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Birmingham artsfest 2010: Birmingham City Centre 10 -12.9 2010 (GR)

The spectacular 2010 ‘artsfest’ weekend, billed by Birmingham City Council as the UK’s biggest free arts festival, certainly had the statistics to justify the claim: with 50 venues, 600 events and 3000 artists involved over three days. Two of the highlights of the Saturday featured Brum’s big two cultural organisations, David Bintley and Birmingham Royal Ballet were inaugurated into the ‘Broad Street Walk of Stars’ in the afternoon while in the evening a ‘Classical Fantasia’ featured the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on the open air stage erected in Centenary Square. But it was the myriad of lesser-known organisations from the city’s multiracial core that really made the event; from the Shikidim belly dancers to the Wellington (Telford) Brass Band, from the Holy Show Band and their Irish folk music to Gabbidon, a blend of reggae, rock, ska and jazz.

No single review could hope to do the occasion full justice and I caught up with only a few choice performances. My first took place on Saturday at 2.00 pm in the CBSO Centre, Berkeley Street. Put on by the Birmingham Chamber Music Group, it featured The Hepplewhite Trio, winners of BCMG’s Sylvia Cleaver prize open to Birmingham Conservatoire students. Amy Littlewood on violin, Hetti Price on cello and Fan Yu on piano began with Mozart’s Divertimento in B Flat Major, K254. Yu captured the jauntiness inherent in Mozart’s opening Allegro; Littlewood’s delicate tone and phrasing on her Hepplewhite instrument came across in the Adagio; Price provided the perfect link in the Rondeau. The trio’s second number was Shostakovich’s Trio No 1 in C Minor, Op 8, a striking single movement piece in which all three players excelled: the precision of Yu’s chords and the melodic cello and violin lines of Price and Littlewood were exquisite. May the trio go on to fulfil the potential shown here.

The afternoon continued with a foretaste of Midland Opera’s The Tales of Hoffmann, scheduled for Nov 3-6 at the Crescent Theatre. They claim an ‘amazing new production’ in their flier and as director Andrew Potter explained, their take on the plot sets Offenbach’s music in the silent movie era, with Charlie Chaplin fulfilling a prominent role. Their aphorism ‘Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot’ originates from the comic genius himself. The company treated the assembly scattered among the paintings that adorn Gallery 22 of the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery to a few choruses of the Barcarolle, plus an appetising rendition of Olympia’s Doll Song from Loraine Payne. Midland Opera have surely come up with an original interpretation, and for that it deserves success.

My impression was that Saturday’s sizeable attendance turned into a heaving throng on the Sunday – certainly if judged by the volume of traffic and pressure I experienced on the local public transport system. Thankfully none of the shindigs seem to get out of hand.

Another growing institution in the area, Birmingham Opera Company, filled their focal half-hour spot at 3.00 pm on the third day with an unforgettable contribution. Twentieth century opera is sometimes difficult to fathom first time around, and although Stephen Oliver’s A Man of Feeling was no exception, the gist of this 25 min cameo came across well and displayed quality throughout. The narrative, based on an Arthur Schnitzler short story, concerns a singer (The Soprano), whose rehearsal with her accompanist (The Pianist) is interrupted by a man (The Baritone) who promptly shoots himself. The two vocal protagonists then recap the events that triggered the suicide. These include the singer’s loss of voice, her subsequent medical consultations, the advice of her 24th doctor to take a lover and the realisation by The Baritone that he has been only a means to an end. Oliver’s score (expressively played by Jonathan Laird) was noteworthy on several counts: the way the moods of The Soprano were mirrored – rational one minute, hysterical the next – whilst tuneful and tender as she got to know The Baritone. The music provided an ideal background; the expert direction of BOC Founder Graham Vick did the rest, creating a highly charged atmosphere with the help of only two stools and a pistol. Stephanie Corley (so impressive as Desdemona in BOC’s Otello last year (see review) was riveting as The Soprano, presenting her own version of an idiosyncratic diva. Rodney Clarke (another with BOC experience in their Don Giovanni) demonstrated his versatility in both character and voice as The Baritone. It was a fitting repeat of the 60th anniversary tribute to Stephen Oliver.

My final experience centred on Operamus, another local - but amateur - company, who spread the opera gospel from Bournville and provide a platform for future singers. They plan to stage Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors this coming November and presented a varied programme that featured several members from their proposed cast. First up was Protik Moulik who sings the title role in Amahl and in every way looks and sounds perfectly cast. He gave us three numbers, rippling along with Schubert’s Trout, relaxing Down by the Sally Gardens and an admirable Green Finch and Linnet Bird from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. James Davies (one of the night visiting Kings) followed with a pleading Avant de quitter ces lieux from Gounod’s Faust and Deh, vieni, alla finestra from Don Giovanni; I missed the mandolin here although Pat Bennett on piano kept the music moving. Host Suzie Purkis (Amahl’s mother) then gave her girl/boy/girl version of Cherubino’s Voi che sapete from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and a touching Must the Winter Come So Soon from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. Joe Kennedy painted an enticing picture in Malatesta’s Bella siccome un angelo from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, wrapping it all up with the Count’s Vengence Aria from Marriage fo Figaro. Amahl, an annual Christmas hit across the pond, recived an appetising plug. Roll on artsfest 2011!

Geoff Read

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