Mahler’s First

Saturday 28th November, 7.00pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Ives  The Unanswered Question, 7′
  • Bernstein  Chichester Psalms, 19′
  • Mahler  Symphony No. 1 , 56′

“The symphony should be like the world,” said Gustav Mahler. “It should embrace everything.” And from its breathless opening to the roof-raising triumph of its final bars, his blockbuster First Symphony does exactly that. It’s a thrilling showcase for guest conductor Lahav Shani; first, though, our superb Chorus shouts for joy in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Charles Ives sets one of music’s most intriguing puzzles.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth

Wednesday 18th November, 2.15pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Schubert  Rosamunde – Overture, 10′
  • Beethoven  Violin Concerto , 42′
  • Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 , 44′

For Tchaikovsky, music was a matter of life and death – and when he wrote his Fourth Symphony, he didn’t hold back. This is a no-holds-barred emotional autobiography, told in music of uncompromising rawness and passion. Vassily Sinaisky has this music in his blood; it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic contrast to Beethoven’s serene Violin Concerto – played by the stunning Alina Ibragimova – or Schubert’s Viennese bon-bon of an overture.

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:
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“There are some violinists who just stun us with their virtuosity — and that is in fact all they do. With Alina Ibragimova we are on an altogether higher plane, where technique, musicality and intellect all fuse into one, and her performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the CBSO summed all this up wonderfully.

She burrowed into entries and emerged smilingly at the top of each paragraph, in a reading which was indeed one of seriousness and smiles, combining assertive statements with sweet lyricism, her altissimo notes angelically pure. Bowing was expressive, finger-work deftly co-ordinated in this intelligent, highly personal yet always appropriate interpretation of this greatest of violin concertos. Her use of the cadenza Beethoven composed for his own piano transcription was remarkably thought-provoking, abetted by the sensitive timpaning of Erika Ohman.

In fact Ohman’s input was only one of many sensitive contributions from orchestral members, not least bassoonist Julian Roberts. Under Vassily Sinaisky’s wise, untrammelled batonless direction the orchestral response was honest and direct, and their constant awareness of the soloist’s playing was an object-lesson in how to create as rewarding a collaboration as this.”    

Will Young

The Love Revolution Tour

Support: Lemar

Monday 16th November, 7:30pm

Symphony Hall

Will Young will be visiting Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in November 2015 as part of The Love Revolution Tour, Will’s first tour in four years.

The tour comes hot on the heels of the release of Will’s brilliant brand new album 85% Proof which went straight into Number One on the Official UK Album Chart.

85% Proof is the sixth album from the multi-million selling Brit Award winning singer-songwriter and represents his most accomplished work to date. An eclectic, hugely confident and startlingly human record which Clash described as:

The most deliciously instinctive and relentlessly endearing pop music you’ll hear this year. A masterclass in delivering a mature pop record

Winter Dreams

Wednesday 11th November, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Ravel  Le Tombeau de Couperin, 17′
  • Shostakovich  Piano Concerto No. 2, 18′
  • Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 (Winter Dreams), 45′

Anna Vinnitskaya’s Encore – Shostakovich – Ballet Suite No. 1 – Waltz-Scherzo
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony sparkles with all the crispness of a winter morning. Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin evokes a lost generation. And Shostakovich wrote his Second Piano Concerto as a birthday present for his son – but ended up with a smash hit. Youthful music deserves young performers; and if you heard Ben Gernon conducting The Planets last season you’ll know why this Shropshire lad is quickly winning a global reputation.

Award-winning CBSO Youth Orchestra alumnus Ben Gernon will be in conversation with CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock
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Key facts about the CBSO

Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

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…”Tchaikovsky’s first symphony Winter Dreams is no great shakes structurally – but who cares when it teems with delightful tunes and musical felicities?Those weaknesses mean that to succeed it must be played for all it’s worth. It was here, with tyro Ben Gernon’s conducting worthy of comparison with Andris Nelsons’ white hot CBSO performance three years ago. Even the flamboyant Nelsons couldn’t match Gernon’s two-armed pectoral-clenching bodybuilder’s pose directed at the bass section, as he demanded even greater sonority from them in the finale. It worked!

If he succumbed to the temptation of lingering a little in the adagio it was understandable – the CBSO wind section’s gorgeous playing was worth lingering over. But he was ready when the mood changed: the sudden eruption of the horns, in excellent form, sounded like a summons from the deity.”     …


Review by Peter Marks, BachTrack:

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…     “This movement was realised exquisitely by pianist Anna Vinnitskaya and the orchestra. They moved as one in all the changes of harmony with only subtle hints of rubato, never over-egging the expression. The strings, in particular, produced a warm glow with a satisfying bass line. The segue into the lively finale was perfectly judged by Vinnitskaya and the orchestra navigated the tricky metre changes very well indeed considering the swift tempo, albeit on the edge of their seats. It made for great fun for all. It was a pity, therefore, that Vinnitskaya had opted for such a headlong tempo in the first movement. Gernon did well to keep the orchestra just about on track at that speed. No doubt many were thrilled by the ride, but I found it all rather breathless.

Gernon is to be congratulated if Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony was his choice of programming. It’s not often this gem of a piece gets a concert performance, especially when compared with the final three symphonies. Gernon has clearly taken the symphony to his heart, however, as he gave it total commitment, as did the orchestra. Importantly, he waited until the hall fell absolutely silent before ushering in the evocative opening to the first movement. This movement and the last were given punchy, taut accounts, ensuring Tchaikovsky’s more academic moments really felt like they were driving in the direction of the climaxes.

The wintry spell was cast by magically hushed strings and exceptional playing from the woodwind principals.”     …

Baiba Skride: Schumann

Thursday 5th November, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Wagner  Lohengrin – Prelude to Act 1, 10′
  • Schumann  Violin Concerto, 30′
  • Brahms  Symphony No. 1, 45′

Brahms’s first symphony begins with the pounding of a broken heart, and ends with the kind of melody that comes once in a lifetime. It’s a gripping way for rising star Omer Meir Wellber to make his Birmingham debut. First though, he raises the curtain with Wagner’s magical, mystical Prelude to Lohengrin, and introduces artist in residence Baiba Skride in the dark poetry of Schumann’s only Violin Concerto.


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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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“If anyone needed converting to Schumann’s enigmatic Violin Concerto, this was the performance to do it, with soloist Baibe Skride so persuasive in her advocacy.

This CBSO Artist in Residence made light of the work’s awesome technical difficulties, multiple-stopping despatched with ease, and instead drew all our attention to the music’s tortured poetry, written at a time when the composer was so poignantly close to insanity.

Her Stradivarius, on loan from another great champion of the work, Gidon Kremer, sang with a dark, wiry tone, confiding hushed intimacies and communicating as in chamber music with the CBSO’s pastel strings. Winds, too, made memorable contributions, not least horns in the finale, which, truth to tell, had begun heavily-footedly under Omer Meir Wellber’s generally empathetic direction. And Wellber should never again cross in front of the soloist to congratulate the concertmaster during the applause.”     …


Review by Richard Bratby, TheArtsDesk:

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…   “The Lohengrin Prelude had felt a little too much like an exercise in static, if sweet-toned, phrase-making – the long line was missing. But here it was, at the opening of Brahms’s First Symphony: back with a vengeance. If the impression so far had been of a meticulous, thoughtful conductor with a hyperactive podium style, from the first bars of the symphony it was clear that Wellber had some seriously large-scale musical ideas – and the power to realise them.

On the strength of this performance, Wellber conceives the symphony as one huge, single-movement span – from expansive opening right through to a finish which, judging from the savage splendour of his brass-torn final bars, it’s doubtful that he sees as any sort of resolution. The conflicts of the first movement lumbered angrily up from the bass line of the second, and this must have been one of the least relaxed performances imaginable of Brahms’s third movement intermezzo. The finale followed almost without a break: the drive and bite with which Wellber lashed into the string figuration of Brahms’s introduction – so often played purely for romantic atmosphere – felt like the tail-end of a development section that still had everything to fight for.

Throughout it all, Wellber unlocked the full, lustrous sonic depth of the CBSO string section – a rare achievement since Nelsons’s departure. If there remained something claustrophobic about his vision (and it was particularly frustrating to hear leader Laurence Jackson and principal horn Elspeth Dutch’s solos locked rigidly into tempo) it was unquestionably compelling. The audience responded with cheers, and the orchestra remained seated when Wellber gestured it to stand, handing all the credit to the young Israeli. It’s been an open secret in Birmingham for some weeks that there is already a clear front-runner for the CBSO’s music directorship. Last night, that contest got a lot more interesting.”


Review by Stephen Pritchard, The Observer:

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…     “Wellber plainly loves this piece. From the first bar he was a man possessed, mercilessly driving the bleak majesty of the pounding first movement and drawing some wonderfully incisive playing from the strings. Conducting without a score, he pounced on every nuance, highlighting the smallest detail in woodwind and brass, and always, always pushing onward that insistent, doom-laden rhythm.

He allowed the sun to break through briefly when the woodwind sang their warm chorale at the start of the third movement but there was much heart-searching to do before we finally reached the broad landscape of the “joy” theme, Brahms’s conscious tribute to Beethoven and a seizing of his laurels, taking the symphonic form in a new direction.

Wellber worked the orchestra intensely hard in this finale and they responded magnificently; I’ve not heard Brahms played as well as this in years. The CBSO is searching for a replacement for the revered Andris Nelsons. Wellber might just be their man.”



Vladimir Ashkenazy Conducts Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2015/16 Concert Package,
SoundBite and Birmingham International Concert Season 2015/16

Tuesday 3rd November, 7:30pm

Symphony Hall

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy conductor
International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition winner Seong-Jin Cho piano

Sibelius Valse Triste 6’
Chopin Piano Concerto No 1
Rachmaninov Symphony No 2 60’

.Seong-Jin Cho’s encore – Chopin –

Ashkenazy and Rachmaninov – need we say more? Few conductors know how to make Rachmaninov’s melodies sing like Ashkenazy does, or have a more intimate understanding of what makes a top pianist tick.

Expect a near-definitive performance of Rachmaninov’s most romantic symphony, and the finest possible introduction to the winner of this year’s International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition.

About the winner:

Born on 28 May 1994, in Seoul, Seong-Jin Cho is a student of Michel Beroff at the Paris Conservatoire. He has won the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition for Young Pianists (2008) and a piano competition in Hamamatsu, Japan (2009), as well as Third Prize in the Pyotr Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia (2011) and the Arthur Rubinstein in Tel Aviv (2014). He has performed in concert with the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra (cond. Valery Gergiev), the French Radio, Czech, Seoul (all with Myung-Whun Chung), Munich (cond. Lorin Maazel) and Ural (cond. Dmitry Liss) philharmonic orchestras, Berlin Radio Orchestra (cond. Marek Janowski), Russian National Orchestra (cond. Mikhail Pletnev) and Basel Symphony Orchestra (cond. Pletnev). He has toured Japan, Germany, France, Russia, Poland, Israel, China and the US. He has appeared at the Tokyo Opera, in Osaka, at the Moscow Conservatory and at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, including with recitals. He has participated in numerous European festivals, including in St Petersburg, Moscow, Duszniki-Zdrój and Cracow, as well as festivals in New York and Castleton. As a chamber musician, he has been invited to work with the outstanding violinist Kyung Wha Chung. He is the winner of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition (2015).

We’ll find out which Chopin piano concerto will be performed after the competition finals in October 2015.


Review by Robert Gainer, BachTrack:

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…    “The Philharmonia was on top form having already performed Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste to open the programme. Ashkenazy, wearing his trademark white polo-neck sweater, coaxed a barely audible, yet tremendously solid, pianissimo from the strings at the beginning, then danced with the dynamics in a serene sway. Translated as ‘Sad Waltz’, this is a work that is bitter-sweet and melancholic in its portrayal of the inevitability of mortal fate than simply sad. Ashkenazy conveyed this distinction brilliantly through his deft musical shaping, and the sound quality of the string and woodwind sections of the Philharmonia was both sensuous and faultless.

They continued in the same manner in opening and accompanying Cho in the Chopin. The Allegro maestoso was exact, never forced or pompous. Cho has an enviable ability to make every note sound distinct and clear, shaping and balancing each phrase perfectly. After only about a minute of his performance I stopped analysing, closed my eyes and lost myself completely in the sheer musicality of the moment. Things only got better in the Romanze: Larghetto, with lyrical reflections seemingly glistening from the black gloss of the concert grand as Cho superbly demonstrated his understanding of Chopin’s stated intent: “calm and melancholy, giving the impression of a thousand happy memories. It’s a kind of moonlight reverie on a beautiful spring evening.” Cho’s more assertive performance of the Rondo: Vivace brought fresh rigour and colour to the conclusion of the concerto, demonstrating the breadth of his interpretative abilities.     […]

[…]     Ashkenazy made me feel like I was hearing an old friend in the symphony, but learning all sorts about that friend I never knew before, and his direction of tempi and dynamics was inspirational. He returns to Birmingham Symphony Hall with the Philharmonia to play Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony in March next year, and based on this performance, it should be well worth booking in advance.”

CBSO Youth Orchestra: An Alpine Symphony

Sunday 1st November, 7.00pm

CBSO Youth Orchestra


  • Nielsen  Helios Overture, 12′
  • Lindberg  Clarinet Concerto , 28′
  • Strauss  An Alpine Symphony, 50′

“What a hope for the future!” declared one critic after hearing the CBSO Youth Orchestra – but tonight the future is here, as Michael Seal and 120 world-class young musicians storm the heights of Strauss’s colossal Alpine Symphony. Nielsen’s solar-powered overture and a true contemporary classic – played by another young star – launch them on their way. Glaciers? Waterfalls? Alpine storms? In the phenomenal acoustic of Symphony Hall, hearing is believing.


Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “Julian Bliss was the assured soloist, fully up to the work’s demands of phrasing, breathing, and embouchure-technique. Gloopy microtones, comedic effects? No problem, and always unfolded in a logical line teeming with incident. Seal’s CBSOYO collaborated with an empathy which belied their years.

Finally came the awesome challenge of Richard Strauss’s Alpensinfonie, a dawn to dusk traversal of a Bavarian mountain, and totally moving and exciting in its performance here. Winds are often easy to praise, and these deserved to be, but not so often do we mention the strings; here they were extraordinary, pouring out a wonderful maturity of tone, not least from the lower cohorts.

I cannot praise enough the maturity of every section. I have heard young brass players showing off like nobody’s business. I have seen percussionists turning what they do into a theatrical performance.

Nothing like that here. This was an Alpensinfonie under Michael Seal which was all about the music, and it will stay long in the memory.”