Back in the eighties, the weekly music listings for West Berlin (it was still divided then) had on a Tuesday just two entries: Berliner Philharmoniker and Shrewsbury School Symphony Orchestra. Last weekend in Birmingham, the School again provided the sole alternative, this time to the CBSO and as the latter were giving a performance of Tristan, it meant that for once a JFM concert was beaten for length, though not by much. It takes confidence to venture into the musically sophisticated environment of the Second City, as well as much hard work, but there is sufficient talent – and enthusiasm – to mount a programme worthy of the venue. The refurbished Town Hall is a shining example of civic pride at work.
The warmth of the acoustics was well illustrated in the first item, “Surround Sound”, in which the brass ensemble on the platform was supplemented by drums and trumpets positioned elsewhere in the auditorium. Nigel Gibbon directed this novel and rousing aperitif.
The String Orchestra has made distinguished contributions in the past, but on this occasion, the chosen work, an arrangement of a movement from Dvorak’s “Dumka” quartet, did not perhaps bring out the best in them. However, at points we could detect the poise and vitality that marked their St Cecilia performance, but elsewhere, the playing at times sounded a little laboured.
It was inconsiderate of Brahms to open his second piano concerto with a solo from the French horn, notoriously difficult to play from cold, but Edward Elcock gave the pianist his cue in fine style. The response from Jacob Owen, yet another talented artist who can tackle the grand concertos, was lyrical, sensitive, seemingly nerveless. His playing throughout had a clarity and a grace which lent a Mozartian feel to the interpretation, though that is not to say that it was lightweight., The programme note revealed that the commonest expression mark in the first movement is dolce, an aspect faithfully represented here, yet Jacob could and did give us powerful flourishes as required and nothing dented his composure. At one point his music fell over, to be quickly propped up again by the conductor, and it says much for these resourceful musicians that momentum was sustained. The performance did anything but fall flat. Nobly accompanied, it was a memorable treat.
Regular Shrewsbury concert-goers will have seen Jacob Owen before, leading the cello section in the orchestra, and with not a minute to recover, he was back in his place for the Dvorak Symphony No 8. This is a favourite of John Moore’s, which he conducts with a marvellous blend of passion and subtlety. While it is not the Berlin Phil, but a mixed-ability unit that he is directing, he manages to transcend limitations and inspire a thrilling reading. In quiet passages, the delicacy of the flute-playing stood out, and the climaxes, illuminated by the brilliance of the principal trumpeter, and hammered home by the fiery timpanist, were astounding, the whole orchestra responding as one to every fluctuation in tempo. Wonderful music-making.
A big hit in November, the Wind Orchestra is very much the creation of its director, Maria Eglinton, and when you hear them in action, you will know what a compliment that is. Her choice of repertoire stretches, but does not over-extend the forces at her disposal and the playing of “Paris Sketches” was stylish, exuberant, and hugely enjoyable.
At last the choir got their turn and in a concert dedicated to the memory of Vaclav Havel, writer and first President of the Czech Republic, it was fitting that their main offering should be Dvorak’s Te Deum. Initially overwhelmed by the volume of the orchestra, they sounded as remote as they looked on their lofty perches, but balance was restored and quieter passages were delivered with admirable warmth of tone. Guest soprano, Naomi Harvey, and our own Jonathan May, brought professional power to their solos and made a soaring contribution to a conclusion which left nothing to be desired, chorus and orchestra blending to massive, reverent effect.
Was it all over? Not yet, for on came Alex Mason, School choirmaster, to direct Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens. At that moment, it felt as if it would be one work too many, but the impression was soon dispelled. Birmingham Town Hall is steeped in the tradition of British choral music, and as the ode unfolded, words, music, and architecture seemed to be in harmony. In an ecstatic finale, the choir reached new heights, the organ rumbled in the depths, the whole of the venerable building resounded in glorious praise.