Symphonic celebration

Steve Beauchampé watches the latest performance from the CBSO.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,
Symphony Hall,
Wednesday, March 9th

These are exciting times for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. New Music Director Mirga Grazinytè-Tyla takes up her post in September whilst tonight Assistant Conductor and rising star Alpesh Chauhan leads the orchestra in a full concert for only the second time, following his critically acclaimed debut last June.

Centrepiece of tonight’s programme is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifteenth (and final) Symphony, written in 1971, four years before his death. Before that, Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor and Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul for cello and orchestra, composed in 2006 but tonight receiving its UK performance premiere, provide a starkly contrasting first half to the evening.

Polovtsian Dances includes some of the most recognisable passages in classical music, most notably the melodic Maidens’ Dance (reworked as A Stranger in Paradise for the film Kismet) and the rumbustous General Dance. Both orchestra and conductor wring every drop of exuberance from Borodin’s score, creating a joyous experience that lasts until the final note, Chauhan oversees proceedings with a clarity of instruction and expression that explains the bond he has established with the CBSO players. He exudes enthusiasm and pleasure, his hand movements crisp, articulate and decisive, his conducting style devoid of unnecessary drama.

And with some humour too. Azul is scored for cello and when Principal Cellist Eduardo Vassallo, tonight’s soloist, requires a minor adjustment to his music stand before the performance commences, Chauhan steps off the podium to assist, before turning to the audience to announce: “He was my music teacher, some things never change”. Golijov’s score is in turns enthrallingly experimental and disappointingly staid, with several pastoral-like sections saved by the more fascinating percussive passages that abut them, these bolstered by Mark Bousie’s accordion, Toby Kearney’s occasional, fractured vocals, and Ben Kennedy’s synthesiser. All are underpinned by Vassallo’s consummate playing of what at times are some very non-traditional cello parts, a description which can also be applied to the violins workload. Yet if Azul doesn’t completely convince, its inclusion in the programme is still worthwhile, and its delivery by the players a success.

Where Borodin was heavy on melody and foot stomping excitement, Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony all but eschews such devices. Nothing much here to be humming on the way home, it’s heavy going, purposefully disjointed (the orchestra rarely plays together, its members more often performing as soloists or in small groupings), perhaps primarily one for the classical connoisseur (as a reference American composer John Adams perhaps comes to mind). Yet, as the final large-scale work of a man who had spent so much of his life battling the intemperate illogicality of the Soviet governmental machine, there is much poignancy to be found within. Sparse passages sit alongside two brief and overwhelming bursts of full orchestral power located at the end of both the second and final movements. Thus restraint is a virtue if players and conductor are to do the work justice and having performed the piece twice before, Chauhan both understands the advantages of placing the basses at the back of the stage, and is alive to the need to create space, to make the silences within the work crucial to the production. To assist, all of Symphony Hall’s large acoustic doors are fully opened, a rare event for a non-choral piece and one requested by the conductor. Following the final tumult comes a near half-minute silence, a courageous, confident act providing an irrefutable full stop to the occasion.

Although the auditorium is far from full, the audience response at the evening’s conclusion is warm and heartfelt. Ms. Grazinytè-Tyla is inheriting an accomplished ensemble but, in Alpesh Chauhan, it is becoming increasingly clear Birmingham has a musical talent as exciting as any to have emerged from the city in over thirty years.