Back in 2008 I made my first visit to the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, and was smitten. I got myself on the mailing list, and newsletters appeared from time to time. At the end of a missive promoting the 2012 festival in Hereford there was a call for expressions of interest in reviewing the event for classical music website Bachtrack. By now I'd penned articles galore about concert venues near and far, and was developing a taste for adding to my portfolio, so it seemed a perfect opportunity.
To apply, I had to submit a CV detailing my musical qualifications and experience, as well as a sample review. Lo and behold, they liked my take on an evening at Birmingham's Symphony Hall, and I was invited to join the accredited team, contributing reviews since January 2012 - including covering three concerts in the space of two days at Hereford's July festival. With a 48-hour deadline, reviewers have up to 800 words to play around with, roughly one third background information about the music itself and the rest a personal response to how the artists handled the performance. You can say quite a bit within that framework so there's no place for vagueness! In addition to the clear benefit of scoring press tickets to hear big names in fabulous concert halls, the role does wonders for my musical education as there's always plenty of scope for researching the works beforehand, and listening as actively as possible adds a deepened dimension. Although by definition reviews are grounded in fact and opinion, the usual creative writing techniques apply, in that the reader must be hooked from the first sentence and drawn through original, flowing prose to the final full stop. If I can convey a flavour of the occasion, I feel it's a job well done.
Bachtrack, "The world's best way to find classical music", is based in London but has reviewers worldwide. Carnegie Hall, here I come!
Links to my reviews (please click on heading for full review)
Life-affirming Beethoven in Birmingham with the CBSO
The writing of Beethoven’s nine symphonies spanned a quarter of a century, but for this season’s opener, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra offered them all up in the space of less than a week. This came hard on the heels of performing the whole cycle at the annual Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the composer’s home town, with a stopover on the way back for a reprise of the 8th and 9th in Paris.
Game, set and match to Prom 3
This was the first time I've been to a concert with a 10.30am kick-off, but then this was the first of its kind. Nor did the inaugural Sport Prom turn out to be merely a game of two halves (although there was half-time, also known as the interval) but more like a party celebrating an adrenalin-load of multifarious sporting achievements.
Mozart's Mass in C Minor and more with the CBSO
There’s nothing like a bit of Mozart to help you unwind… and this was far more than a bit of Mozart. Part of the CBSO’s “Relax and Revitalise” series, this concert did exactly what it said on the brochure, with Mozart’s skill and varying colours in the hands of the CBSO and its fabulous Chorus making for a thoroughly entertaining evening.
Brazilian brilliance in Birmingham with Ex Cathedra
There’s more to Brazil than nuts and football, and there’s more to Brazilian music than samba and bossa nova! However, if you search for Brazilian Baroque on the internet, the results are largely to do with architecture in all its gilded opulence. An authority on Latin American music, Jeffrey Skidmore’s research has had him delving in person into apparently lost musical treasures. He’s recently returned from his second tour of Brazil, sun-kissed from their hottest summer in 40 years. His extensive programme notes provided a helpful insight into the unfamiliar riches of the evening’s material, kicking off with an observation that the term Baroque came from the Portuguese “barroco” meaning a misshaped pearl.
Joshua Bell plays Bach, Brahms and Beethoven
As Joshua Bell launched into the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D minor, I closed my eyes for a few moments to imagine hearing it as a commuter on the Washington DC metro. Bell had been the subject of a social experiment by the Washington Post some years ago, posing as an anonymous early morning busker to gauge reactions to exceptional art in a mundane setting, and this was the challenging piece he chose to play. As it turned out, virtually everyone passed by without a second glance and in the space of 45 minutes a total of $32.17 was tossed into his open violin case.
Maxim Vengerov plays Mozart and more in Birmingham
This turned out to be a concert of three halves. Once the official programme was dispensed with, a highly appreciative Symphony Hall audience, many on their feet, clamoured for more and got it in the shape of not one but two encores. Both by Saint-Saëns, this made for a neat little composer-focused addendum to the first half’s Mozart-fest and the second half’s trip through Tchaikovsky.
A new season for the CBSO begins with Andris Nelsons and Anne-Sophie Mutter
It may have been the autumn equinox, but this evening spring came to a balmy Birmingham, meteorologically and musically. Symphony Hall was abuzz in anticipation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the piece’s centenary year, but the concert – and the 2013/14 season – was launched with Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. It’s no secret that Andris Nelsons is a passionate devotee and respected exponent of Wagner, but this particular piece was where it all started for him, the fuse that lit the spark of his love for classical music.
National Youth Orchestra of the USA with Joshua Bell and Valery Gergiev
As Proms debuts go, this would be difficult to beat. The newly formed National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) were fresh – literally, certainly no sign of fatigue – from an intensive two-week training residency followed by a tour which included the tall order of taking Tchaikovsky to Russia. Prior to that, the hundred and twenty 16- to 19-year-olds had been strangers to each other, scattered as they were over 42 states. They were making history together, as well as extraordinary music, as the first national youth orchestra in modern US history.
Verdi with Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
No surprise to find a Verdi programme at the Proms in his bicentenary year, but what was unusual was the focus on sacred music, given his antipathy towards the church as demonstrated in his more prolific output, his operas. The BBC recently screened a musically illustrated documentary on the composer, fronted by this evening’s maestro, Sir Antonio Pappano, and on top of his expected knowledge of the subject, what an engaging and articulate presenter he was!
A bit of Wales comes to Birmingham: a night at the opera with Bryn Terfel and friends
A concert like this could have three possible outcomes: one, frustration at catching just a glimpse of a multitude of operas without the benefit of character or plot development or the embellishment of sumptuous costumes or stage sets; two, inspiration to delve further into the world of opera, nudged by tantalising hints of dramatic tension and a world of emotions; or three, sheer escapism into a soundscape of wonderful music that stands up for itself in its own right without the theatre’s trappings.
Violins galore with Vivaldi, Bach and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
What a lovely way to round off a weekend, with some feel-good favourites from one of the world’s finest early music ensembles. Currently in their silver jubilee season, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra actually began to emerge a couple of years earlier than their official 1987 launch. Several students from the College of Music in Freiburg, fortified and inspired by glasses of New Year sparkling wine, had decided to form a group to research, experiment and play on Baroque instruments.
Birdsong in Birmingham: Mitsuko Uchida with Andris Nelsons and the CBSO
It wasn’t only Mitsuko Uchida’s hands that were agile. Her arrival on stage was accompanied by the deepest bow imaginable, bending from the waist until she resembled a tuning fork. Such Japanese formality was paired with a warm, glowing smile and a real connection with players and audience alike.
The silver chain of sound with Orchestra of the Swan and Tamsin Waley-Cohen
David Curtis displayed his usual deceptively effortless ease on the podium. Perhaps this felt like a handy warm up for the marathon that he would run, hard on the heels of this concert, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Orchestra of the Swan’s home territory. He’d be racing to raise funds for musical outreach work in schools, one of OOTS’s laudable trademarks, along with their championing of new and contemporary works.
Dancing at lunchtime with Benjamin Grosvenor
As part of Birmingham’s International Concert Season, there’s a series of lunchtime performances from rising stars, entitled “Bright Futures”. Benjamin Grosvenor has done so much already by the tender age of 20 that one wonders how much brighter it can get!
A bright and brilliant lunchtime in Birmingham with Jayson Gillham
No wonder Jayson Gillham looked pleased to be back on stage at Birmingham Town Hall. It must have brought back some happy memories, as it was here that he won first prize in the 2011 Brant International Piano Competition. In the intervening couple of years, he’s built up an inspiring CV. He played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Hallé as a finalist in the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition, was named Commonwealth Musician of the Year, 2012, and has accumulated concert credits throughout London, across Europe and back home in Australia.
Hands-down winners: CBSO Youth Orchestra and Bavouzet triumph in Mahler and Ravel
Judging by this evening’s performance, the future of music-making in Birmingham is in safe hands. Following an intensive half-term week’s training, including sectional coaching by musicians from the parent orchestra, 100 eager and accomplished 14- to 21-year-olds brought the Symphony Hall stage to life.
Nicola Benedetti and the European Union Chamber Orchestra sparkle in Birmingham
What better antidote to the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping than a sackful of festive concertos? With Birmingham’s famous German market in full swing right outside the Town Hall, inside was also packed with concertgoers of all ages eager to hear celebrated violinist Nicola Benedetti. Even the choir benches were full, with the back row nestled under splendid Christmas trees that sparkled either side of the organ.
Rejoicing with Ex Cathedra Consort in Birmingham
I was in two minds whether to opt for this concert, as I’d have another one to review the following day, but from the first note it was clearly the right decision. What a delightful performance!
Powerful northern landscapes: Elisabeth Leonskaja and the CBSO play Grieg
Anyone looking for an evening of calm, reflective music would find they’d come to the wrong concert. It was rather like being granted a masterclass in how to represent the infinite nuances suggested by the performance direction “fortissimo”. I was particularly looking forward to the opener, as Sibelius’ Karelia Suite was the first piece of live classical music that grabbed my attention as a teenager. I presumed the dynamic fanfares would be in safe hands with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brass, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Viennese whirl in Birmingham: Sweet treats from the Vienna Boys' Choir
Here’s a choir that need never worry about attracting younger members. It runs its own school, with around 300 children, and from the age of ten the most musically gifted boys are channelled into the choir. The present membership of around 100 are in good company, as the 500-year history of the choir in its various guises is littered with illustrious names, either as choristers or directors: Mozart, Bruckner, Schubert, Haydn.
Infectious Tchaikovsky and Bruch with Yossif Ivanov and the CBSO
This concert exploded into life with Weber’s overture from Euryanthe. Guest conductor Walter Weller displayed economy of movement but set the orchestra off at a cracking pace, creating an upbeat mood that was sustained throughout the evening. Although the opera is rarely heard in its entirety, the overture encapsulates the hero’s two great themes, with the drama of martial music from woodwind and brass giving way to the lyrical eloquence of legato strings.
Prom 37: Elgar's The Apostles with The Hallé
If you’ve never been to a grand-scale choral work at the Royal Albert Hall, I’d urge you to do so at the earliest opportunity. This wasn’t my first visit to the Proms, and I’ve experienced oratorios, requiems and passions galore in other places, but to hear hundreds of accomplished singers filling this vast circular space was new territory for me. The hall seemed made for the occasion.
Monarchs and mobiles with The King's Singers at the Three Choirs Festival
Frequent concertgoers in our modern age will be all too aware of the irritation factor of mobile phones going off during performance. The King’s Singers, however, make a feature of the phenomenon and take it to another level. This world-class ensemble delighted a packed Hereford Cathedral, the closing concert of their 2011/12 season coinciding with the Three Choirs Festival.
Clarinet contrasts with Emma Johnson at the Three Choirs Festival
This was a fine demonstration of the fact that the Three Choirs Festival is not just about singing. Nor is it confined to the cathedral, as this morning’s recital took place in the elegance of Hereford’s Shirehall. There was a capacity audience of around 400 in the bright and airy room, restful in pale blue and white, with few adornments apart from a frieze of gilded instruments in the corners above the stage.
A window on the Three Choirs Festival: Debussy, Tabakova and Fauré
After weeks of foul weather, this was more like it. Proper sunshine for a summer festival. Around Hereford Cathedral, watched over by a statue of Elgar draped in a fresh laurel wreath, Three Choirs Festival-goers enjoyed the warmth before venturing inside for equally sunny music. Even the yellow flowers framing the stage carried through the theme, setting off the golden centre-stage harp. This in turn shimmered in the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.
Bryn Terfel: Life and soul of the party at Symphony Hall's 21st
Here’s a pertinent fact for a classical music website: in 1991, when the wonderful World Wide Web was poised to ensnare anyone with computer access, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall opened its doors to the concert-going public for the first time. It quickly won critical acclaim with artists from across the globe and it’s known as one of the best anywhere. Patrons love it, and tonight’s capacity audience found itself caught up in a spirit of celebration. Striking flowers adorned the stage, and the chrome on Andris Nelsons’ podium seemed to have added sparkle.
By royal appointment: Handel in Birmingham with the Academy of Ancient Music
How’s this for an original way of displaying one’s celebratory Union Flag? Strapped to the top of one’s contrabassoon! Apart from the absence of the National Anthem and horseracing, this concert gave us the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend in a nutshell, encompassing the solemnity and sovereignty of all four of Handel’s Coronation Anthems, the exuberance of the Music for the Royal Fireworks, and the pomp and pageantry of the Water Music.
A golden War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral from the CBSO
Tonight’s was an historic performance, so first, a few dates. On 14th November 1940, Luftwaffe bombing raids destroyed much of the medieval centre of Coventry, including most of its cathedral. On 30th May 1962, Benjamin Britten’s specially-commissioned War Requiem was premièred by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Sir Basil Spence’s newly consecrated cathedral. This building was ultra-modern for its time and built adjacent and in stark contrast to the ruins in a spirit of reconciliation.
Best of British: Elgar, Britten and Vaughan Williams with the CBSO
In advance of a nationwide spate of celebration concerts, here was an all-British programme that didn’t so much as mention the Jubilee or the Olympics. And a great job the CBSO made of it, under guest conductor Andrew Manze. His expressive hands not only encouraged beautiful music, but they were a joy to watch too.
Small forces take on a giant: Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir sing Handel’s Messiah
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sung Handel’s Messiah, always in the context of a large choral society or the massed voices of a ‘come and sing’. So it was a special treat to let someone else do the work, and an interesting contrast to have this familiar oratorio delivered by a smaller ensemble.
Beautiful Bach in Birmingham with the OAE
If you love Bach – and who doesn’t? – Birmingham was the place to be this weekend, for a delicious series of concerts, lectures and discoveries at the Town Hall and Symphony Hall under the heading ‘Bach: A Beautiful Mind’. For Laurence Cummings, it was a chance to come home, as he was brought up in the city and reminisced about his previous Town Hall performance, playing double bass at age 18 with the Midland Youth Orchestra.
Poetry in motion with the Berlin Philharmonic
Outside, it was as cold as Narnia. But as a lone flute piped the haunting opening phrases of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, we were transported to the warmth of a dreamy afternoon. We were off on a journey around European folk-tales and legends at the end of the 19th century. Debussy’s work was based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, in which, through a stream of imagery, he describes a mythical creature’s post-slumber pursuit of nymphs in forest glades, before succumbing to intoxicating sleep once more.
Early Tchaikovsky and Brahms welcomed in wintry Birmingham
Two firsts for the price of one. The anticipated Piano Concerto no. 2 by Brahms was replaced by no. 1, as it suited French pianist Hélène Grimaud’s recording commitments with Deutsche Grammophon. Would the audience be taking a risk opting (perhaps unwittingly) for a double dose of early works, written before the composers’ output reached full maturity?