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Musgrave and Mahler: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Sakari Oramo, Anu Komsi (soprano) Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano) Symphony Hall, Birmingham 16.3 2006 (CT)



First, a cautionary tale involving motorway toll roads and the triumph of human instinct over satellite navigation.


Setting off from Coventry with MusicWeb founder, listening colleague and chauffeur, Len Mullenger, we proceeded towards Birmingham via a new route that Len proposed with the admirable intention of avoiding roadworks on the A45. The proud owner of a new satellite navigation system, Len decided to leave this wizardry in the boot on the basis that nothing could possibly go wrong on a journey that would simply take us onto the M6 by a different route. Ten minutes later, we sailed  blissfully past the junction of the M6 that would have taken us onto the M42 and Aston Expressway to Symphony Hall, to find ourselves on the new M6 Toll road.  A charge of £2.50 was the penalty for travelling just a couple of miles before correcting the mistake that now threatened our arrival on time.


After wisely deciding that it would be foolish to take further chances, Len made a quick stop at the toll point and out of the boot came the prized piece of satellite gadgetry which would get us back on track, and also ensure that we did not miss the long awaited performance of Thea Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra, our main reason for attending the concert.


Into the “Satnav” went Birmingham, Broad Street, and on our way we went, still hopeful that to make the first half of the concert with seconds to spare. Ten minutes later however, instinct told me that all was not well but I decided (highly unusually) to keep my mouth shut in order not to disparage the wonders of (expensive) modern technology. I maintained a discreet silence about my concerns.


A short while later as we stared at a street sign reading Broad Street, on the fringes of a dishevelled Black Country industrial estate near Dudley, utterly bereft of any form of human life (or if they had any sense, of all animal life come to that) Len was forced to admit that my fears were well-founded. An urgent re-programming of the “Satnav” with Birmingham City Centre saw us on the road again, this time hoping that we would make the the concert's second half.

Forty minutes after the start of the concert and one and a half hours after our journey started, we rushed into Symphony Hall with stress levels at breaking point to join the audience heading into the auditorium for the second half. CBSO's well meaning ticket desk representative consoled us with the thought that the Mahler was what everyone came to hear anyhow. So, as I write this review, I look forward eagerly to Radio 3's forthcoming broadcast of the concert (complete with Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra.) Moral: modern technology's usefulness is directly proportional to the length of time spent reading instruction books !


If there is a piece that has an indelible link with Symphony Hall and the people of Birmingham it is Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. This work, with which Simon Rattle both inaugurated the Hall and unforgettably ended his reign as the CBSO’S Musical Director, has always had an apt significance ever since the CBSO's resurgence as a major player in the league of leading world orchestras. Possibly it was not lost on the audience that this performance in the hands of Sakari Oramo, came in the wake of recent news that Oramo is to relinquish his role as the orchestra’s Musical Director at the end of his current contract next year.


Certainly there can be few finer halls in which to hear Mahler’s life affirming paean of praise to the spirit of humanity. Oramo’s vision of the work paints with a broader brush than many, melding the composer’s own vision into a whole that succeeds in uniting the more disparate elements of the score with a sense of spirit and homogeneity which only adds to the final awe inspiring hymn of triumph.


Digging out the strings in the opening movement, Oramo’s efforts were such that the renowned Symphony Hall acoustic would have ensured that the sound of his stamping feet on the podium transported itself to the upper reaches of the auditorium: although the audience would no doubt have forgiven him such was the clear sense of rapt attention, for once only rarely destroyed by the occasional outburst of coughing.


Oramo lingered little on the moments of sentimentality in the work, instead imbuing it with a warm glow of nostalgia in stark relief to the cumulative impact of the ever threatening funeral march and the crushingly devastating outburst that marked the realisation of despair in the Scherzo.


With the hall's acoustic doors strategically placed, the passages that utilised off-stage brass were wonderfully realised, both in terms of the striking accuracy of the playing and the other-worldly sounds that transported themselves from the deep backstage of the hall.


Arguably the one error of judgment was Oramo’s placing of the soprano (his wife Anu Komsi) and mezzo Jane Irwin centrally above but behind the orchestra. The intention was clear in that the voices would float ethereally over the orchestra. Ultimately however, both voices were unable to penetrate to the desired degree and although Jane Irwin in particular sang with affecting character and poise, they would have been better placed conventionally in closer proximity to the audience.


There were no such concerns about the wonderful CBSO Chorus, whose glorious entry to the final movement and seamless quiet singing in particular, were highlights of the performance. Fortunately they had plenty in reserve for the closing bars with Oramo drawing playing and singing of the highest level from all of his forces.


When it comes Mahler 2, Rattle may still reign supreme in the hearts of the Birmingham audience, but the cries of bravo that rang around Symphony Hall for some time after the last chord had subsided, revealed a genuine affection for the man who became his successor and who has succeeded in upholding Rattle’s Birmingham legacy.

Christopher Thomas                                               





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