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S & H Concert Review

Bernstein, Barber, Ives, Elgar. Leon McCawley (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 29th January 2003 (CT)



As is becoming characteristic of Oramoís programming in Birmingham this appealing concert, broadcast live on Radio 3, featured an English masterpiece alongside three highly contrasted American works, a combination that brought along an encouragingly substantial audience to Symphony Hall.

It is perhaps surprising to remember that On the Waterfront was to remain Bernsteinís one and only contribution to the medium of film music, partly a result of his anger (and not without naivety as David Wilkins pointed out in his programme note) at the extent to which his score was cut by the director. Bernstein strings his material together not in a conventional suite but as one continuous movement, basically symphonic in conception and packing tremendous punch alongside the passages of tender lyricism that frequently bring to mind West Side Story. The horn solo that reaches out at the beginning of the work, the title music from the film, was beautifully played by principal horn Elspeth Taylor who quickly recovered after mis-pitching her first note. Indeed, it was to be the lyrical playing of the orchestra that was to impress most during this concert, the melting flute solo at the heart of the suite again a highlight as was its reprise towards the close with a soaring trumpet line finely projected. There was at times just the slightest feeling of the orchestra playing within themselves during the more barbaric sections of the work, a feeling that was to return at times during the second half performance of the Enigma Variations.

Leon McCawley generated no such qualms in his magnificently animated performance of Samuel Barberís at times turbulent Piano Concerto, an altogether grittier work than his earlier much loved Violin Concerto though still with a typically lyrical central movement exhibiting the more sentimental side of Barberís musical nature. McCawley stamped his authority on the work from the opening statement, giving it powerful advocacy, not least in the impressive cadenza towards the end of the opening movement. Oramo coaxed some finely delicate playing from the woodwind in the Canzone, McCawley responding with finely balanced and thoughtfully sensitive solo dialogue. The frenetic energy of the closing Allegro molto with its driving 5/8 meter and splashes of Prokofiev in the melody was vividly captured leaving me with an impression of a charismatic soloist possessing a sound technique and admirably clear articulation.

I cannot recall The Unanswered Question of Charles Ives being posed in a more ethereal, profound or eloquent manner than the stunning performance that opened the second half of this concert. A quite magnificent stillness and quality of pianissimo from the strings, top drawer trumpet playing imbued with a genuine sense of mysterious awe and striking rhythmic clarity from the band of four flutes made for a moving experience, a performance that seemed to capture Ivesís intended "cosmic landscape" to perfection. Sadly, I equally cannot recall being quite as disturbed at a concert in recent years as I was here by the positive barrage of coughing that rained down on the orchestra at one particularly sensitive moment in the score. A sad way to mar memorable playing.

To the orchestraís credit the misguided audience participation did not seem to have any detrimental effect on their playing in Elgarís "Enigma", the more subtle variations being amongst the most impressive. Nimrod was notable for its fluidity of movement, Oramo never allowing the music to lose its sense of motion and being all the more impressive for it. Dorabella was utterly adorable in its charming, stuttering progress whilst the phantoms of the penultimate variation were truly chilling. The slight feeling of restraint mentioned earlier was occasionally evident in the faster variations yet overall Oramo appears to be gaining stature in the classic English repertoire by the concert.

An unexpected bonus of a brief selection of numbers played by the trombone section of the orchestra in the bar after the concert led to a presentation of six long service awards to members of the orchestra, presented by Sakari Oramo in the presence of the orchestraís chief executive, Stephen Maddock. All well deserved and witnessed by a good number of the audience who stayed behind to enjoy the atmosphere and mix with the players.

Christopher Thomas



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