion with plenty of vigour.

The soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Mihoko Fujimara, tenor Ben Johnson and bass-baritone Iain Paterson, blended perfectly with each other and the CBSO Chorus who were busy singing their hearts out.

By its close we were in little doubt that the CBSO and Nelsons have truly grasped Beethoven in all his complexities, depth and wonder.

Diane Parkes

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New life for an old favourite

Holst's The Planets

Birmingham Symphony Hall

*****

THE ever sprightly Vladimir Ashkenazy returned to Symphony Hall with a bang with a sell-out programme featuring Elgar's Violin Concerto in B Minor and Holst's The Planets.

The world renowned conductor certainly took those pieces by the throat and gave them all they were worth.

There is something quite magical about watching Ashkenazy. Not only is he incredibly enthusiastic but he also has a fluidity of conducting.

He coaxes the music out of every performer and then seems to feel it in his own movement – it is as though his very muscles reverberate music.

The Philharmonia Orchestra certainly responded to his energy with a Planets Suite which was packed with nuance, action and life. When a piece as well-known as this can still find new colour, the conductor and orchestra must be doing something right.

From the aggressive tones of Mars, through gentle Venus, vigorous Jupiter, weary Saturn and into the enigmatic Neptune, the audience was totally hooked. If they weren't focussing on the rush and tumble of sound they were watching Ashkenazy jumping around on the podium.

Great use was made of Symphony Hall's wonderful acoustics as the Ladies of the City of Birmingham Choir provided the ethereal voices for the close of the piece. Out of sight of the audience, their gentle and slightly eerie vocals gradually disappeared like a will ‘o the wisp.

The Planets was paired with Elgar which saw soloist James Ehnes sharing the limelight. A musician since the age of four, he was thoroughly confident with the intricacies of the piece, seamlessly developing the music from the sublimely soft first movement to the more vibrant third.

It would have been hard to be disappointed with this performance – soloist, conductor and orchestra were in perfect harmony together.

The evening proved to be a real treat for music lovers and a highlight of the THSH spring programme.

Diane Parkes

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Catherine Gallagher's Queen of the Dance

Belgrade Theatre

****

Catherine Gallagher is closely associated with the art of Irish dancing and has made the impressive leap of teaching Irish dance and the newer Irish Step Dance in Hungary – from where she has recruited the dancers and musicians involved in this amazing show.

This energetic and dynamic show was part of a week of truly diverse presentations at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, including tributes to Rolling Stones, Abba and more, all very popular.

In Queen of the Dance, Catherine Gallagher's choreography required military precision, echoed in many of the dances that are performed in this show – the incredible technique and energy involved and use of the band – all professors from the Budapest Conservatoire that I really enjoyed, particularly the seven-minute drum solo from Marton Danku.

Saxophone is not an instrument I particularly associate with Irish dancing yet here it gives a sultry and sexy overtone that blends beautifully to the dynamic nature of the show. Violinist Eva Novak and flautist Olga Szalkay plus saxophonist Zoltan Kato were the mainstay of the band on stage.

Most impressive of the dance numbers was an a capella number called simply ‘In Sync' - synchronisation and syncopation - where the cross rhythms are so complex that it was impossible to judge where the beat actually was. Truly amazing!

Catherine uses her talents sparingly and lets the troupe do the work – not unreasonably. But when she is on stage, you can detect a gear change in presentation. She clicks her heels and the troupe is as one – extraordinary in any genre but in dance – well we've all seen world-famous ballet troupes go awry but this was flawless, foot sure and simply raw energy from start to finish.

It was great to see a fusion of styles, Hungarian folk dancing interspersed with the Irish – plus some ballet. It was an international programme that included Sousa marches and on to Brahms Hungarian dances with a lot of well-known Irish tunes, jigs and reels.

I enjoyed the hornpipe from the band but wanted the dancers to join in. A la Last Night of the Proms it became faster and faster yet no one faltered.

Sadly they have all gone home to Budapest but hopefully will return. It was a lively and wholesome performance, suitable for all the family and extremely enjoyable. 25-05-13

Jane Howard

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Silent Heroes - Harold Lloyd

CBSO

Symphony Hall

**** 

WHEN is a silent movie not silent? The answer came in the latest Friday Night Classics when the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra accompanied the action on a giant screen set up on the Symphony Hall stage.

The musicians were out of sight, which meant there was no visual distraction as the audience watched two old black-and-white films starring Harold Lloyd, an American whose horn-rimmed specs were the comedy equivalent of Charlie Chaplin's walking stick.

The special screening marked the UK premier of the beautiful score written for the silent film by the legendary Carl Davis who was there to conduct the orchestra, ensuring that virtually every note suited what was happening in the movie above.

It worked a treat, and Harold Lloyd's grand daughter, Suzanne Lloyd, who appeared on stage to introduce the concert,  paid a warm tribute to Davis and his music.

The opening film, High and Dizzy, saw Lloyd become intoxicated on home brewed liquor and following a young woman sleepwalker as she tottered along the ledge of a skyscraper, bringing gasps from the audience as he several times almost plunged to the street below.

And finally, in The Freshman, he was a geeky new boy at college, desperate to make an impact and landing in all kinds of trouble before rising from zero to hero by scoring the winning touchdown in an important football match.

The CBSO performed to their usual high standard, earning a standing ovation for themselves and the charismatic Davis.

Paul Marston

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Can't Help Singing - Hollywood's Leading Ladies

CBSO, Symphony Hall

****

OH boy, what a night for the ladies, with a feast of great songs made famous by some of the leading female artists who dominated the golden age of Hollywood.

It was simply thrilling for a large audience at the latest Friday Night Classics as the years were rolled back to the heyday of legends like Judy Garland, Doris Day, Julie Andrews, Liza Minelli and Barbara Streisand.

And for regular FNC enthusiasts, used to seeing up to four top vocalists on stage, it must have been a surprise to see just Kim Criswell with the mic, but she more than coped with the megga task of singing every classic.

A star of Broadway and the West End, she was magnificent after a dodgy start when the orchestra almost overpowered her in 'You're Gonna Hear From Me'....and you wondered if we were.

But that was a minor hitch during a superb programme in which the smiling redhead even cleverly impersonated the voice of Jeannette MacDonald singing San Francisco. In between numbers Criswell provided some interesting background to the stars, their loves, husbands, and many ex-husbands, while praising the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and brilliant conductor/arranger John Wilson.

The orchestra sparkled in the Carousel Waltz, and after the interval Kim swept onstage with an applause winning mountain-style twirl to sing the title song from The Sound of Music, and in a double encore she brought a stunning close to the concert with There's No Business Like Show Business, a song she first sang in Birmingham at the Hippodrome 20 years ago. That's Showbiz!

Paul Marston

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Ludovico Einaudi

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

In a career spanning more than 20 years, Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi has achieved an amazing crossover. Loved by Classic FM, there are also those who would argue that Einaudi long ago stopped being pigeonholed as classical and has spread his wings much wider.

His style has certainly developed over time. Where once he was simply one man and his piano, Einaudi's compositions these days encompass a whole range of instruments.

And this was clearly demonstrated in this concert at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. Where previously Einaudi has taken centre stage and performed solo, he was this time to the side of the stage and playing with ten musicians.

The first half of the concert, which featured tracks from his latest album In a Time Lapse including Time Lapse and Life, encapsulated this blend of piano with strings and percussion. And the wonderful acoustics of Symphony Hall made it the perfect venue for this layering of sounds. One moment we were listening to a solo cello and the next the music was cascading around from all of the musicians.

It was from new to old after the interval with a series of firm favourites including Una Mattina, I Giorni, Divenire and Nightbook. Again many of these tracks were given a reworking by bringing in additional instrumentation, adding a new depth and resonance.

Einaudi's signature sound of repeating melodies building slowly but surely benefits greatly from these additional elements of colour.

The two hour concert was very polished with tracks moving seamlessly one to another, dramatic light shows which bathed individual performers in their own spotlights, and clean switches from solo to ensemble. In some ways it lacked the more direct approach of previous concerts and Einaudi spoke only at the end to say thank you and to introduce the musicians.

Nevertheless the sell-out crowd clearly enjoyed it with Einaudi given a standing ovation and rapturous applause.

Diane Parkes

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Czech Philharmonic

Symphony Hall

****

A packed Symphony Hall turned out to see the Czech Philharmonic perform one of its native son's great works – Dvorak's Seventh Symphony.

Often eclipsed by the ever popular Ninth ‘New World' Symphony, No 7 still remains a heart-warming and enjoyable piece of music.

It also demonstrates Dvorak's talent for blending harmonies, for building on themes and forrevelling in a good tune. No 7 is full of life and vigour as it dances along, bouncing themes back and forth between strings, woodwind and brass, all working together towards its rousing finale.

It is clearly loved by the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Jiri Belohlavek who seemed to greet it like an old friend, quickly embracing its colour and tone and capturing its energy beautifully.

Sticking to the Czech theme, the orchestra began the programme with Smetana's From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests. Short but sweet, like Dvorak's Seventh it tunes into its heritage, mixing dance with an earnest appreciation for the Czech countryside and a close connection with nature.

Sandwiched in between was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 5, the ‘Emperor' which saw Hélène Grimaud (pirctured) take centre stage.

Majestic, regal and towering, the Emperor is one of Beethoven's most instantly recognisable piano concertos. It asks a great deal of its pianists, and its orchestra, never letting up the drama for a moment. Even at its most gentle, the Emperor retains that touch of grandeur which gained it its name.

Grimaud was fearless in her interpretation tackling Beethoven head on with confidence and verve, softly rhythmic but more than ready to turn on the power when needed.

The concert was part of the on-going Beethoven Cycle which brings together Town Hall, Symphony Hall and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a series of performances of symphonies and piano concertos.

Diane Parkes

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CBSO Cosmic Dance

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

SYMPHONY Hall turned up the heat for a programme of Latin power and Italian romance.

Conducted by the 28-year-old Diego Matheuz, a graduate of the El Sistema school of music, the programme was packed full of energy.

Beginning with Huapango by Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayo it threw us straight into Spanish mode. The piece is short but lively, inspired by Mexican dance songs and full of rhythm which encourages you to toe-tap before heading for a Tequila or two and then braving the dance floor.

In many ways the star of the evening was the European premiere of Enrico Chapela's Magnetar. Inspired by massive magnetic fields in outer space, the piece aims to be cosmic in scope.

At its heart is the electric cello, played with great dexterity by Johannes Moser. With the sound being fed through a computer software programme masterminded by Chapela, the electric cello becomes an incredibly versatile instrument. One moment is has echoes of Spanish guitar, the next a sharp snare drum and then it mimics jazz trumpet. Add in the fact that Johannes managed to coax both soft and tender melodies and almost heavy-rock based rock and roll, and Magnetar certainly took on a scope all of its own.

Its cavalcade of sound succeeded in taking up the pulse of the magnetic fields which both pull and push at the same time, constantly evolving and renewing.

The piece also gave the orchestra the opportunity to have a go at creating a few of their own sounds from hand rubbing to clapping and finger clicking to foot stamping.

So in some ways it was a surprise to come back after the interval to something which has now become as mainstream as Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Although there's no denying the series of excerpts remind us of just why the ballet score is so popular - from the drama of the Montagues and the Capulets and the Death of Tybalt to the gentle beauty of Juliet as a Child and her meeting with Romeo.

There was plenty of enthusiasm for the piece from both the orchestra and the audience so that the 50 minutes seemed to no sooner have started than we were at the final death scenes.

This was a varied and in some ways experimental programme from CBSO but it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Diane Parkes

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Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

FOUNDED in the mid 1980s, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester has developed to become one of the world's foremost youth orchestras. Former members are now working at orchestras and concert halls across the globe and there is little doubt that many of the current musicians will go on to be in the vanguard in the future.

It may have been freezing outside but the enthusiasm and gusto evident among the members of the GMJO radiated energy.

To begin with the orchestra shared centre stage with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes for Beethoven's Piano Concerto no 4 in G major. Well known for his performances of Beethoven's piano concertos, Andsnes was rapidly into his stride juxtaposing the playfulness of the piece with its more endearing tender moments.

Leading into a lively finale, Andsnes had no problems with the complexity of the work and his performance was perfectly balanced with that of the orchestra.

This was followed by Bruckner's Symphony No 4 which gave the young performers every opportunity to flex their musical muscles. The ‘Romantic' symphony is challenging for any orchestra but the GMJO played it with apparent ease. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt ensured the piece was mastered with a level of maturity well beyond their years.

And the sheer enthusiasm for the piece also shone through ensuring a glowing response from the audience.

The GMJO brings together talent from more than 20 countries from UK to Ukraine and Slovenia to Spain and what joins all these young people together is their love for live music and their talent at performing it. To have so much young talent concentrated into one group means hearing them perform is a privilege.

I look forward to seeing many of them again as they move on to build their careers with other orchestras in the future.

Diane Parkes

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Singin' & Swingin'

Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra

Central Methodist Church, Walsall

****

RATED as one of the UK's best big bands, MYJO picked up many new fans in an audience of nearly 250 at this sparkling charity concert.

 The event, organised by Bill Stephens of the Rotary Club of Walsall, raised just over £1,123, which will help the Walsall Educational Outdoor Centre for the town's young people in Bryntisillio, Wales.

The 19-strong band,conducted by musical director John Ruddick, impressed with a range of their favourite numbers, opening with I'm Getting Cement All Over You, followed by a fascinating arrangement of In the Still of the Night.

After the interval band performed superbly with Autumn in New York, then pianist Richard Morris led the way with a solo introduction to Emily, delighting the aduience, many of whom had litttle or no experience of jazz music.

If anyone did find the music a little overpowering, however, there was a special treat with the arrival on stage of internationally know cabaret artist Jeff Hooper, who developed his singing talent with the famous Syd Lawrence Orchestra.

Welshman Hooper, with MYJO's ideal backing, was a joy in Cry Me a River and Frank Sinatra favourites like Come Fly With Me, and Luck Be a Lady, before a big finish with the James Bond songs From Russia With Love and Thunderball.

Paul Marston 

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The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber

CBSO

Symphony Hall

*****

WHAT a debt lovers of musical theatre owe to the brilliant composer Andrew Lloyd Webber!

He has written so many hit shows that have thrilled audiences around the globe, and a packed audience at the latest Friday Night Classics loved a programme simply bursting with some of the greatest numbers penned by the Lyrical Lord.

Sitting next to me at the concert were a couple who had travelled all the way from Gateshead to see the show. That's an indication of the pulling power of his music.

Conductor Martin Yates pointed out that until Lloyd Webber came along the West End was in the doldrums, having to rely on imported musicals from America. How things have changed.

Four vocalists, Leila Benn Harris, Jacqui Scott, Scott Davies and Birmingham's own Matt Rawle sparkled with the hits from shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Sunset Boulevard and Cats to The Phantom of the Opera.  And more.

And, as usual, the superb City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra produced a quality performance throughout, but particularly with the specially devised medley Aspects of Aspects, from Aspects of Love, and the Starlight Express sequence.

One of the biggest cheers of the night followed Jacqui Scott's emotional delivery of Don't Cry for Me Argentina, from Evita, but all four soloists were top notch, and there was a memorable finale when they combined in The Music of the Night, from Phantom.

Paul Marston 

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Anton & Erin Go to Hollywood

Symphony Hall

*****

NO need to look for a successor to Bruce Forsyth when Mr Showbiz finally calls it a day and starts living on his pension!

A packed audience at the Symphony Hall on Sunday saw a man who has the charisma, humour and dancing skills to step into his patent leather shoes anytime soon - Anton Du Beke.   

And he proved in a duet with the excellent vocalist, Lance Ellington (Me & My Shadow), that he can sing pretty well too.

Anton has been dancing for 17 years with his lovely professional partner, New Zealand born Erin Boag, and the pair demonstrated all the sublime skills that have made them so popular on the hit BBC TV show, Strictly Come Dancing.

During the programme Erin wore a dozen stunning dresses, and although he couldn't hope to compete with that, Anton managed to switch into a few different and well cut suits.

The show featured glamour and humour, with he couple putting their own words to an amusing version of I Remember it Well, from the film Gigi.

During the interval members of the audience filled in forms with questions about the couple's high-flying careers, and Anton sparked laughter with his explanation of a wardrobe malfunction....when his trouser zip jammed open on stage.

A quality performance, too, from the London Concert Orchestra conducted by the versatile Richard Balcombe.

Anton insisted the Symphony Hall was his favourite venue, and the customers loved that. 

Paul Marston 

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A Night at the Oscars

CBSO

Symphony Hall

***

MIDLAND music lovers enjoyed this early warm-up for the big Oscars event in Hollywood when New York born Carl Davis conducted the CBSO through string of movie hits.

The latest Friday Night Classics concert emphasised what an important role composers play in the success of films, whether they are dramas like The King's Speech or such song and dance blockbusters as Singin' in the Rain.

After opening with the unforgettable 20th Century Fox Fanfare by Alfred Newman, veteran conductor Davis surprised the audience by singing You've Got a Friend in Me, from Toy Story.

That went down quite well, but his second dabble with a vocal when he joined mezzo-soprano Heather Shipp in the duet Man or Muppet, from The Muppets, caught him rather out of his depth.

Shipp impressed in Summertime from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and brought the concert to an enjoyable climax with I Can't Say No, from Oklahoma, A Wonderful Guy (South Pacific) and Climb Ev'ry Mountain (The Sound of Music).

At times this tribute to the Oscars lacked some of the glamour associated with the Hollywood showpiece, hard as Davis tried with his shiny, gold knee-length jacket, but there was a particularly enthusiastic response to the CBSO's performance of the score from the UFO classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, featuring a superb solo contribution from the leader, Laurence Jackson.

Paul Marston 

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Friday Night Classics

A Celebration of Lerner & Loewe

Symphony Hall

*****

THE City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus came together in this sublime evening of classics from Lerner & Loewe musicals.

They excelled in items from Brigadoon to Camelot and My Fair Lady to Gigi, delighting a near capacity audience.

One of the guest vocalists, Michael Xavier, had to withdraw from the concert at very short notice through illness, but what an excellent replacement Matthew Ford proved to be.

It was soon evident why he is regarded as the finest big band singer in the UK, starting with  C'est Moi, from Camelot, then with If Ever I Would Leave You from the same show, and later Maria (Paint Your Wagon).

Making a welcome appearance at the Symphony Hall, too, was actor and West End star Anthony Andrews who has played Professor Henry Higgins in the past, so it was no surprise that he performed with such style singing I'm An Ordinary Man and I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, from My Fair Lady, then How To Handle a Woman (Camelot).

The third vocalist, Annalene Beechey, beautifully dressed and with those smiling eyes, was a delight with Waitin' For My Dearie (Brigadoon) and Just You Wait (My Fair Lady).

The chorus excelled throughout, and while the conductor, Master of the Musicals John Wilson, so often appears with his own hand-picked orchestra, he must have been impressed with the  performance of the magnificent CBSO.

A night to remember closed with a Camelot finale.

Paul Marston 

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An Evening of Music and Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Symphony Hall

*****

SOME of the BRB's finest soloists thrilled a large audience with a fascinating programme of classic ballet laced with just the right amount of humour.

And while the quality of dancing was breathtaking at times, the show also provided a welcome opportunity for the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – normally tucked away in the orchestra pit – to share the glory on stage.

The musicians, conducted by Paul Murphy, were excellent throughout, earning special applause for Dvorak's concert overture, Carnival, at the end of the first act, and later with Walton's Coronation March, Orb and Sceptre.

A stunning opening from the dancers saw Nao Sakuma and Cesar Morales performing a stunning pas de deux choreographed for ‘Aladdin' by David Bintley, and they were eventually joined by James Barton and Mathias Dingman in a spectacular Chinese-style costume for the memorable Lion Dance.

The audience also enjoyed a glimpse of stars of the future when students from the Elmhurst School of Dance, dressed as Morris Dancers, presented the amusing Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas from ‘Still Life' at the Penguin Café.

Another highlight on a magical night came with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia's leader, violinist Robert Gibbs, playing Massenet's Meditation from the opera Thais, while compere Deborah Bull proved to be the perfect host. 

Paul Marston 

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HMS Pinafore

Symphony Hall

***

YOU couldn't fault the quality of voices in this semi-staged concert version of the old Gilbert & Sullivan classic. They were ship-shape.

Whether it was solos or chorus, the crew of the British warship HMS Pinafore – anchored at Portsmouth for the sake of the story - never disappointed an enthusiastic audience.

Token costume items were worn, but why was so little effort made in kitting out the cast? The 23 ordinary seamen wore white shirts, black trousers and white American-style caps which might have been borrowed from the musical South Pacific.

Playing Ralph Rackstraw, the male lead, Oliver White had a reasonable brimmed hat, but gallant Captain Corcoran (Ian Belsey) could have been on a charge for parading in a jacket and tie, though he did smarten up in a more tailored coat and black bow tie for the second act.

So why was concert director Simon Butteriss so smartly turned out in period costume for his role as Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, especially as the toff insists that ‘a British sailor is any man's equal'?

Costumes – or lack of them – apart, it was an enjoyable show, with the mainly veteran cast revelling in the fun as lowly tar Rackstraw woos Josephine, the rather haughty daughter of the ship's captain who is on the wanted list of Sir Joseph.

White sang and acted well as Rackstraw, while Abigail Iveson revealed a fine voice in the role of Josephine, and Belsey – who replaced sickbay stranded Riccardo Simonetti as Captain Corcoran – excelled with Fair Moon, to Thee I Sing', and ‘Never Mind the Why and Wherefore' in which he was joined by Josephine and Sir Joseph.

Butteriss, who wrote and presented the critically acclaimed television series about Gilbert & Sullivan (The Motley Pair), was superb as the First Lord of the Admiralty, showing a great sense of fun and timing when singing how he rose from an office boy to become ruler of the Queen's navy.

Terrific performances, too, from Bruce Graham (Dick Deadeye) and Rosemary Ashe (the rather glamorous Little Buttercup).

Richard Balcombe conducted the London Concert Orchestra with his usual aplomb.

Paul Marston

Musicals of the Night

Symphony Hall

**** 

SONGS from some of the greatest musicals provided a stunning after-Christmas 'banquet' for another bumper audience on Friday night.

The tasty programme opened with the overture from Cole Porter's Anything Goes and the much loved tunes followed thick and fast, with just a pause at the interval.

Four superb vocalists - Celia Graham, Melanie La Barrie, Matthew Cammelle and Tim Howar - were in terrific form, assisted in no small measure by the excellence of the London Concert Orchestra.

Inevitably items from Phantom of the Opera caught the imagination, but two songs from the sequel, Love Never Dies, proved a concert highlight . . . Graham singing the title song with breathtaking emotion and Howar following on impressively with Till I Hear You Sing.

La Barrie, such an engaging personality, sang As Long as He Needs Me, from Oliver, beautifully, while Cammelle shone with Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific, a show in which he recently played the Frenchman, Emile de Becque.

There were outstanding duets, too, and at times all four stars were on stage together, as in the final item, a Jersey Boys medley which included Oh What A Night. And what a night it was!

Hard-working conductor David Shrubsole was brief on words, but his baton and the quality of the orchestra did his talking for him. A standing ovation no more than they deserved.

Paul Marston 

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Last Night of the Christmas Proms

Symphony Hall

****

IT was buy-a-programme, get two Union flags free night at this rousing concert, and how the packed audience used their paper bargains.

They turned the glorious Symphony Hall into a sea of red, white and blue for the big finale with Rule Britannia followed by Land of Hope and Glory, providing a fitting end to an emotional evening.

At first there was a hitch with the announcement that soprano Kate Valentine had withdrawn through illness, but her replacement, Sarah Redgwick, gave a stunning performance that even had conductor Jae Alexander gasping in admiration.

Redgwick impressed with tenor Nicholas Ransley in the Brindisi (drinking song) from Verdi's La Traviata and almost lifted the roof with Rule Britannia. A genuine super-sub!

Ransley was at his best with Puccini's Nessum dorma, and throughout the concert Welsh conductor Alexander was a bundle of fun with his quips and occasional bursts of  'Oggy, Oggy, Oggy'. Even when a woman in the audience couldn't hold back an explosive sneeze during the Die Fledermaus overture, the maestro managed to turn that to his advantage.

The London Concert Orchestra performed superbly, and at two points the conductor paused to invite the audience to show appreciation for the harpist and a cello player.

Paul Marston 

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The Glory of Christmas

Symphony Hall

****

GREAT music, impressive choirs, outstanding soloists and a bumper bundle of audience participation. What a lovely way to start Christmas.

The customers were even choreographed for a version of Good King Wenceslas, which conductor John Pryce-Jones rated a 75 per cent success!

But they did even better for the finale when divided up for a humorous version of The Twelve Days of Christmas as the encore.

The programme included several excellent contributions from the Birmingham Choral Union, particularly Silent Night and The Holy City in which they were joined by Lancashire's international lyric tenor Joshua Ellicott.

Pryce-Jones rated music as the most important early subject for schoolchildren and praised the Staffordshire Children's Choir who received warm ovations for their singing in both halves of the concert.

And what a performance from world-renowned trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins who has played in James Bond themes and for the introduction to the BBC's Antiques Road Show.

He was awesome with Jeremiah Clarke's Trumpet Suite in D and Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E Flat - Finale, supported by the splendid London Concert Orchestra

Paul Marston 

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Christmas Carol Concert

Shelfield Male Voice Choir, Shelfield Methodist Church

***

THIS much travelled choir raised their voices to raise cash for charity, and the Walsall Breast Cancer Support Group will benefit from their efforts during the next 12 months.

Their varied programme contained many old favourite carols, some with new up-to-date arrangements, including While Shepherds Watched, O Little Town of Bethlehem and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

Members of the audience were invited to join in on five occasions during the concert and particularly enjoyed a calypso number, The Prince of Glory.

Soloists John Raybould, Lewis Canter and Michael Atkinson played their part in an entertaining evening and there were several amusing contributions from compere Michael Smith.

As a finale the choir delivered a medley of carols, after donning a range of bizarre Christmas hats, one member even popping on his Wolves fan scarf, deep in Walsall FC territory.

Young conductor Andrew Webb, a member of the choir since he was 12, was weliding the baton for the first time at a Christmas concert and accompanist Nicola Bennett also made her festive debut.

Paul Marston 

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Mass in C

The Birmingham Beethoven Cycle

CBSO

****

CBSO's Beethoven Cycle is giving audiences the opportunity to hear the many facets of this great composer.

Coupled with the Town Hall Symphony Hall concerts, there is plenty to choose from during the season, from his famous symphonies to his works for piano and strings.

Included in the Cycle are also a few more surprising choices such as this Mass in C. It is fair to say that, unlike so many composers, Beethoven is not readily associated with religious music and, indeed this piece was greeted with some uncertainty when it was first performed in 1807 at the Esterhazy palace.

And yet in the Mass Beethoven shows a keen understanding of liturgical music and its pull on believers. So we have the solemn supplication of the opening Kyrie eleison and the purity of the Sanctus contrasting with the triumphant Gloria.

The work is a hymn to the Almighty in all his guises – as forgiver, loving father, mighty Lord and God made man.

Conducted by Olari Elits CBSO, the four soloists and the CBSO Chorus were perfectly aligned to take us through the varying emotions of the Mass.

Beethoven's work was performed alongside two pieces by one of his predecessor at the Esterhazy court - Haydn.

Keeping to the religious theme, Haydn's Te Deum is an exuberant and vibrant piece. At just over ten minutes, it encapsulates faith, joy and a hope in the everlasting.

Immediately after, Haydn's Symphony 104, his London Symphony, is full of gusto, love of life and enthusiasm, tempered with just a touch of gentleness.

Next in the Beethoven Cycle is CBSO, conducted by Andris Nelsons, performing Symphony No 3.

Diane Parkes

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Opening a window to another world

Andrea Bocelli

LG Arena, Birmingham

*****

IF one aria and one event proved that music could touch the soul it was Nessun Dorma and Italia 90 when the BBC used Luciano Pavarotti's 1972 recording as its theme song for the World Cup.

It was music that reached parts that other songs could not reach and the recording even made it to No 2 in the charts. Pavarotti was already an opera superstar but the World Cup made him a household name in Britain, an up-market pop star along with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, his partners in the groundbreaking Three Tenor's Concert in Rome on the eve of the World Cup.

Opera was suddenly cool and keeping it cool, 22 years on, and ending his concert, incidentally, with Nessun Dorma, is Andrea Bocelli, now 54 and a distinguished grey. After more than two hours, he told and adoring audience that his voice was almost gone but he could not leave without singing “the most beautiful melody ever written in Italy.”

Bocelli is, often contemptuously, dubbed a crossover artist by the opera cognoscenti, although gateway would be perhaps a better description after opening up the world of opera to millions – he is fast approaching 100 million album sales which is pop god status – with a voice that is blessed by heaven.

Superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli

He has soaring power and a clear tone, yet can show an engaging softness with a voice that is always pleasing and equally at home with moving operatic arias or MOR pop, such as his trademark  Con te partiro.

 And he does not limit himself to the popular arias which people know from Greatest Hits albums or TV commercials, nor did he plug his new CD Arias with only a couple of  unannounced album tracks among the 27 items in the concert.

At the LG Arena in the first half, for example, we had Ange adorable and L'amour, l'amour from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Nonna non vidi mai and Tu, tu Amore tu from Pucini's Manon Lescau – neither near the top of any opera company's production reperertoire.

For the duets he was joined by Bulgarian opera star soprano Svetla Vassileva who has a clear and pure voice which is as engaging in soft, intimate moments as it is soaring above the orchestra. She is a delight.

Bocelli was also joined on stage by DIV4S, a remarkably attractive Italian quartet of sopranos in figure hugging red gowns - which was probably enough to keep approximately half the audience content. DIV4S (four divas - gettit) all had beautiful voices which worked well together  both in tandem with Bocelli and in their own right as a classical quartet  – as with Habanera from Carmen.

The quartet, Denise, Isabella, Vittoria and Sofia, have been singing with Bocelli since 2008 and have no problem mixing it, adding a very bluesy, soul sound to The Prayer  in the encore.

Bocelli has a record of helping young artists he likes by  including them in concerts thus the classical guitar duo CARisMA, Magdalena Kaltcheva from Sofia, Bulgaria and Carlo Corrieri from Pisa in Italy, produced three numbers including accompaniment for Granada and that most haunting of melodies Aranjuez con tu amor based on the Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo.  

The guitar concerto always sounds like the soul of Spain set to music

The production had two large video screens at either side which showed some excellent camera work, including a clever shot for virtually every number showing the title on the music of one of the orchestra.

A larger centre screen was used effectively for videos of scenes from the relevant operas or, during the selection of Neopolitan songs which appear in the second half, we had old newsreels for FuniculÌ funiculà.

The song was written by  Italian journalist Peppino Turco in 1880 with music by Luigi Denza to commemorate  the opening of the fernicular cable car up Mount Vesuvius – the cable car was destroyed by the eruption of  Vesuvius in 1944 and never rebuilt. So the backdrop shows ancient films of system.

Italian soprano quartet DIV4S

Keeping everything on track was the highly regarded international conductor Marcello Rota, principlal guest conductor of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra of Prague, who brought the best out of his large orchestra and symphonic chorus to produce a very full sound.

I suspect many in the audience have never seen an opera, indeed in the interval one woman was asking a friend what the last song of the first half had been - it was Libiamo ne' lieti calici , the Brindisi, from Verdi's La traviata.

Her companion explained it was from La traviata, and after a pause seeing no recognition, added: “its an opera”.

The woman smiled and said: “That was lovely, I must see if I can get that.”

Andrea Bocelli had not only produced a memorable concert which received a well-deserved standing ovation – for one woman at least, he had opened a window into another world. 10-11-12.

Roger Clarke

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Mickey and co's winning formulae

Disney on Ice presents Passport to Adventure

NIA

**** 

With so many popular stories to choose from, Disney on Ice continues plundering a back catalogue and creating new works by mixing and matching previous successes.

This production strings together a series of Disney films – The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Lilo and Stitch and Peter Pan-  all held together by appearances from Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Donald.

The characters are instantly recognisable to the hundreds of children (and adults) in the audience so there is no introduction or explanation needed.

With each mini story we are also treated to a few well known tunes which people can sing or clap along to.

It is a winning formula which has seen Disney on Ice take on a life of its own, returning to the city in a different guise time and again.

And you can see why it works. The stories are familiar territory so children immediately know where they are and what they are getting.

There is no expense spared with Peter Pan and Tinkerbell  lifted to the heights to fly above the rink and with some great special effects including a huge inflatable Crocodile – ready to swallow up the dastardly Captain Hook.

There is plenty of fun, colour, humour and even romance with a quick pace carried along by fast moving action, lively music and dialogue.

 Plus the skill of the skaters is undeniable whether they are performing individually, as pairs or in huge choreographed groups.

The theme of Passport to Adventure is loosely travel so we head from the African Savannah through an underwater world and then into London. But actually the theme is secondary to the stories that the children know and love.

Disney on Ice is a feelgood show for families. The characters interact with the audience, urging them to clap and wave and even to bring Tinkerbell back from the grave. And the children respond. All around the NIA you can see youngsters giving Mickey and Minnie a wave and enjoying seeing their favourite Disney characters come to life in front of them. To 04-10-12.

Diane Parkes

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A Celebration of Rodgers & Hammerstein

and Rodgers & Hart

Symphony Hall

****

VETERAN baritone Sir Thomas Allen led superb team of vocalists in this musical feast with the hand-picked John Wilson Orchestra.

The vocal knight thrilled a packed audience when he sang Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific, turning the event into a night of enchantment.

He was ably supported by Kim Criswell, Julian Ovenden and Annalene Beechey in some of the great numbers from Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Sound of Music.

This touring concert was the brainchild of master musician John Wilson who made such an impact when he restored the MGM film music for the BBC Proms in 2009.

He conducted his exciting orchestra with the usual aplomb, opening the Saturday evening show with a slick arrangement from Oklahoma! before ending the first half with the powerful Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (On Your Toes), earning rapturous applause and, at the close, a well deserved standing ovation.

Paul Marston

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Joshua Bell Plays Bruch and Beethoven

 Birmingham Symphony Hall

 ****

AN internationally renowned violinist for more than 20 years, Bell is today mixing solo work with his new role as music director at the celebrated Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

And this programme saw him take on both roles as he directed and performed as first violin and as a soloist.

A slight re-jig to the programme order saw two short pieces by Beethoven followed by Bruch being performed before the interval and then Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony afterwards. This made for a much more logical sequence as Beethoven's Egmont Overture was followed by his Romance Op 50.

Playing with musicians from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Bell directed a lively Egmont and indeed was so animated he spent nearly as much time out of his seat as in it. Perfectly attuned to his fellow musicians, his bow was one moment playing the violin and the next being wielded as a conductor's baton.

Bell then took centre stage for Romance Op 50, leading the Academy through a more gentle and wistful Beethoven.

In Bruch's Scottish Fantasy Bell and the Academy interplayed the contrasts of lilting folk tunes with intricate detail and strong melodies with gentle moments of finely held calm. The complexity of the piece gave Bell his moments to shine, reminding us of why he is so highly regarded as a soloist.

Finally we were given a treat with Mendelssohn's Symphony No 3, the Scottish Symphony. Taking his inspiration from a visit to Scotland, Mendelssohn captures not only echoes of Hebridean tunes but also those swirling mists of the glens and mightiness of the lofty mountains.

As Bell maintained the musical conversation with his fellow artists, we were swept away through a range of emotional responses.

Diane Parkes

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A supershow comes of age

Fatal clash: the life of Jesus hangs upon the collision of ideas between Judus (Tim Minchin, left) and Jesus (Ben Forster)

Jesus Christ Superstar

National Indoor Arena, Birmingham

****

IT has taken 42 years for Jesus Christ Superstar to find its spiritual home in Britain as an arena rock opera and was it worth it? Without a doubt.

That is how Andrew Lloyd Webber visualised his creation which has spent its life thus far in theatres but it is a show and, more importantly, a story which is big enough to fill an arena and it has found a star as big as the show in Tim Minchin.

Multi-talented could have been coined for the British-Australian comedian and actor who commands the stage as Judus Iscariot and has a fine rock tenor.

Minchin whose extensive theatre work, especially in Australia, drifts by under the radar much of the time was also co-writer of the hit RSC musical Matilda.

He questions Jesus, challenges him and finally shops him to the authorities but by the time he rails against God for using him to betray his only son Christ we not only feel for Judus but start to wonder if he might have a point – was he working unwittingly to a script? Was his final act and subsequent death just as inevitable as that of Christ – actors in the same play.

Judus's suicide by hanging, incidentally, was as dramatic and graphic as you are ever likely to see.  

The rock musical concentrates on the last week of Jesus's life and how Judus clashes with the direction Jesus is taking. The Gospels have little on the relationship between the two but from being Christ's right hand man Judus becomes his betrayer, believing the Messiah, or at least the policies he is pursuing, need to be stopped.

The original had a background of Christ fighting injustice and this  new production has been updated to highlight the contemporary injustices of poverty, still, and corporate greed with a background of riots and echoes of tented protests.

Jesus (Ben Forster) is comforted by the reformed prostitute Mary Magdalene (Melanie Chisholm)

Ben Forster, winner of the ITV Superstar talent show, looks the part as a rock Jesus and does have an amazing voice with an impressive range although a little subtlety might improve his performance methinks, full blast top notes to rattle the rafters can lose their effect and become less impressive when thrown in at the drop of a hat. Still, discipline and pacing will come with experience and the lad surely has a solid future ahead of him. He never quite commanded the stage as you might expect of a charismatic leader and messiah but his second half Before I Change My Mind was a highlight and by the time he was arrested, tortured and crucified he was growing into the role.

Melanie Chisholm, Melanie C for Spice Girls' fans, gives us a vulnerable and believable Mary Magdalene and she gives us a fine version of one of the best known numbers from the show, I don't know how to love him.

Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles is a real scene stealer as the camp game show host Herod who offers to release Jesus if he will produce a miracle then holds a phone in vote which decides Christ is a phony and returns him to Pontius Pilate for sentencing.

Pilate, Alex Hanson, can find no fault with Christ and to appease the crowds has him lashed 39 times – realistic enough for some people to turn away unable to watch -  but in the face of continued demands for his death from the crowds, washes his hands of the affair and allows the crucifixion and the rest is history - a religion is born.

This is a spectacular show with music which still sounds fresh and alive with a lively enthusiastic cast, who produce some well choreographed  crowd scenes, and an excellent band and despite being in the vast space of the NIA is still very much a theatrical show set alight by a huge video screen across the back wall showing pin sharp close ups and scenesetters with some quality camerawork and direction.

Too often in stadium shows the audience is a mass of mobile phones as people text or talk to mates, take useless pics and videos, talk to their partners or friends, wander in and out for a fag, bag of chips, coffee, beer or to go to the toilet or just to wander about. It is the curse of stadium performances. For Jesus Christ no one left their seat or waved their phone – they watched, listened and enjoyed and gave a standing ovation at the end. Was it worth the 42 year wait? That perhaps was as good an answer as any.

Roger Clarke

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St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra

Leningrad Symphony 70th Anniversary

Town Hall Birmingham

****

SHOSTAKOVICH'S Seventh Symphony is in the curious position of being arguably more famous for the story behind its composition than its actual music.

Which is a pity as this grandiose work is a tour de force of conflict, drama, longing and stubbornness. In many ways much like the city after which it was named.

When the composer's home city of Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then called, was besieged by the Nazis, Shostakovich decided to fight the enemy on two fronts. Physically he did this by supporting the war effort as a fire fighter and mentally he achieved it by composing his great symphony.

The work was performed in the stricken city by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in 1942 – an occasion commemorated with this 70th anniversary tour.

One can only imagine the excitement, hope and defiance prompted by this legendary performance – in a city which was to spend more than two years being slowly starved by the Nazis.

GENTLE STRINGS

With its notes of better times, its military-sounding drums and its crashing cymbals, the music echoes the experience of Leningrad's devastating hardships. But its melodious woodwinds and gentle strings also take a listener beyond the immediate horrors faced by those within the city.

And then finally, a crescendo of brass and percussion recreates a mind-set of a people so resolute their refusal to surrender has gone down as one of history's great battles.

Seventy years on, the work has lost none of its power. It may be performed well out of its original context today but it nevertheless reminds us of the indomitable human spirit.

Leningrad was preceded by fellow Russian Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3. Usually well hidden behind the composer's popular Piano Concerto No 2, this is an incredibly intricate work which demands a good deal from its pianist.

And yet Peter Donohoe was more than comfortable with the piece, tripping lightly over the keys for its opening and adagio and then joining in a speedy dance with the orchestra to master its more challenging moments.

Diane Parkes

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Mahler's Resurrection

CBSO

Symphony Hall

*****

Mahler's Symphony No 2 was the ideal way to launch a new season. Bold, all-embracing and emotional, it pushes an orchestra to its limits and, when it succeeds, the piece shows what the musicians are truly capable of.

At nearly an hour and a half in length, there is no hiding place – Mahler's Resurrection takes us from sonorous strings to crashing timpani with just about every instrument in the orchestra called to action.

And half measures will not do – the symphony calls for exact attention to detail, real passion for music and sweeping volume levels which range from the light and playful waltz to the thundering finale.

There was little doubt that under the baton of CBSO music director Andris Nelsons, CBSO mastered this masterpiece. The minutes raced by so that when the finale arrived it was almost a surprise the time had passed so quickly.

The CBSO Chorus was equally at home with the piece from the gentle susurrations calling for eternal life to the victorious climax of resurrection.

 They were in perfect harmony with soloists Sarah Fox and Mihoko Fujimura as they brought Mahler's mighty work to its glorious conclusion.

The performance was greeted with rapturous applause from a packed Symphony Hall. Not only did Nelsons receive a standing ovation but he and the orchestra were called on to curtain call again and again.

Mahler was preceded by Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen – a very different piece full of longing and gentle sadness.

CBSO have an exacting season ahead of them but if this opening concert is a herald of things to come it will also be exciting and thoroughly enjoyable.

Diane Parkes

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Walsall's Last Night of the Proms

Walsall Town Hall

****

A HUSBAND and wife 'team' starred in this colourful charity concert arranged by the Rotary Club of Walsall to raise funds for Breast Cancer Care.

It was a triumphant return to her home town for international soprano Susan Parkes who delighted an audience of nearly 1,000 with four classic solos, opening with Donde Lieta Usci from Puccini's La Boheme.

Later the former Queen Mary's High School pupil sang Csardas from Die Fledermauss by Strauss, cleverly changing some of the words to include references to Walsall, Noddy Holder and the Black Country.

Susan's husband, professional concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith also gave a breathtaking performance of Chopin music, including Impromptu No.1 and Etude.

Shelfield Male Voice Choir, under new conductor Andrew Webb, impressed with Llanfair, All Through the Night and Bring Me Home before the Walsall Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Clive Allsopp, brought a splendid concert to a close with Pomp and Circumstance and Jerusalem.

Hundreds of Union flags were waved by the audience during the emotional Land of Hope and Glory as Walsall's home grown talent completed a job well done for the 91-year-old Rotary club.

Paul Marston

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Nelsons Conducts Beethoven's Ninth 

CBSO 

Birmingham Symphony Hall 

**** 

It's never a bad thing to have a crowd pleaser in the repertoire and there can be few pieces of music more likely to cheer up an audience on a soggy summer evening than Beethoven's mighty Ninth Symphony. 

Also known as the Choral Symphony, the Ninth is powerfully life affirming, with its music echoing and enriching the message of Schiller's Ode to Joy which is the climax of the work. 

And there was no doubt this was a joyous performance. CBSO music director Andris Nelsons, conducting the Ninth in Birmingham for the first time, seemed to love every minute, egging the orchestra on to rise to the challenge of the piece. 

This was a brash performance of a bold work. With no holds barred, the orchestra was keen to proclaim the drama and energy of Beethoven's final symphony. And, while at times it lacked a little finesse, it was certainly played with enthusiasm and gusto. 

Andris Nelsons, who will continue as CBSO Music Director with a rolling contract from 2014. Picture: Neil Pugh

Soloists soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Toby Spence and bass Georg Zeppenfeld were able to hold their own against the orchestra and CBSO Chorus who relished the opportunity to belt out the famous choral element. 

The performance was met with thunderous applause and a clearly delighted Nelsons was recalled to the podium again and again in response. 

It was a short concert without an interval with the Ninth being accompanied by Brahms' Nanie. This piece also features verses by Schiller and is a gentle and soothing choral work with a touch of lament about it. 

CBSO has just confirmed Nelsons is to continue as CBSO music director with an annual rolling contract from 2014. At the helm since 2008, he has certainly not been afraid to take bold steps with the orchestra and his Beethoven Nine was certainly that. 

With the company embarking on a Beethoven cycle, it will be interesting to see how other pieces by the composer are performed. 

Diane Parkes

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Last Night of the Summer Proms

Symphony Hall 

**** 

THE London Proms may just be kicking off but Birmingham has already celebrated its last night with London Concert Orchestra. 

And it was an evening blending popular classics, a touch of movie magic, a sprinkling of opera and lots of red, white and blue. 

Benjamin Pope is the ideal conductor for an evening like this. Not only is he more than competent with the baton, he is also a confident speaker, ready to inject a touch of humour now and then. In fact he set the tone by introducing the evening and reminding us the ‘summer' was now over – before it had even begun. 

The orchestra took us through plenty of familiar favourites including Rossini's William Tell Overture, Elgar's Nimrod and Pachelbel's Canon. 

But there was also a nod to more modern tastes with Goodwin's scores for the films 633 Squadron and Those Magnificent Men In their Flying Machines. 

Solo violinist Thomas Gould ensured a change of pace, proving to be just as comfortable with the frenzied energy of Monti and Paganini as with the ethereal fluttering of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. 

Kate Valentine was called on for excerpts from Verdi's La Traviata and Puccini's La Boheme as well as Arne's Rule, Britannia! 

Tenor Philip O'Brien was a last minute replacement but there can be few tenors who are not familiar with Puccini's O soave fanciulla and Nessun dorma. 

As the concert approached its finale there were plenty of opportunities to sing along, wave the flags and feel generally full of patriotic spirit. 

In a week when the Queen visited the city as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations and on the eve of the London Olympics those flags are having a good airing this summer. 

Diane Parkes

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Die Walkure

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

OPERA North brought imagination and drama to this second part of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

The company cleverly used giant screens behind the orchestra to not only include the surtitles but also to carry background images and include bits of narrative to set the scene.

In some ways it was a small element but it did add an extra dimension of staging to this concert performance.

Not that it needed it really. Wagner's music was confidently handled by the Orchestra of Opera North and conducted by Richard Farnes.

And all of the singers rose to the challenge. Annalena Persson made a very human Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie who loses her divinity after understanding love for the first time and disobeying her father. We saw her defiant and then humble as she tried to appeal to the better nature of her father Wotan (Bela Perencz) but also very gentle and caring when she entered the world of mortals.

Erik Nelson Werner and Alwyn Mellor sang the parts of the brother and sister lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, taking the two from complete strangers to inseparable soul mates.

POWERFUL GOD

Katarina Karneus was a proud Fricka whose determination to have her way wins over Wotan and changes all of the ensuing events.

And dominating all of the action was Perencz's Wotan, the most powerful god who is also in many ways the weakest. Having made so many compromises to rule supreme, in Die Walkure, Wotan learns that every action has its consequence and he cannot escape a fate he has created by his own greed for dominance.

Die Walkure may not be as well known for its Classic FM tunes as many operas but nobody could deny the force of the elemental Ride of the Valkyries as the orchestra thundered the familiar music and the voices of the eight Valkyries pierced the heavens.

The narrative strength of Die Walkure lies in our association with the relationships with dominate – brother to sister, lover to lover, father to daughter, man to wife. It may all be wrapped up in Norse legend and Ring myths but the strength of those bonds and the emotions they bring reach to all of us.

This was a compelling re-telling of that story and we look forward to the sequels still to come. 30-06-12

Diane Parkes

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Weltethos

 Birmingham Symphony Hall

*** 

This performance, the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey's epic Weltethos, launched the London 2012 Festival in Birmingham.

And in many ways it was an apt choice. Sutton Coldfield born Harvey's piece is a meditation on faith, belief and hope. It makes a plea for better understanding across nations, across peoples and across humanity. Surely a central tenet of the international Olympic Games which come to London this summer.

Over 90 minutes the work focuses on six religions – Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity – looking at their common threads rather than their differences. In all Harvey finds a love of humanity, a desire for brotherhood and a need to treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated.

The work is very tightly structured with each movement highlighting a different faith, looking at a theme, some background and quotes from the faith's Holy Scriptures before returning to the central message – that only through peace can our children have a future in this world.

Each section in turn features a spoken part, delivered with perfect timing and gravity by actor Sam West, orchestral music which aims to reflect music linked to each tradition and choral pieces. These in turn are broken down into pieces sung by the CBSO's Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children's Chorus.

By retaining such an ordered structure, Weltethos gives each of the religions its own distinctive voice while ensuring we also understand their shared values.

Conducted by Edward Gardner and Michael Seal, the CBSO and choirs rose to the challenge of Harvey's intricate music, reflecting its nuances, power and delicacy.

Weltethos aims to be a vision in music, a confirmation that people can find understanding and a common bond. By ensuring the children's choirs are given that strong message ‘we children have a future if we are humane' the piece leaves us with a sense of hope and optimism.

Diane Parkes

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CBSO: Nelsons Conducts Shostakovich

 Symphony Hall, Birmingham

****

Bearing in mind that Shostakovich had suffered denunciations, censorship and hardship under Stalin's regime it might have been expected that the leader's death would result in a joyous outpouring of music.

And yet Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony is at times sombre, at times heavy and at times an eruption of almost furious angst.

It certainly makes enthralling listening. Under the baton of CBSO music director Andris Nelsons, it was packed full of energy, power and drama, taking the audience through a gamut of emotional responses to its crashing finale.

It was preceded by Bartok's Viola Concerto, an exquisitely beautiful piece. Influenced by Bartok's homeland of Hungary, it blends mournful melodies with touches of folk dance. So it was particularly apt that this piece was performed by CBSO viola section leader Adam Romer, also a native Hungarian.

Taking centre stage, Romer played the piece with admirable dexterity, well deserving the lengthy applause in response.

The evening began with Dvorak's Othello Overture which takes us from the idyllic romance of the initial love affair between Shakespeare's Othello and Desdemona to the horror of the story's conclusion. Othello's jealousy and violent murder of his wife are contrasted with her gentle pleading as she begs for her life.

Nelsons showed his usual enthusiasm for the pieces, leading the orchestra to ensure a full delineation of the light and shade occurring in them all. 

Diane Parkes

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Stars of the Opera

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

****

FOUR quality singers delivered a lively mixture of opera, pop and musical theatre in this enjoyable one-nighter.

Robert James, Giles Howe, Richard Colvin and Eamon O'Dwyer, who have been entertaining passengers on cruise ships in the past, certainly sailed through this concert.

Perhaps inevitably Nessun Dorma appeared early in their programme, and opera lovers in the audience were encouraged to join in singing Torreador from Carmen, then blonde Sam was plucked from the stalls to be serenaded with O Sole Mio. A real thrill for the lass from Wolverhampton.

Youngsters of the Wolverhampton Glee Choir gave a short performance in the first act and were back on stage at the finale, joining the four opera stars in Let It Shine.

Other highlights included Maria, from West Side Story, Oh! What a Night from the musical of the same name. Abba's The Winner Takes it All, and a James Bond medley, before the fab four and their four-strong band closed with My Way.

Paul Marston

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Symphony Hall's 21st Birthday Proms

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

****

BIRMINGHAM Symphony Hall's 21st celebrations continued apace with this Proms evening full of well-known classical tunes.

Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Robert Dean, the concert was in partnership with radio station Classic FM and it was ideal for its audience – lots of short, sharp and famous pieces.

It also had its celebrity appearance in the shape of Julian Lloyd Webber playing Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor. It may be overly familiar but Elgar's classic really came alive in the hands of Lloyd Webber. He was perfectly attuned to the orchestra and handled the piece with apparent ease, from the drama of the first movement to the sorrowful adagio and thrust of the finale.

The evening commenced with the short but lively Prelude to Act III of Wagner's Lohengrin followed by Sibelius' Finlandia which had been chosen by Classic FM listeners.

After the interval we were serenaded with the cheeky Overture to Rossini's Thieving Magpie before moving into a double bill of Grieg's Peer Gynt, the Morning Mood and Hall of the Mountain King.

There was hardly time to breathe but then the pace slowed down with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo before picking up again with The Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

And when it comes to a grand finale what better than that old favourite – Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture? Not only does it give the orchestra a chance to really let rip, it also has plenty of opportunity for added dramatic effect. And for a birthday party that had to be fireworks, cascading down from the opened doors and the ceiling.

The audience rose to their feet in rapturous applause but were soon seated again for an added extra – Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 during which those Union Jacks were given another airing after the Jubilee.

All in all it was a great party – plenty of good tunes, played with lots of gusto and with a glass of bubbly in the interval.

Diane Parkes

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Diamond Jubilations

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

THE Queen's jubilee celebrations were give a right royal send-off by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in their latest Friday Night Classics concert.

With musicians in top form, conducted by Stephen Bell, they glided through a superb programme of music mainly for and about the Royal family, past and present.

It was an evening laced with nostalgia and thoroughly enjoyed by a large audience, many of whom were waving Union flags.

A rousing opening featured William Walton's Crown Imperial which took 14 days to write in 1937, full of pomp and circumstance, earning him a 40 guinea fee.

That was followed by the score from the 2006 film The Queen, in which Alexandre Desplat attempts to show the inner life of a woman who has always put her public duties first.

The orchestra then gave an impressive performance of Eric Coates' The Three Elizabeths suite, and after the interval they sparkled with Benjamin Britten's Courtly Dances from Gloriana.

More film music came from Desplat with The King's Speech, and the audience whistled along to Sir Malcolm Arnold's Bridge on the River Kwai before the programme ended with Jerusalem and Walton's Orb and Sceptre march.

Then it was the turn of the audience to contribute two verses of the National Anthem.

Paul Marston

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Dracula: The Music and the Film

Symphony Hall

****

WHEN Bela Lugosi's vampire classic Dracula was re-released on video, American composer Philip Glass was asked to write a score for it.

The original film was created without music and yet Glass's haunting score, composed for the Kronos Quartet, immediately feels like an integral part of it.

This performance at Symphony Hall saw Glass joined by the Kronos Quartet and Michael Riesman on keyboards to perform the piece below a giant screen showing the 1931 horror film.

Glass's forms which repeat and yet develop are ideal for building the tension in the film as Bela closes in, travelling from his Transylvanian castle to England where he stalks about menacingly eyeing up potential victims.

The score perfectly complements the stylised manner of the film in which the suave Hungarian actor created a stereotype of the vampire count.

Watching the film 80 years after it was made prompted many in the audience to laugh at the heavily overdramatic performances but there is no doubt its influence is still strong in horror films today.

In some ways matching a live performance with film can be frustrating as you are constantly switching back  and forth between watching the musicians and then the film. Whichever of the two you are looking at, there is always a worry you are missing something from the other.

And the sound quality was a problem as the music did have a tendency to drown out the dialogue. It could be argued this is not a huge difficulty as there was little confusion in following the film but it seemed a shame to be missing some of its action.

Perhaps adding subtitles as if it were a silent movie would have been a help in ensuring the audience could follow it.

But in all it the two worked well together and to see Glass performing his own work was another treat in what is proving to be an excellent programme to mark the 21st Anniversary of Symphony Hall.

Diane Parkes

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Sounds fantastic

Michael Winslow

Wulfrun Hall

*****

Mention the name of comedian Michael Winslow to anyone and nine times out of 10 they look at you blankly, tell them he's the one in the Police Academy movies who does the noises and you get instant recognition.

Although he is most famous for his unique brand of audio based comedy, what that undermines is his skill as a mainstream stand-up comedian. His observations are as sharp as any of his younger contemporaries yet he has the skill to add the mimicry of just about any noise with the sonic accuracy of a Lyrebird.

Sometimes the audio FX do not even seem to be coming from him as there is also an element of ventriloquism to his delivery but clearly without the need of props.

Winslow, best known for his role of Sgt 'Motor Mouth' Jones in the Police Academy series,  is a unique example of taking his childlike ability to `make noises' and creating a polished and refined act that audibly makes comic drama out of thin air.

He tells one story of getting a radio kit as a child and literally conjures up everything from the conversation of a small boy and his father, through to the emptying of parts onto a table, building it, then surfing a multitude of channels. He then stops at music stations with snippets of well-known songs, random conversations, radio ads and all complete with channel hopping interference.

At one point he adds the soundtrack to an entire section of a Stars Wars battle scene providing the dialogue, explosions, and sound FX, perfectly synced to the projected image. It's the sort of thing that could be easily faked if he were not standing there with the microphone so that you can actually watch him doing it.

He has also added audio and characterisations to both Family Guy and The Simpsons and whilst he is firmly from the 80s school of observational comedy, this fact has obviously given him a fresh appeal. That fact was evident on the night as I had expected an older audience but clearly his stand up abilities outside of the Police Academy films have found their way on to the internet and into the eyes and ears of a younger crowd.

With the possibility of Police Academy 8 in the offing, this national tour can't help but publicise the forthcoming film and is a great opportunity to regenerate the franchise with a new audience

The Wolfrun Hall is a great space to see someone like Winslow as a bigger room would possibly take away the ability to see him close up performing his unique act.

In conjunction with The Civic Hall next door, the venue seems also to be scoring some major hits in the coming months with an impressive line-up of music and comedy with acts such as Blur and Jimmy Carr

So just like Mr Winslow they seem to be making some real noises as a leading Midlands venue. 

Jeff Grant

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Karl Jenkins - The Peacemakers

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

WHAT a luxury it would be if we had the opportunity to watch all the composers of the past conducting their own works.

To see Beethoven wield the baton at his Ninth, to watch Tchaikovsky revel in the 1812 Overture or to see Mozart immersed in a performance of Don Giovanni.

We can but dream but audiences across the UK have been treated to a more modern version by watching Karl Jenkins conduct his latest work The Peacemakers.

It is an interesting process as nobody can have as much invested in the work and yet Jenkins conducts in quite a dispassionate way.

Sure he ratchets up the sound for the big numbers and encourages the choir for their choruses but other than that he is a pretty calm guy to have on the dais.

His latest work is a plea for peace. Using words by a range of Peacemakers including Nazi victim Anne Frank, South African prisoner turned president Nelson Mandela, Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi as well as religious leaders including Jesus Christ and the Dalai Lama, the work all points to the same conclusion – we can only live together as one.

POPULAR

With the recording going straight to the top of the classical charts, there is no doubt that Jenkins is a hugely popular modern composer and this work will no doubt follow the success of his Millennium commission The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.

It is certainly as ambitious in its scope as it pleads for a better world. But as the Fanfare belts out the word for peace in 21 languages, it remains heavily depressing that so much of the globe is still engulfed in armed conflict.

The 72 minute Peacemakers was preceded by a handful of Jenkins' greatest hits including his zesty Palladio, the calming Adiemus and the beautiful Benedictus from The Armed Man.

Manchester Concert Orchestra were relatively confident with the work but they did at times drown out the singing of the Cor Caerdydd and Lichfield Cathedral Young Voices.

Diane Parkes

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The Wizard of Oz

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Hall

****

HUNDREDS of mums, dads and children were off to see the wizard as part of the Symphony Hall's 21st anniversary celebrations. And they saw two of them!

One lived in the Emerald City, reached by Dorothy and her friends via the Yellow Brick Road, and the other was that master musician and arranger John Wilson who conducted the large orchestra at two performances.

Wilson guided the orchestra superbly through all those famous tunes. including Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, and Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead, as the classic 1939 MGM film, starring Judy Garland, was projected onto a giant silver screen with live accompaniment, and how good it sounded.

The customers were promised a lavish orchestral score instead of the scratchy old soundtracks, and it worked well with Wilson keeping an eye on the screen and ensuring the music matched exactly what Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion were singing, and even suited the violent twister that sent the young girl into a coma and onto a remarkable adventure in Munchkin Land.

Only occasionally did the music drown the dialogue before the film ended with Dorothy clicking the heels of those ruby slippers three times and declaring 'There's no place like home'. The audience (one woman was wearing a replica Dorothy dress) cheered and applauded enthusiastical

Paul Marston

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Three Short Works

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Crescent Theatre

****

IT was pouring outside, but the BRB's triple bill sent a ray of sunshine darting through the International Dance Festival on the company's first visit to the Crescent Theatre.

Two of the three performances were a sell-out, and audiences were rewarded by a trio of totally different ballets, each with its own special merit in the breathtaking programme.

The evening opened with the extraordinary '9-5', choreographed by Kit Holder, set in a busy office and featuring Joseph Caley and Laura-Jane Gibson as newcomers Winston and Julia, integrating with other staff under the watchful eye of the boss (Samara Downs).

Together with six other dancers they performed superbly, even with the use of office chairs spinning on castors, to a background of music which sounded like computers and other office equipment, while a 'canned' voice occasionally blurted "Printer jammed".

'Lyric Pieces', choreographed by American Jessica Lang, was fascinating, the dancers creating special shapes with remarkable black paper honeycombed walls which could be expanded and closed, concertina style, pianist Jonathan Higgins providing the music.

And finally, 'Take Five' - choreographed by David Bintley - was a series of stunning dances performed to Dave Brubeck music played beautifully by a quartet.

The whole package underlined the talent, skill and quality of the BRB, whatever the challenge.

Paul Marston

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British Classics

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

IN-demand conductor John Wilson helped attract a large audience to the Symphony Hall for the latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

And his guest artist, leading clarinetist Michael Collins, made an instant impact with his playing of Gerald Finzi's Concerto in C Minor, superbly supported by the orchestra's string section.

Collins' 25-minute performance was an absolute delight, setting the scene for some memorable music to follow.

The second half of the concert saw the musicians in great form, particularly with Eric Coates' London Calling, Haydn Wood's London Cameos Suite and Jumping Bean by Robert Farnon.

Before leading the orchestra in Lionel Monckton's The Arcadians Overture, Wilson amused the audience with an anecdote from his early days as a musician. His first link with the Arcadians came in Gateshead during the 1980s when he was playing the triangle, with his mother in the audience. She left at the interval and told him later "I wish you wouldn't make me sit through these things".

She would have happily stayed to the end of this concert.

Paul Marston

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Classic Chaplin

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

TWO hilarious Charlie Chaplin silent movies played onto a giant screen and accompanied by music from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra proved a hit in the latest Friday Night Classics.

Strange that such old fashioned humour can still delight an audience in this sophisticated age, but the magic of the little man with the cane, big boots and a bowler hat was there for all to see in City Lights and One A.M.

Chaplin composed the music for the 87 minutes long City Lights and it was restored for live performances by master musician Carl Davis who conducted the orchestra with his usual skill and flair.

It has been described as Chaplin's most perfect film, in which he plays a tramp who comes into contact with a beautiful blind flower seller and sets about trying to raise cash for an operation to restore her sight.

He gets and loses a job as a street clearner before being recruited as a prize fighter for his first and last bout against a much tougher opponent. Surely one of the funniest ever boxing matches.

Chaplin eventually gets the cash he needs after befriending a drunken and suicidal millionaire, but what a shock for the young lady when she eventually is able to see and recognise her hero, a shabby tramp.

Before the show the audience saw four short animated silent movies created through a nationwide competition won by Gareth Hirst with Street Act.

At the end of the concert Carl Davis appeared from the orchestra pit to receive a standing ovation, part of which was no doubt directed at the huge photograph of the comic genius Charlie Chaplin, played onto the silver screen.

Paul Marston

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A popera phenomenon to savour

Il Divo

LG Arena, NEC

*****

WHEN this four  man popera phenomenon began their three month world tour in February it marked the ninth year since their formation and it is easy to see why they are going from strength to strength, year on year.

Il Divo's meteoric rise has been guided by Simon Cowell whose two year international search for the members of this troupe began in 2001. It was worth the wait and indeed it may be that, at the end of his career, he will look back at it as the most fulfilling and successful thing he ever did.

Whilst X Factor hopefuls G4 signed to Sony and then eventually fell by the wayside, Il Divo marched on and conquered the world. The fact is that these guys have the looks to match their voices and being American, Spanish, Swiss and French adds a genuine international operatic flavour to the mix.

With more than 25 million album sales, 150 gold and platinum discs, somewhere in excess of two   million concert tickets sold and a global fan base the envy of any super group, their success cannot be denied. A key to that success is that there is nothing and has never been anything like them.

We all are touched by classical music even if we don't realise it.  Composers like Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newman who write for movies use the power of the orchestra to drain your emotions in the big blockbuster films. That's part of Il Divos massive appeal, added too, of course, with four amazing vocalists, the show is packed with  cinematic  moments.

Getting the fine balance between their musical choices of opera and pop still seems to be a difficult one for them .

ASTOUNDING BEAUTY

Throughout the set there are those where the crossover factor works and those that fall slightly short.  An operatic version of Frank Sinatra's  My Way seemed a cheap trick when compared to the astounding beauty of a new lyrical adaptation set to the heart wrenching  Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber

Just to hear Adagio alone, played well by any orchestra is memorable, but add to it these individual voices and the dial is cranked fully to 11. In fact throughout the concert there are so many jaw dropping moments you begin to wonder if you can take another one and feel relieved to get a few moments to recover as the boys start in with the casual , in-between number, comedy.  

What was of the very highest quality it could be, was the sound. The NEC LG Arena was about 99 per cent full and with such a critical need for sound perfection, Il Divo's team never missed a cue. The Birmingham Orchestra sounded magnificent and even the delicate moments of a solo classical guitar against the full rush of the orchestra in the deeply romantic version of Toni Braxton's Unbreak my heart cut through the swell and rang out beautifully.

Their set also contains several musical theatre numbers and each of the Il Divo members has had some experience at performing in this area. Their version of Don't cry for me Argentina would make Lord Webber extremely proud. Unlike the often dull audio confines of a theatre, here it was delivered in its glossy produced splendour with crystal clear vocals that dripped with emotion to a heightened power that almost parted your hair.

While Il Divo have all expressed a  personal need to still develop new works and  popularise classical opera  it would be a fine thing to hear a full set of  musical theatre work, so good is their ability to deliver it as a team.

LOTHARIO IMAGE

On stage they are truly likeable people playing up to their romantic lothario image by teasing the women with their availability, even though three of them stated they were married with children. Whilst it's all good fun it can get a bit tedious for the guys in the audience as another set up came, asking for the single ladies to stand up and be made known to them. It stops short of the underwear Tom Jones receives but it's quite easy to see that, just say the word and they could start their own foundation garment collection so committed  is the female Il Divo fan.

Several times the  group said that they were hard to pigeon hole in terms of style claiming to be in the middle of pop and opera and nicely using West Side story's There's a  place for us to punctuate their point.

 I don't think they need to worry as plainly there is not only a place but a need for Il Divo. Some of the women present would agree that fact even if it's just for their looks but what they have achieved is to open the door for millions of people to so many other musical spheres. It is a very moving and engaging experience to see them perform and seldom in any concert of this scale or with any other act are you pulled so skilfully from either end of your emotional base.

With several classical pieces forming the soundtrack for sport, opera seems now to have found a wide appeal. In fact I think it would be hard to put anyone in front of Il Divo with a good orchestra and not have them respond and enjoy it. If they didn't, I would have to get them checked in somewhere to see if they still had a pulse. 

I hate saying it but whilst Il Divo are outstanding performers credit for the idea is due to their founder, it's taken a lot of investment and work to bring popera to the masses .  . . so well done Mr Cowell. 14-04-12

Jeff Grant

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Good Friday: Gergiev Conducts Parsifal

Birmingham Symphony Hall

**** 

BEARING in mind Wagner's Parsifal concludes on Good Friday, its Easter-time staging in Birmingham was perfect synchronicity on the part of Symphony Hall.

The question is whether performing it on Good Friday itself gives Parsifal an added dimension. From the comments I heard from other audience members including ‘sublime', ‘transcendental' and even ‘transforming' maybe it does.

At its heart Parsifal is a complex story blending mystical and earthly, Christian and pagan, purity and lust and ignorance and knowledge. Retelling a Grail legend in which the man who is pure and innocent is the one to offer salvation to the keepers of the holy chalice, it blends Biblical stories with European knightly tales.

Presented as a concert performance there were some strong performances from the cast. Yury Vorobiev was a powerful Gurnemanz, the wise knight who acts as a conduit for the action and holds much of the plot together.

Avgust Amonov was a placid Parsifal who would have benefited from a little more gusto while Larisa Gogolevskaya attempted to be beguiling as Kundry, the woman who mocked Jesus on the cross and is cursed for ever more.

Nikolay Putilin provided a solid Klingsor, the baddy of the piece, while Yevgeny Nikitin presented a wavering Amfortas whose unwillingness to play the part destiny has designated him puts the entire future of the Grail knights at risk.

All of this is played out to Wagner's beautiful score which was performed with delicacy by the Mariinsky Orchestra who spent nearly five hours on stage. There were moments, particularly during the Grail ceremony in Act One, where the music really did seem to carry us away to another time and place.

At its forefront was Valery Gergiev whose attention to detail through such a lengthy performance must be exhausting. He did not let up for a second ensuring every nuance, every tone and every resonance was pulled from the orchestra.

At five hours 45 minutes including intervals Parsifal was a bum-numbing experience but one I would sit through all over again given the chance.

Diane Parkes

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Sokhiev Conducts the

Saint-Saens Organ Symphony

Birmingham Symphony Hall

****

CONDUCTOR Tugan Sokhiev oozed enthusiasm throughout this Sunday afternoon concert as he led the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

Beginning with the short but joyous Carnaval Romain Overture by Berlioz, the orchestra gave us sweeping strings against a backdrop of vigorous percussion.

Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances reminds us how the composer was able to switch from powerful rich sounds to the most gentle of harmonies. Taken up by a cor anglais or set of strings, these lyrical melodies are soft, romantic and so beautiful.

And finally Saint-Saens' mighty Organ Symphony which truly makes the most of Symphony Hall. With Birmingham City Organist Thomas Trotter at the keyboard, the sound swelled through the pipes, taking advantage of the venue's amazing acoustics.

Despite its resounding finale, much of the Organ Symphony is actually incredibly subtle with an interplay between strings and brass leading up to the booming entrance of the organ.

Once it takes over the music become immense and grand.

The audience clearly loved the performance and were rewarded with an encore. In fact Sokhiev and the Orchestre seemed to enjoy being on stage so much they looked like they did not want to leave.

Diane Parkes

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St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra Plays Russian Masterworks

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

****

SOME would say that the St Petersburg Philharmonic is itself a Russian masterwork being one of the country's leading orchestras for more than a century.

Over that time it has premiered works by Mahler, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Bruckner and Shostakovich.

And in this concert it featured three of Russia's great composers – Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

Launching the evening was Prokofiev's short and sweet Symphony No 1 or Classical Symphony. Light and full of life, it trips along through a rapid four movements in just a quarter of an hour.

Conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, the orchestra had easy control over the work, lilting through its music with obvious enthusiasm.

For many in the audience the highlight of the evening was without a doubt Simon Trpceski's performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2.

One of Rachmaninov's best-known  works, it was handled with confidence and zest by Trpceski and received some of the longest applause I have seen at Symphony Hall.

The orchestra was then fully warmed up to tackle Shostakovich's Symphony No 5 which gives pretty much every musician a work-out.

Packed full of an energy which sees musical dominance pass back and forth between different sections of the orchestra, nobody seems to be allowed time off. And it all leads to a thrilling finale in which it all comes together in a rousing crowd of sounds. 27-03-12

Diane Parkes

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An Evening of Chamber Music

 Forest Arts Centre, Walsall

THIS concert was performed by 27 violin students aged between nine and 18, watched by an audience of nearly 100 consisting of parents, grand parents and friends.

The young muscians impressed in a programme ranging from Bach to more modern offerings like Wouldn't it be Loverly and Catch a Falling Star.

Confident solo items came from Ella Cormack, Shefali Kharabanda, Jenny Tian, Gabriela Chalkia, Lydia Elliott-Johnson (cello), Lottie Robinson and Madeline Eaton.

 In a section celebrating the works of Elgar, the senior group - The Capriccio Strings - delighted the audience with their performance of Salut D'Amour and Nimrod.

The students are all pupils of music teacher Ali Milnes, and she played Massenet's Meditation beautifully before completing a lovely duet with Ella Cormack, Movement III Concerto for Two Violins (Bach).

Piano accompaniment was by John Gough and Ross Doodson. 24-03-12   

Paul Marston

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The Spaghetti Western Orchestra

Birmingham Town Hall

****

ONE can't help but wonder what composer Ennio Morricone makes of this eclectic band of musicians and performers.

Inspired by the Spaghetti Western and the theme tunes created by Morricone for films such as A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West and the Ringo movies, the Orchestra's homage is more than a little zany.

Dressed mainly in suits and waistcoats with faces painted white, the five performers work their way through music and scenes from well-known films including Sergio Leone's famous Dollars trilogy.

Telling the audience they were going ‘deep into sound territory' the orchestra then let their imaginations run riot.

They are certainly multi-talented blending a whole range of traditional instruments including harmonica, banjo, trumpet, drums and keyboards but also bringing in everything but the kitchen sink.

The scenario becomes more and more crazy as they bring out beer bottles, clocks, knives, a hammer, sticky tape, an umbrella, a boot filled with liquid, a box of breakfast cereal – all to recreate the sound effects of the movies.

Their ingenuity seems to know no bounds – is there any sound they could not recreate?

And it is all performed with lashings of humour. This may be an homage but it is anything but overly reverential.

There is no escape for the audience who are also called on to recreate some of the sounds including a rousing rendition of Morricone's best-known score from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly towards the finale.

This concert at Town Hall was sold out but if you missed it, the Spaghetti Western Orchestra returns on May 23.

16-03-12

Diane Parkes

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HMS Pinafore

Symphony Hall

****

ANYONE in the audience regretting that former astrologer royal and Strictly Come dancer Russell Grant had to pull out of this concert version of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta through knee surgery will surely have quickly overcome their disappointment.

It meant a late call for Simon Butteriss to fill the role of Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, and the master of G&S gave a wonderful performance, laced with fun and blessed with perfect timing.

So to paraphrase the naval knight's famous song "Then wait for the lead to have an 'op' on his knee, and you may become the leader of the Queen's Navy".

Butterriss was one of several stars as the Savoyards - mainly wearing a variety of headgear to represent the old uniforms - delivered a fine concert which included a range of English humour at its lovable best.

Oliver White impressed as ordinary seaman Ralph Rackstraw, in deep water after falling in love with the captain's pretty daughter, Josephine, a part beautifully played and sung by Charlotte Page.

Excellent performances, too, from Riccardo Simonetti (Captain Corcoran), Rosemary Ashe (Little Buttercup) and Bruce Graham (Dick Deadeye).

Music was provided by the London Concert Orchestra, conducted by Fraser Goulding. 16-03-12

Paul Marston

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Ex Cathedra: Bach Motets and Cello Suites

Birmingham Town Hall

****

Kicking off THSH's second Bach: A Beautiful Mind festival, Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra blended the composer's choral works with his music for cello.

Performed by Ex Cathedra's Consort and Continuo and conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, the motets remind us of the central place that faith and the church played in JS Bach's work.

And they also showed us how Bach is a master of variety in this genre. We have the exultant Oh praise the Lord, all ye nations and Sing unto the Lord a new song which are full of life and vigour and were performed with plenty of gusto.

But we also have the much more contemplative Come, Jesus, come in which the singers admit they are ready to leave the earthly world behind and move on to God's Kingdom.

And the longer motet Jesus, my joy, takes us through a raft of emotions but ultimately reminds us of the comfort of Christ – all perfectly captured by the choir.

Sandwiched between the motets was Andrew Skidmore playing Bach's Cello Suites Nos 1 and 4. Here we see Bach at his most lyrical, each suite a present to be unwrapped slowly and savoured as each layer is revealed.

Soloist Andrew Skidmore tackled both with apparent ease, bringing the depths of Bach's music to the fore and reminding us that even a weekend is insufficient to really appreciate this classical master.

Bach: A Beautiful Mind continues through the weekend although Sunday's concert with Angela Hewitt has been cancelled.

Diane Parkes

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The 50% Funnier Tour

Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton

Newhampton Arts Centre is located in a recycled Victorian school and looks nothing like a theatre from the outside.

If you are lucky on a busy evening, you get to park inside the gates on what used to be the playground and you can make use of Jesters café for a before show snack.

Although you are allowed to take food and drink from the café into the theatre (school hall), there is  a small bar in the theatre.

To call this show the 50% funnier tour was an understatement, it wasn't just funny or even funnier, it was hilarious from the moment Barbara Nice, our hostess for the evening came on stage to Eye of theTiger and got the audience participating in an exercise that involved waving at strangers at certain points in the song.

Barbara is a champion at getting the audience involved and she managed to keep up to her usual high standard, surpassing it at times when, during her raffle, one of the wags removed a ‘star prize' of a tinned meat pie.

The Fizzogs'girls plus James Collins as Harry were first on with 4 old folks and a funeral.  I have seen some things at funerals and heard of some weird happenings and they must have heard them too.

I must say though that I have never seen anybody get up and dance like Ruby (Emma Rollason) did at the end of the sketch.  We were already laughing when they came on and it continued.

HILARIOUS FRIENDSHIPS

For Mags and Barb, Mags (Sue Hawkins) and Barb (Deb Nicholls) were joined by their stage spouses, Ron (James Stevens) and Trevor (James Collins) for a look at one of those hilarious friendships that we have all seen at some time. 

This time the girls were arguing about the quality of services that Barb had recommended to Mags -it was indeed, quality.

To follow on, Derek Mac(James Stevens again) had us rocking with his rendition of a few Tom Jones favourites in his own style, but failed to sell any of his tapes.  Derek is available for wedding, funerals etc. and tiling bathrooms and kitchens.

Barbara Nice had brought her little class of infants for a show and tell session.  Kids will be kids and the sight of Brooklyn (James Collins) Saskia (Sue Hawkins) Peaches (Deb Nicholls) Georgie (Jacky Fellows) and Chelsea (Emma Rollason) in those school uniforms had to be seen.

These kids had a fine time telling us about a birthday party the previous weekend while Brooklyn decided to give a short talk about his ‘self'.  These kids were more than alright.

To finish off the first half, the girls did a quick change from school uniform into burlesque costumes to give us their own uproarious take on burlesque. 

RAPPING YOUNGSTER

Wayne Kerr, the rapping youngster created by Jacky Fellows, opened the second half with a rap about being born.  His new life at college is proving a great source of inspiration and I am sure that we are all looking forward to hearing more of his adventures.

From Wayne's puffa jacket to the manager of pop group FABA, Jacky Fellows did a quick change of character to become Stella Morris who is determined to make her ABBA tribute group a sensation of the age.

Unfortunately, the costumes the girls had been given turned out to be a little revealing, giving the girls another chance to show off their comedic talents.

Another quick change (how do they do it?) and the Cor Cors burst onto the stage with their version of the can- can.  For non Black Country speakers, the word “cor” is can't, the opposite of can.  The girls treated us to a great can- can and lived up to their name, and had to be seen to be believed.

Barbara Nice held the stage with the results of her raffle, just giving time for another quick change, we completed the evening with what has now become a true Fizzog classic, the old folks abroad.  I have seen this sketch a few times now and I am still laughing from the first time.

The Newhampton Arts Centre might not be glamorous but who cares when you get a good night out? 25-02-12.

Eileen Ward-Birch

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An Evening of Music and Dance

Symphony Hall

*****

BIRDS of a feather caused a flutter in the hearts of the audience during this concert performance by the Birmingham Royal Ballet on Friday night.

At the start of the reconciliation pas de deux from The Two Pigeons, choreographed by Frederick Ashton, Robert Parker glided on stage with a pure white pigeon perched on his shoulder, eventually transferring the bird to the top of a metal chair while he danced with Jenna Roberts.

As the piece was drawing to a close, a second white pigeon flew down landing close to his partner, and it was fascinating to see how a woman member of staff rounded up the pigeons during the interval, one needing to be scooped from the top of a harp after escaping the first grab..   

"I won't tell you what happened during rehearsals," chuckled BRB director David Bintley."But if you have a hat, put it on"

One item on the agenda drew cheers from the audience - Iain Mackay and Elisha Willis dancing beautifully as Sgt Troy and Bathsheba in the pas de deux from Far from the Madding Crowd, choreogrphed by Bintley. Mackay's swordsmanship was impressive, too.

And Bintley revealed another little secret which showed that ballet dancers have their mischievous moments. Again during rehearsals, six ballerinas dancing to Ear of Corn from Act 1 of Coppelia decided to pull faces at the orchestra when their backs were turned to the audience.

But on repeating the joke in the evening, they forgot that some members of the audience would be in the choir stalls and see exactly what they were doing. Cue an apology.

.It was conductor Koen Kessels' debut after being appointed musical director, and he brought the best out of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Normally the musicians are hidden away in the orchestra pit during ballets, but for this concert they were in full view of the audience who were able to see all their movements, and how they enjoyed the opening performance of Shostakovich's Festive Overture in A major.

Paul Marston

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Broadway the Concert

CBSO

Symphony Hall

****

THE jinx of illness that hit Birmingham's entertainment centre last week began when two stars had to pull out of early performances of  South Pacific at the New Alexandra Theatre.

And it climaxed with the latest Friday Night Classics at the Symphony Hall when three changes were necessary from the original programme.

 Conductor Martin Yates was taken ill on the morning of the concert, but American-born David Charles Abell stepped in at very short notice to stitch everything together in fine style.

  He even had to cope with changes to two of the vocalists, indisposed Jaqui Scott and David Shannon having to be replaced by Hannah Waddingham and Michael Xavier, but just as happened at the Alex, the super subs delivered the goods.

They joined Andrew Halliday in several impressive songs from some of the great Broadway musicals, so it was quite apt that, as an encore demanded by the audience, the trio sang ‘I Don't Need Anything But You', from Annie.

Halliday also amused the large audience with Mister Cellophane, from Chicago, and his duets with Ms Waddingham – Friendship, from Anything Goes, and Anything You Can Do (Annie Get Your Gun).

The trio all sparkled in a medley from Hair, and just to prove there's no substitute for class, the CGSO performed superbly throughout, opening in style with the overture from Gypsy. If there were a few ‘hairy' moments in the build-up to this concert, it didn't show.10-02-12

Paul Marston

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Katherine Jenkins: Daydream

Symphony Hall

*****

MAKING her second visit to Birmingham this month, Welsh diva Katherine Jenkins hinted at the heartbreak over her recent split with fiancé and TV presenter Gethin Jones, and the healing element of her tour.

“This is the happiest I have been in a long time,” purred the 31-year-old mezzo soprano who thanked her fans for the many letters of support she had received.

Ms Jenkins proceeded to deliver a superb concert of classics and songs from the shows, backed by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by the dynamic Anthony Inglis, who shared one brief dance with her.

She even staged an amusing question-and-answer session early in the second half of the programme. One written note mentioned a 90-year-old father, with a request for her to sing Time to Say Goodbye, and an 18-year-old offered to take Katherine out for a meal….at Greggs, while inquiring about her favourite pasty!

Down to business, she performed some of her favourite songs from her debut album, Premiere, and the latest album, Daydream, and sang a moving duet – Tonight, from West Side Story – with American singer-songwriter Nathan Pacheco.

Later Pacheco earned one of the biggest cheers of the night for the show-stopper, Nessun Dorma, and the couple sparkled in All I Ask of You, from Phantom of the Opera.

Ms Jenkins wore a range of stunning full-length dresses during two performances of the concert, on Sunday and Monday at the ‘gorgeous Symphony Hall', one of her favourite venues.

A class act.

Paul Marston

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A touch of old-fashioned class

Let's do it

Anton and Erin

Symphony Hall

****

AS if Strictly Come Dancing in town, sweeping through the NIA, wasn't enough, Symphony Hall is also providing a treat for Birmingham ballroom fans, with Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag's Let's Do it Tour.

Let's Do It, should be thought of as the older relative of Strictly. It is wiser, less brash, with more variety and a dose more class.

The Symphony Hall is the perfect setting to experience what is effectively an old-school variety show with Anton and Erin at the heart of it. Whilst the shallow stage necessitates some effective dance choreography as the dancers attempt not to find themselves engulfed by the live orchestra, the surroundings perfectly reflect the nostalgic feel of the night.

With Anton and Erin, singing from Lance Ellington - himself a singer on Strictly - as well as group dance routines and instrumentals from the orchestra - it is Anton and Erin who are undoubtedly the stars of the show.

When freed from his Widdecombe shaped shackles, Anton proves that he is a worthy partner for the graceful Erin.

Even off the floor and on the mic, both are charming and witty - sharing experiences from Strictly and hosting a second half Q & A which was both endearing and honest (maybe too honest for the 47 year old female questioner, whom Anton declared ‘must have had a hard life!')     

Let's Do It may not have the budget of Strictly but it does match the heart of it and does so with the glamour of a bygone age. I

If you can't make Strictly, you want to pay less for your dancing fix or you're a fan of Anton and Erin then this show is highly recommended. Even if none of the above apply, you would still have a enjoyable night with Anton and Erin. To 22-01-12 (matinee performance)

Theo Clarke

 

Now for the two-step

****

IT might have seemed like overkill to have this show running at the same time as the Strictly tour across the canal in Brum, but having seen both in a 24 hour spell my own doubts were removed.

For one thing, it is a totally different format in a much different setting, and the wonderful dancing of Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag takes some beating.

A large audience enjoyed the Saturday night performance which included superb music from the London Concert Orchestra and a range of great songs from Lance Ellington whose silk-smooth voice was particularly impressive in What Kind of Fool Am I and Don't Rain on my Parade.

 Early on Anton joked that Erin had about 4,000 frocks, a point which she later clarified by stating that the actual number was 564. She wore a dozen of them in this show, and they were magnificent.

During the interval the pair invited the audience to fill in forms for a question-and-answer session during the second half of the programme, and that proved a real hoot, with the spotlight picking out one John Green in the choir stalls who wanted to know if his wife would find him more sexy if he took up ballroom dancing.

Anton replied: "It would do you the world of good", as the spotlight switched to the amused Mrs Green.

 Oh, and Anton can sing as well as dance. Could he be the successor to Bruce Forsyth?

Paul Marston

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Getting in step for a sequined tour

Strictly Come Dancing Live

Birmingham NIA

****

HE was champion of the smash hit BBC TV show before Christmas, and McFly drummer Harry Judd completed a memorable double when he and partner Aliona Vilani swept past six other couples to win the exciting first night of the tour on Friday.

Judges Len Goodman, Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli marked them top dancers before the audience of over 9,000 gave their deciding vote, and there was no real argument.

At the start of the tour, this was our first opportunity to see how the spectacular show would transfer from TV screens to a big arena and enjoy the dancers in the flesh...and there was plenty of that on show.

It worked well, and if the customers on the back row needed a close-up of the performers, they were able to glance at two giant screens either side of the stage on which the band played.

Former Birmingham City striker Robbie Savage, dancing with Katya Virshilas, was first out and warmed up the audience by asking how many Blues and Aston Villa fans were present, and at one point in the show tough-tackling tattooed terror repeated that infamous leap onto the judges desk, girating in front of 'Queen of Mean' Revel Horwood.

Somehow Savage kept his balance, but no such luck for the lovely Kristina Rihanoff who took a tumble with her partner, Jason Donovan.

The real 'fall girl', though, was the controversial Nancy Dell'Olio who modestly describes herself as Italy's finest export. Partnered by Artem Chigvintsev, she received the usual 'stick' from the panel, but there's no doubt she is an entertainer, and near the end of the show popped up in a white coffin for a glass of champers.

Waterloo road star Chelsee Healey, with partner Pasha Kovalev, was as cute and popular as ever, finishing runner-up again, and veteran actress Anita Dobson, with Robin Windsor, won plenty of fans for her performances on the stunning, beautifully lit set.

The seventh couple were former Olympic swimmer Mark Foster and Natalie Lowe.

Dancing and costumes were superb, and the usual knock-about banter between the judges and the contestants - particularly the formidable Nancy - was a joy.

This three-date show has got off on the right foot before leaving Birmingham to entertain fans around the country. It proved that even without the legendary Bruce Forsyth, Strictly Come Dancing can manage very nicely.

Paul Marston

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The Sound of Musicals

Symphony Hall

****

THE ‘flying phantom' joined four other superb singers on stage at this concert and amused the audience with a story about his early days in the West End.

One of the first men to play the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, James Graeme was guiding the boat in that dramatic scene in tunnels below the opera house when the craft suddenly jammed and he somersaulted over the back, losing a shoe then falling on top of Christine as he clambered back on board.

Graeme immediately had to admit the ‘curse' had struck again at the Symphony Hall when he forgot the name of the song as he was introducing Deborah Myers to sing Love Never Dies, from the sequel.

A minor hitch in a sparkling evening of entertainment with music from some of the great Broadway and West End shows and a rousing finale featuring the medley from We Will Rock You and the stirring You'll Never Walk Alone, from Carousel.

Alison Jiear, Tim Howar and Jessie Buckley completed the quintet of soloists. Buckley, runner-up in BBC's I'd Do Anything, has matured considerably since her last appearance in this city and was outstanding with The Trolley Song, from Meet Me in St Louise and The Man that Got Away, from A Star is Born.

Conductor David Shrubsole and the London Concert Orchestra played their part in a memorable concert.

Paul Marston

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Last Night of the Christmas Proms

Symphony Hall

****

IT was flag day at the Symphony Hall on Tuesday, with a near capacity audience excitedly showing their colours at this joyful concert.

Hundreds of Union flags were waved after the interval when the London Concert Orchestra played such classics as The Dam Busters March, Jerusalem, Rule, Britannia and Pomp and Circumstance March No 1.

If anyone entered the hall suffering from economic depression they must have left feeling uplifted after this remarkable display of pride in Britain . . . past and present.

It was two for one night. Buy a £3 programme and get two free paper Union flags. Business was brisk, but many people – including a surprising number of children - had taken their own flags and even bunting. Vocalists Philip O'Brien (tenor) and Simon Thorpe (baritone) were draped in red, white and blue for the display of loyalty.

The pair received terrific ovations when O'Brien sang Nessun dorma from Turandot and Thorpe delivered a memorable Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville, plus that favourite male duet from The Pearl Fishers.

Right at the start conductor Stephen Bell noticed that a woman almost opposite him, in the choir stalls, was enthusiastically going through the motions of conducting the orchestra with him. Most impressed, he almost invited her down to conduct the rest of the concert! She took a bow.

Ravel's Bolero was brilliantly performed, and Land of Hope and Glory closed the show in great style.

Paul Marston

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Christmas Carol Concert

Shelfield Male Voice Choir

Shelfield Methodist Church

***

MUSICAL director Harvey Boucher made his final appearance at the annual festive concert by the choir he founded more than 40 years ago.

He is retiring as MD in the new year,  but intends to continue singing in the choir, and his wife, Sheila, is also leaving her post as accompanist.

Nearly 50 members sang an entertaining range of Christmas music at two performances and there was an outstanding solo by one of the younger choristers, Lee Gilkes.

Michael Smith proved an amusing and informative compere for the choir who have raised thousands of pounds for charity and six times appeared at the Royal Albert Hall.

A cheque for £2,000 was presented to the Walsall branch of Parkinsons UK, another £400 to Walsall Samaritans, and next year's fund raising will be in aid of the Prostate Cancer Support Group based at Good Hope Hospital, Sutton Coldfield.

Joe Dyke, secretary of the group, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer 12 years ago, attended Wednesday night's concert to thank the choir for their efforts.

Paul Marston

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Alfie Boe

Symphony Hall

****

HOW appropriate that Alfie Boe should wind up his programme with that emotional number, Bring Him Home, from the hit musical Les Miserables.

He was, after all, back in Birmingham where it could be said the Lancashire tenor's career really began 20 years ago with a place in the D'Oyly Carte company's chorus for a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

So the casually dressed Alfie had been ‘brought home', but this time as a big star with a tremendous following and regular appearances on TV chat shows.

He really turned on the style with an impressive programme of songs, some from the great musicals, after stating that the stage lacked a festive appearance, partly resolved by him nipping off to collect a Christmas tree.

At one point, when Alfie sang In My Daughter's Eyes, a screen at the rear of the stage showed him playing with his young daughter, and he explained that he hadn't seen his family for over two months.

He even invited two seven year old girls, Bethan and Florence, whom he had met in the Green Room, on stage to join  him in singing The Impossible Dream, from Man of La Mancha.

Alfie provided a touch of panto during the concert by tossing chocs to the audience.

Now we know what Alfie's all about!

Paul Marston

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Hooray for Hollywood

The John Wilson Orchestra

Symphony Hall

****

THIS superb concert was billed as a celebration of the Golden Age of the movie musical, and the near-capacity audience surely went home thinking 'hooray for Hollywood'.

John Wilson and his handpicked orchestra, in a sequel to their smash hit 2009 Prom on MGM music, were in sparkling form with classics from the inception of film musicals in the late 1920s to the 1960s. More of not quite the same, is how he described it.

Wilson, who admitted they were performing in their favourite UK concert hall, has taken tunes from some of the greatest American films, lovingly polished them, with a few clever tweaks here and there, and given them the kiss of life.

Four outstanding vocalists - Kim Criswell, Matthew Ford, Annalene Beechey, and Noah Stewart - were on stage to sing the likes of 42nd Street, Top Hat, The Man That Got Away, The Way You Look Tonight and Put On Your Sunday Clothes, to name but a few.

And tenor Stewart enjoyed one of the biggest receptions for You Stepped Out of a Dream (Ziegfeld Girl) and Serenade (The Student Prince).

The orchestra earned a standing ovation, too, for their thrilling performance with the overture from the 1964 Warner Bros movie, Gypsy.

How the USA would love John Wilson. But he's ours!

Paul Marston

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A Night with the Phantom

Symphony Hall

****

THIS was a night when the Phantom was unmasked, and Ramin Karimloo was revealed as a great singer in his own right.

The Iranian-born star, a former rock band singer in Canada, thrilled a large audience with a performance simply oozing talent.

Karimloo, whose voice has such a special quality, has played the lead in a string of musicals and was the masked villain in the 25th anniversary presentation of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall.

More casually dressed in suit, open-neck shirt and black scarf, he was given a rousing Symphony Hall welcome when he first appeared on stage, and several standing ovations as the concert progressed....especially for Bring Him Home, from Les Miserables, and, when the customers demanded more, Music of the Night, from Phantom, as an encore.

Karimloo also impressed with hits from other musicals, including Some Enchanted Evening, from South Pacific, and If Ever I Would Leave You (Camelot).

Supporting the main man superbly was the lovely Celia Graham, who played Christine opposite him in the Phantom, and she earned a standing ovation for Love Never Dies, from the show of the same name.

Sixteen year-old Olivia Jade Archbold, who wowed 'em on Britain's Got Talent, made a confident appearance, along with the Capital Voices, and the Manchester Concert Orchestra, enthusiastically conducted by David Shrubsole, helped make it a great night.

Paul Marston

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One Enchanted Evening

Brownhills Musical Theatre Company

Brownhills Community College

***

THIS talented amateur company have never lacked drive, and they move up a gear in one of the key numbers at their 40th anniversary concert.

During the selection of songs from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, they produce a near life-sized model of the famous flying car which members had made using a range of materials, including recycled mirror plastic, wood, coffee jar lids and even deodorant sticks!

The car is cleverly assembled on stage as Paul Bailey, Kathryn James and others from the chorus sing the title song, fixing the last wheel bang on the final note.

Various numbers from eight musicals are used in the show which opens with Kate Rock and the company - many wearing animal headgear - singing Circle of Life from The Lion King, and it closes with sparkling contributions from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, featuring Chris Allen, David Anderson, Sarah Haines, Lizzie Civil and Richard Haines.

Katie Shuck excels in 'Sister Act', while Karen Cockitt and Pete Smith impress with Wouldn't it be Loverly and I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, from My Fair Lady.

At times, however, the music from the on-stage band is rather too loud, particularly in the first act of an otherwise fine show. To 29.10.11.

Paul Marston

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The Bobby Dazzlers

Prince of Wales Theatre, Cannock

***

BAGS of Black Country humour shone through in this lively variety show which had the audience calling for more.

 Wednesbury's Chris King led the way with a string of gags but also proved he has a fine singing voice in solos and duets featuring Michael Johns.

The pair gave some amusing Elvis impressions and eventually closed the programme with several Frank Sinatra Classics, peaking with My Way and New York, New York, when they were joined by Rugeley's Viva Girls dancing group.

 Soprano Nicky Moran, from Cannock  - billed as the girl with the voice of an angel - sparkled with her version of Nessun Dorma before being joined by her husband, Cliff Thomas, in a special tribute to The Carpenters.

From Tipton, Black Country wordsmith Dave Bartley delivered a range of amusing tales to rhyme, and Cannock's Ricko and Amies provided a clever magic act.

Paul Marston

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West End Story

The Old Joint Stock Musical Group

Old Joint Stock

***

BIRMINGHAM'S latest musical theatre group took to the boards for the first time with a more than competent two hour concert of show tunes.

Musical Director Karl Steele brought together some well known names from West Midlands' amateur companies, along with a bit of professional experience, for the launch of what is hoped will become a community-based, fund-raising group.

Theatre manager Ian Craddock wants to attract newcomers to musical theatre as well as established performers and eventually to stage full-blown small-cast musicals with proceeds going to charity – in the case of this concert, Birmingham Childrens' Hospital.

Pick of the singers was Karen Cockitt who showed some nice comic touches in The Girl in 14g , a song written for Kristin Chenoweth, and real quality with When I look At You from The Scarlet Pimpernel and In His Eyes from Jekyll & Hyde, a duet with the equally impressive Kate Rock.

Kate had the dubious honour of being the first voice to be heard from a new company but any butterflies were quickly sent packing with a powerful version of Stars and the Moon from Jason Robert Brown's Songs for A New World.

Brown is a much under-rated songwriter, hardly known in this country who deserves a wider audience.

Kate and Karen also produced another highlight of the show with the duet In His Eyes from Jekyll & Hyde, and, with the excellent Helen Norgrove, in I Wish I May, from The Witches of Eastwick.

Most of the duets worked well such as Movie in My Mind from Miss Saigon with Kate and Helen.

Helen was also involved in How Deep is Your Love  the Bee Gees 70s disco track, with Richard Haines, the one duet that really didn't work or fit in.

Both redeemed themselves though in other songs with Haines showing not only a good voice but a nice sense of comedy.

Roger Shepherd was another of the cast with professional experience and gave a good rendition of the big band number Ain't That a Kick in the Head,  and a powerful I am What I am from La Cage Aux Folles.

Steele himself is an assured performer showing humour in Mister Cellophane from Chcago and power in Martin Guerre from the show of the some name. His duet Sun and Moon from Miss Saigon with Kate was a memorable version.

There were also contributions from Hannah Fennel and Kate Mulvey and the line-up of  11 included a few newcomers such as Anthony Morgan Granner and 14-year-old Evie Georgeson in what was an enjoyable two hour show.

Anyone interested in getting involved should contact the Old Joint Stock on oldjointstock@fullers.co.uk

Roger Clarke

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Michael Ball's Heroes Tour

Symphony Hall

*****

BACK in action after cancelling a Nottingham concert through illness on Wednesday night, Michael Ball delighted his adoring fans with two stunning performances at a packed Symphony Hall. What a hero!

The Bromsgrove-born star was off stage for only about ten minutes in a breathtaking show which over-ran by a quarter of an hour on Friday, giving the audience an extra bonus, and he was in cracking form throughout.

In addition to his wonderful voice, which has made him Britain's leading musical theatre performer, Ball displayed bags of energy and charm, particularly near the end of the concert when many of his excited female fans left their seats to gather front of stage.

He touched outstretched hands and even dropped to his knees to plant a kiss on a thrilled young lady as he sang the Elvis hit, Falling in Love with You.

Having mentioned his delight at being back in Birmingham, his favourite city, Ball explained that the concert was designed as a tribute to some of the great artists who had inspired him to become part of the music business, and the string of hits began with Long John Baldry's Let the Heartbreak Begin before gliding through such super stars as Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow and our own Tom Jones.

He even picked out one city for hero status - New York, and sang appropriate songs.

Good as Ball was, it was never a one-man show. He had five superb backing singers - stars of the future, he insisted - plus a magnificent 12-piece band, directed by Callum McLeod, and he was only too pleased to offer them fullsome praise.

Inevitably he included numbers from Les Miserables and, after being handed a bag of chocs, sang his own special, Love Changes Everything.

Ball has appeared as the loveable Edna Turnblad in Hairsprary, and he mentioned that his next role would be the vastly different Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Chichester's Festival Theatre in September, and from that musical he sang Nothing's Going to Hurt You.

Michael, you were on the ball.

Paul Marston

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A window on a wonderful new world

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, 3D performance

CBSO, Symphony Hall

*****

ANY visit to a theatre or concert is an experience but this is a theatrical experience that really means it. I defy anyone to leave at the end unscathed. Once in your mind you will never forget it.

Most of us have seen 3D before at the theatre. It is popular these days at pantomimes and we all know what to expect.

People ducking and kids laughing and screaming as spiders, snakes, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night fly from the screen and stop at the end of your nose. All good clean fun.

This takes 3D into whole new realms though, way beyond the fun and novelty stages. This 3D is a thing of art and beauty, of disturbing images, of despair and darkness, light and hope. Emotions and fears distilled on  an electronic matrix.

It is astounding, fascinating, enthralling, stunning stuff - a new art form has been discovered. Classical music and ballet meets virtual reality.

The imagery is set to Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. The piece  has the distinction of being at the centre of a riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913 with the Ballets Russes choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky.

The music is full of raw power and primitive rhythms but despite its position in the Premiership of classical music in this piece it becomes merely background music – felt rather then heard - the modern version of the pianist in the silent movie fleapit providing explanatory accompaniment to guide the emotions seen on screen.

And what a screen, filling much of the back wall of Symphony Hall, with celebrated ballet dancer Julia Mach dancing her part in a small black box stage tucked away at the side.

Her actual performance, in the flesh,  is one to be noticed rather than watched on her tiny stage in the corner, her real performance is on screen captured by nine stereoscopic cameras, which reproduce the binocular view of the human eye.

Here we see her surrounded first by strange symbols she has created in her box, terror, escape, flight all pass through the mind until wewe see her reach out to us, literally, with a hand inches from our face; we see her explode, become a million stars and, disturbingly, become strange creatures with two feet or two hands.

 Nothing unusual about that you might say - except one foot or hand is  where the head should be in the world outside computers.

Her apparently limited movement, for the benefit of the cameras, perhaps masks the great skill and precision required of her to create the virtual world she lives in on screen.

The electronic wizardry behind the project comes from Austrian media artist and musician Klaus Obermaier and the Ars Electronica Futurelab. Apart from the cameras which create real time computer generated effects from a single dancer the team also use eight instruments miked up and linked to the computers to add a link in terms of musical timing and rhythms to synchronise screen and sound.

Pulling it all together musically is Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in sparkling form.

The work premiered in 2007 and cost and complexity of staging it limits performances. Once seen though it is an experience you will never forget.

The next performance, again with the CBSO, is tomorrow (23-04-11) at the South Bank Centre in London.

Also in the programme were Edgard Varèse Tuning Up and György Ligeti's Lontano.  21-04-11.

Roger Clarke

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A masterclass high in emotion

Chris de Burgh

Symphony Hall

*****

TO some, three hours of Chris de Burgh would be classed as cruel and unusual punishment. He is one of that select band of artists with little middle ground in terms of popularity, a band that includes the likes of Michael Bolton, Cliff Richard and Barry Manilow. People either love them or hate them.

They also have another thing in common – they have all been around for years, 36 years since 62 year-old de Burgh's first CD, but they can still pack them in to arenas and concert halls and they all put on superb live shows. None of your starting half an hour late and self indulgent music selections here – it's give the people what they want and de Burgh did just that for a shade short of three hours

On a set that looked like a cross between Treasure Island and Star Wars he mixed songs from his new CD, Moonfleet and other Stories such as Have a care and the ballad My Heart's Surrender with blasts from the past.

Moonfleet is about pirates and Blackbeard's gold in the 17th century, hence the bits of galleon with drummer Tony Kiley sitting atop one and keyboard player Nigel Hopkins on the other.

BRILLIANT LIGHTING

Bass player Dave Levy and lead guitar Al Vosper just had to make do with the stage. Added to the set was some brilliant lighting, which gave us everything from rings of light sweeping the audience to geometric shapes and even rigging on a ship along with two giant video screens. Always interesting rather than distracting.

The concert opened with Have a Care and ended, 28 songs later with Go Where Your Heart Believes.

In between we had old favourites such as Missing You, Ship to Shore, A Spaceman Came Travelling, Spanish Train and, of course, Lady in Red.

For that  de Burgh appeared at the back of the hall and slowly made his way back to the stage embracing and dancing with ladies in the audience – never have I seen so many women wearing red in one place before by the way – eveb stopping for photographs with his arm around fans. This boy really knows how to work a crowd. He was back out among the fans as well for his final number.

It is a trait of Michael Bolton concerts except he is surrounded by no-nonsense, built like brick wall, security men. De burgh did the job alone with a single security man yards away keeping an eye on things.

FREEDOM AND WAR

Perhaps the most moving and best applauded items though were de Burgh's songs about freedom and war such as Borderline, a song he sang at a concert in Berlin in 1989 just after the wall came down, the bitter Leader Trilogy, the sad Road to Freedom and People of the World, a song of hope written in memory of Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year old musician and innocent bystander shot dead in the 2009 Iranian election protests in Tehran.

The song drew a shout of “I love You” in Persian from an Iranian in the audience. In 1979 de Burgh was the first Western pop star allowed to appear in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution – whether he would be welcome now, at least by the authorities there, is open to question. Freedom and anti-war sentiments are a recurring theme through his work and show him as a much finer songwriter and musician than is required for pop songs. 

He ended with a long finale with the audience on it's feet throughout songs such as Don't Pay the Ferryman, Lake Geneva and High on Emotion. There is a reason artists are still going after 36 years - and this was a masterclass in how to put on a concert. 15-04-11

Birmingham's Symphony Hall  is the only venue on a 40 plus date European tour with more than one night and de Burgh completes his visit to the city on Saturday, April 16.

Roger Clarke

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An Evening of Chamber Music

Forest Arts Centre

Walsall

WALSALL'S got talent! And this concert offered plenty of proof that young people are prepared to work hard to achieve their aims in the field of music.

Twenty violin students, aged between eight and 18, came together for the first time in a public concert and impressed a large audience with their developing skills.

Pupils of music teacher Ali Milnes, they played a range of pieces from such composers as Bach, Mozart, Dvorak and Brahms, as well as the more modern John Williams and Piazzaola.

Miss Milnes herself joined Ella Cormack for Concerto in D minor for two violins, and the junior ensemble from Cooper & Jordan Primary School, Aldridge, played Autumn & Spring (Vivaldi) then a selection from Harry Potter.

A senior ensemble performed well with Songs My Mother Taught Me (Dvorak), one of the younger children, Lottie Robinson, sparkled in Valse Lente (Bohm), Lucy Earl had the feet tapping with Benjamin Calypso (Joseph) and Ella Cormack delighted the audience with Theme from Schindler's List before all the youngsters joined together in Mamma Mia to close the show.

The accompanist was John Gough.

Paul Marston

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A gradely night fer cloggin', son

An Evening Of Music & Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet & Sinfonia

Symphony Hall

****

THIS is a chance for a few party pieces from Birmingham Royal Ballet but perhaps more importantly, a chance to let their excellent Sinfonia out from the cave under the Hippodrome stage into the light.

For most of the time the Sinfonia is little more than a soft glow beneath the footlights with the occasional illuminated baton seen flashing above the heads of the front row.

So after the troglodyte existence imposed by the orchestra pit it must be quite a novelty to actually appear on stage in the light and prove what a fine orchestra they are.

The programme gave us alternating orchestral and ballet pieces opening with Dance for the Followers of Leo from Constant Lambert's Horoscope, a ballet lost in the frantic build-up of the Second World War.

That was followed by the Clog Dance and Lily of Laguna from Hobson's Choice (apparently the world's first singalong ballet – and why not?) with the brilliant Robert Parker and, on her debut in the role, Gaylene Cummerfield.

The full BRB ballet based on Harold Brighouse's 1916 play, with music by Paul Reade and choreography by BRB director David Bintley, is off to Hong Kong later this month for the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

David Bintley, by the way, took over as compere for the evening, a role which in the past has gone to Alan Titchmarsh. Sorry to say Alan, you were not missed one little bit.

Bintley was informative, authoritative, above all friendly and with an immediate rapport with the audience and he was genuinely funny with some insights only those who had been there could relate.

As for the clog dance? Clog dancing is making a comeback it seems although growing up, as I did, among the mills of Lancashire, it never seems to have gone away and I remember professional clog dancers and competitions at the annual wakes and fairs in my youth. There was a Syd somebody or other who was billed as The Fred Astaire of Clog I seem to remember.

RAISED TO AN ART FORM

For those yet to sample its delight clog dancing is a sort of industrial tap dancing and in the hands, or rather feet, of Parker, and later, Rory Mackay, along with Arancha Baselga, Laëtitia Lo Sardo, Angela Paul and Andrea Tredinnick in an excerpt from La Fille mal Gardée, it is raised once again to an art form. La Fille al gardée, by the way, opens at Birmingham Hippodrome on March 2 and runs until March 5, by the way.

Clogs, incidentally, were common footwear in Lancashire and universally worn in cotton mills where they normally had wooden soles shod with clog irons (a bit like horse shoes) and were remarkably comfortable to wear.

Wood was used for the soles as floors were kept damp in spinning mills to keep humidity high so leather would not have lasted.

A delight for youngsters and apprentices was to slide along pavements and cobbled streets in iron shod clogs in a shower of sparks. Just a thought Mr Bintley . . .

 The programme also included Irmelin Prelude by Frederick Delius, the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue by William Walton, Sound and Vision March by Eric Coates, The Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius and Marche Slave by Tchaikovsky.

Dances included the Rubies pas de deux from Carl Davis's Aladdin, danced by Tyrone Singleton and Ambra Vallo,  the pas de deux from Felix Mendelssohn's The Dream danced by Chi Cao and Natasha Oughtred and the pas de deux from Leon Minkus' Don Quixote with Nao Sakuma and Cesar Morales.

Finally, back to the future, so to speak, 24 pupils from Elmhurst School of Dance  delighted with Jardin de la danse from Malcolm Arnold's English dances.

Among them could be some of the dance stars of tomorrow and their performance did not disappoint.

These evenings may serve as an introduction to ballet, or show a mix of classical music and dance, but whatever their purpose they provide a thoroughly entertaining and relaxing evening.

Roger Clarke

For anyone interested in having a go you can by dance clogs (I kid ye not) from firms such as Walkley's among others  http://www.clogs.co.uk/cat_danceclog.htm

 

Meanwhile pars de deux

****

ANY newcomers to ballet might have been surprised on Friday night to see that the programme included two performances of clog dancing!

But what a treat they were, starting with Robert Parker and debutant Gaylene Cummerfield performing a very humorous and skilful piece from Hobson's Choice, to Lily of Laguna, which had a contented audience humming along.

Later came the clog dance from La Fille mal gardee, featuring Rory Mackay, Arancha Baselga, Laetitia Lo Sardo, Angela Paul and Andrea Tredinnick, which was a clattering delight.

Later this month the BRB will be performing Hobson's Choice in Hong Kong, and in March they are back in the UK with La Fille mal gardee at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Clogs and all.

So this was the perfect taster for both dates, and a large Symphony Hall audience loved every minute. Other outstanding items included a beautiful pas de deux from Aladdin by Ambra Vallo and Tyrone Singleton and another with Natasha Oughtred and Chi Cao dancing The Dream.

A very special evening closed with a magnificent performance by Nao Sakuma and Cesar Morales dancing the pas de deux from Don Quixote.

The legendary David Bintley acted as compere, and while the dancers caught the eye, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Paul Murphy, played superbly, and there was enthusiastic applause for youngsters from the Elmhurst School for Dance.

Paul Marston

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The Nutcracker

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre

Symphony Hall

****

THEY say Christmas is not quite the same until The Nutcracker arrives in Birmingham, and while this stunning version was a shade late it proved well worth the wait.

Anyone who feared the famous Tchaikovsky ballet might lose some of its impact on the more restricted stage of the Symphony Hall was soon able to relax and enjoy a truly spectacular production.

Although the scenery or even the costumes couldn't match the splendor of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the vast spaces of the Hippodrome, it was still a delight as one of Russia's leading classical ballet companies thrilled large audiences at three performances.

The story of how teenage Clara awakes on Christmas Eve clutching her nutcracker doll and is whisked by magician Drosselmayer (Dymchik Saykeev) to the Land of Sweets, was impressively told.

Although inevitably looking a shade old for a teenager, Irina Kolesnikova danced beautifully as Clara, with Dmitry Akulinin proving the perfect partner in his role as the Nutcracker Prince.

The Spanish, Arabian, Russian and Chinese dances were cleverly choreographed, while the corps de ballet had moments of sheer magic.

The shoulder-length male wigs in the early scenes looked rather lank and out of place, but that was a minor blip on a memorable experience from Russia with love-erly dancers.

Full marks, too, for a fine orchestra conducted by Vadim Nikitin.

Paul Marston

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Live shows are Bolton's natural habitat

Michael Bolton

NIA Arena, Birmingham

****

WITH 18 studio albums and 53 million sales you got to be doing something right and when it comes to concerts Michael Bolton can do no wrong.

He starts on time (a novelty in pop) engages with his audience from the off, poses for pictures, shakes hands with the front row, appears singing in the aisles and gives the impression he is genuinely pleased to be there entertaining his friends.

It all seems effortless and with his excellent six piece band Bolton eases his way through two solid hours as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

In short he is a polished performer, a supreme showman who is master of his craft  but there is a lot of substance behind that homely charm and style. He doesn't rely on funky videos or spectacular light shows this is WYSIWYG performing. A stage, a band and a singer and that is it.

He might be 57 now but he is still one of the best balladeers around who is just as happy belting out rock as soul - remember he started as a singer with heavy metal band Blackjack -and can even throw in a touch of opera.

To sing Nessun Dorma is brave but he gets away with it in much the same way the likes of Pavarotti got away with singing pop. He also has the advantage that Puccini's aria from Turandot is perhaps one of the most emotional and evocative - and well known - in opera, particularly after the 1990 World Cup.

Michael Bolton's latest CD which was written in collaboration with other artists inclduing Lady Gaga among others.

Welsh National Opera will be bringing Turandot to Birmingham Hippodrome in June next year if you are interested.

Meanwhile Bolton provides something for everyone from big band numbers such as That's Life and New York , New York to his own anthem How can we be lovers,  Gershwin's Summertime to Dock of the Bay.

And unlike many artists he doesn't use tours to openly promote his latest album. His latest One World, One Love was mentioned for just one track, Hope Its Too Late.

The rest is a sort of Michael Bolton songbook though the ages with When a Man Loves a Woman being the cue for Bolton to suddenly pop up on a box in the middle of the audience. The audience love it even if the security men go pale.

He even delivers tracks he has never recorded, his second ever performance of Cohen's Hallelujah  for example in an encore almost as long as the concert. Jeff Buckley produced the definitive cover but Bolton's version certainly has some merit and no doubt will appear on a future album.

He still fills stadiums, still sells albums and still sounds good.

Liking Bolton might not be hip but it is certainly satisfying.

Roger Clarke

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Richard Digance

Lichfield Garrick

 ****

RICHARD Digance is a bit of an institution these days with his humorous songs and poems, amusing stories and engaging personality.

Classifying him is a bit difficult. He started out as a folkie, trekking his way around the clubs, moved on the TV and even became a regular on Countdown. He is a comedian but he doesn't tell gags or even have punch lines, just amusing anecdotes and observations.

His songs are often clever, usually funny and have some very obvious lines which audiences are expected to fill in themselves. All in all an evening with Richard Digance is great fun.

He also has the ability to engage with an audience form the moment he walks out. With some artists it is the second half when an audience reserve has been loosened by the interval libation before there is any response beyond polite applause.

With Digance the first song involved enthusiastic audience participation and he had been on stage for just seven minutes. The seven minutes had been taken up with a rant about the M40 being closed and the M1 being packed followed by a trip down memory lane - or at least the A5 - and the places he had passed on his way to Lichfield where he used to play on the folk circuit.

He manages to keep that folk club atmosphere in his shows, with plenty of asides among his songs most of which are funny and silly but there are a few sad ones in there including a first public airing for I'm Coming Home,  a song written as a favour for a squaddie to his wife during a trip by Digance as an entertainer during the Falklands War in 1982.

With a real live vicar, from New York no less, in the audience it was only natural we had the real story of Noah and his Ark which has the propensity to upset both men of the cloth and Amiricans in one fell swoop - or sweep in this particular case.

There was another airing for the poem Eric the Elephant, which involves not only sound effects from the audience but also actions and we also had the story of how Digance was sacked on Pebble Mill at One. All good fun. 

Roger Clarke

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Class act battling the numbers

Sean Hughes

Wolverhampton Grand

****

SEAN Hughes came to the Wolverhampton Grand with an impressive CV. He won the Perrier in 1990 for his debut show A one Night Stand With Sean Hughes and was the youngest performer to ever do so.

In the 20 years that have passed he has proved himself talented in many areas, from appearing on Never Mind the Buzzcocks to his extensive literary works of poetry and prose to appearing in Miss Marple and Coronation Street.

Comedy is hard, of that there is not doubt. You would not think that this was the case, given the number of people claiming to be comedians, but good comedy is hard; great comedy is an art form few have mastered, the entire city of Liverpool being a case in point.

For that reason this is not going to be one of those reviews where punchlines are taken out of context and thrown in to pad the piece out or merely to prove that the reviewer was listening.

It is all too easy to listen but to actually hear what a comic is saying can sometimes be a different thing altogether Mr. Hughes has worked hard to craft these gags and deserves better than to have them hacked at by those he sets out to entertain.

And crafted they are. Hughes knows that he is working on levels that others may not appreciate openly admitting that “...some of this is very very clever.” as he revels in mixing the thought provoking with the gasp provoking. He is not afraid to tackle sensitive issues either, Haiti, Catholic child abuse and 9/11 all get mentions, but then there's also something about the music hall act about him with musical interludes and bits about his parents and his new found portly figure.

Sadly for him and the audience the impressive venue was only half full. Hughes himself seemed to rue the decision of others to charge £19.50 for the show. This undoubtedly had an effect on Hughes in the first half. Without the large crowd the laughter, no matter how good the jokes, is bound to be fragmented and jokes do not have the time to develop around the room, instead they find themselves suffocated by the speed at which the sporadic laughter dissipates.

That said, Sean Hughes is a class act and was more than happy to face the issues of audience numbers head on. There is an honesty and integrity which cannot be faulted and is in fact rather endearing.

BRAVE PERFORMER

That said he is a brave performer who seems to enjoy a verbal duel with as many people as care to take up the verbal mantle he casually throws at their feet. And yet there is no malice in his actions, he seems to genuinely like to talk to people, to suss them out and if needs be give them their just desserts.

Such was the case with one heckler for whom comedy just seemed an excuse to show the world how rude she could be, which is a strange attitude to take with someone you have paid to see.

Hughes in his early days was often compared to Bill Hicks, and you can see why. All the characteristics are here, the intelligence that accompanies even the dirtiest of jokes, the sense of injustice at the corporate world and the apathy of others, but most of all there is the quality of the gags. For when all is said and done a comedian lives and dies by their material, it can be as worthy or as savage as it likes but its got to be funny.

SOME GEMS

In the first half it was a bit hit and miss. There were some gems in there but they were a little sparse, but in the second half there were call backs galore, there was improvisation, yes he was somewhat cuddlier than in recent years but there was steel behind the smile. This was the Sean Hughes that I had heard of and came to see. However these moments of magic were fleeting and one felt Hughes was left as frustrated as the audience by their brevity. He seemed weary and yet there was a warmth there that was displayed none better than when he thanked each audience member he had conversed with individually, even those who did not deserve the courtesy.

On his day he is still a class act, and the varied demographic of his audience is testament to his wide appeal, but its not quite enough to make this the show it could or should have been.

It was three and a half but close to being much more.

Christian Clarke

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Duo manage food for fraught

Historical Cookery Christmas Special

Lichfield Garrick

****

SIMON Smith, who runs Thrales restaurant in Lichfield, and Prof Roland Rotherham, are becoming a festive tradition with their seasonal culinary double act.

The duo are Garrick regulars with their historical recipes and demonstrations but their Christmas show is becoming the culinary equivalent of panto.

I do wonder though how many people are put off by the titles of the pair's shows under the impression these are dusty lectures for food anoraks.

Far from being talks on cooking dragon chops on your shield, with a helmet of hedgerow nuts and berries on the side as you wend your way to the Crusades though, you get the feeling that Tommy Cooper would hardly look out of place in the mayhem that ensues. It might start off as a cookery demonstration but any academic stuffiness has gone before the first pan is heated. This is entertainment, pure and simple, slapstick with cream and brandy.

Rotherham, the historian, ex-cavalry officer and former member of staff of Queen Elizabeth II's Royal Household, and world authority on King Arthur and the Holy Grail, finds the recipes in various dusty tomes and Smith, a chef of international renown, cooks them. At least that's the theory.

JOKES, QUIPS AND LAUGHTER

If only life were that simple. In practice Rotherham wanders off into  fascinating historical facts and anecdotes while Smith, engulfed in smoke as a pan complains about being unwatched, explains that chef's never burn – merely caramelise but amid the  jokes, quips and laughter they do manage to cook some tasty Christmas recipes with some going back 800 years or more.

Smith also imparts, among the jokes, some of the tricks of the trade from his lifetime in cooking which has taken him to British embassies in Paris and Vienna, as well as working in New York and five star hotels. He has the culinary ability to bring a mediaeval recipe down to ingredients you can find at your local supermarket and which can be cooked in a modern kitchen without losing the essence and flavours of the original.

He is also the master of substitution, for example one recipe, Somerset Partridges, calls for cider brandy. If you don't have any then Smith's advice – mix cider and brandy and it works just as well.

This year's recipes included Mrs Beeton's dried fruit compote,  bananas in rum, a favourite of Prince Albert, a Queen Elizabeth I pheasant dish and an 18th century tavern dish of partridge as well as pan fried onions and apples from the 14th century and a favourite of Henry V, courgettes with almonds.

There was also real mincemeat pies – with real meat – and, once more, a recipe for a brilliant Christmas pudding. A pudding I have made and can say is probably the best I have tasted.

The pair this week have also launched a book in conjunction with the Garrick, Simmering Through the Ages, and several of the recipes appear regularly on the menu at Thrales. There will be a review of the book shortly; meanwhile all the Christmas recipes from the show are available by clicking here. RECIPES

Roger Clarke

 

http://www.thrales.co.uk/

www.lichfieldgarrick.com 

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