Become Ocean

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Thursday 19th May, 2016, 7:30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Sibelius  The Tempest – Prelude , 7′
  • Ravel  Piano Concerto in G major , 21′
  • Sibelius  The Oceanides, Op. 73 , 9′
  • Ravel  Piano Concerto for the left hand , 19′
  • John Luther Adams  Become Ocean (UK premiere), 42′

Steven Osborne’s encore – Ravel – Oiseaux Tristes from MiroirsIt’s been called “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history” and John Luther Adams’ haunting, Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean is fast becoming one of this decade’s most talked-about pieces of new classical music. We’re thrilled to be giving the first UK performance, with the conductor who gave its world premiere. Be there as we make history, in a concert that also features master-pianist Steven Osborne in both of Ravel’s magical concertos.

CBSO+ 6.15pm Hear CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock talk about tonight’s programme.


Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

Click here for full review

…     “For 40 years now, Adams’ work as a composer has been inextricably linked with his involvement in environmental issues, but Become Ocean is the biggest, most overwhelming expression of those concerns so far. The score bears his stark epigraph: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

Yet the music itself is anything but stark or bleak. It’s rich, deeply textured and all-encompassing, and the three massive climaxes that articulate the huge span – moments when the pulsing sequences that Adams assigns to his groups of strings, woodwind and brass come exactly into phase – seem more celebratory than apocalyptic. The presence of the musical processes underpinning this glorious, constantly changing stasis is impossible to ignore – there are precisely planned symmetries everywhere, and the work itself is one gigantic palindrome – but the orchestral beauties and the tonal harmonies never seem contrived.”     …



Review by Richard Whitehouse, ClassicalSource:

Click here for full review

…     “All credit to the CBSO for enabling Ludovic Morlot (who gave the premiere in Seattle almost two years ago) to schedule a piece that justifiably won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and deserves its place within the (not too crowded) orchestral repertoire of the early-21st century. The performance left little to be desired, not least because this is music ideally suited to the acoustic of Symphony Hall – filling the auditorium to a degree that even a ‘surround sound’ recording would be hard-pressed to emulate. Rarely have 42 minutes proved so immersive.

 The hour-long first half was almost a concert in itself. Continuing his exploration of Ravel, Steven Osborne played both Piano Concertos – (rightly) tackling the G-major first and getting to the heart of the opening movement as it alternates between brittle humour and bluesy longing. The Adagio was hardly less impressive, Osborne setting off with a discreet purposefulness that Morlot picked up on to ideal accord, and if the Presto felt at all calculated, its interplay of ingenuity and nonchalance held good through to the brusque closing gesture.

Even finer overall was the Left-Hand Piano Concerto, its three-movements-in-one format seamlessly and cumulatively negotiated so that intensity never flagged. Nor was Osborne fazed by its conception, playing with a clarity and definition as did not preclude a searching eloquence in the limpid theme whose heightened return in the coda crystallizes the expressive depth of this work overall. Morlot secured orchestral playing of real impact, while Osborne returned for an ‘Oiseaux tristes’ (second piece from Miroirs) interpreted with ineffable poise.

Each Concerto was prefaced with music by Sibelius. It is surprising the ‘Prelude’ from his music for The Tempest does not regularly open proceedings, given its surging impetus and sense of imminent catastrophe – both vividly conveyed here – make for a curtain-raiser like no other. If The Oceanides felt a little impassive near the outset, its swirling textures merged effortlessly towards the climax – a double helix of giddying immensity prior to the pensive close. Such evocations of immutable forces added cohesion to an already impressive concert.”    


Review by Richard Ely, BachTrack:

Click here for full review

…     “The concertos apart, these works are not often programmed, so it was good to have a such a convenient ‘hook’ to hang them on. The Tempest, composed by Sibelius for a production of Shakespeare’s play, takes the form of a series of orchestral crescendos, replicating the rages of a storm at sea which finally subsides, exhausted. All sections of the orchestra enjoyed themselves in creating what could, in less assured hands, have been a shapeless cacaphony. Daringly, that first production substituted Sibelius’ work for Shakespeare’s introductory scene, which describes a shipwreck. On balance, and in a convincing performance like this one, I think Sibelius makes the point more eloquently than the Bard, even if this is one of the Finnish master’s minor works.

The same composer’s The Oceanides is a major work, though one seldom heard in the concert hall, so it was a pleasure to encounter a performance as auspicious as this. Beginning with a vivid impression of clearing mists, superbly played by violins and timpani, the piece progressed through other lifelike impressions of birdsong and the push of the sea to the central section, leading to the orchestral climax and the ‘appearance’ of the Oceanides – daughters of the sea god, Neptune. This was a wonderfully spotlit moment, before the piece settled back into the troubled stillness of the sea after a very different storm to the one that blew through The Tempest.

Since the programme placed the Sibelius works adjacent to the Ravel concertos, we were better able to appreciate the contrasting sound worlds of these two contemporaries, with the weighty orchestrations of the Finn meeting the pellucid textures of the Frenchman. They may not be the most searching works for piano and orchestra but they have an elusive charm, stopping just the right side of whimsy, that quickly gains and holds the attention if you’re in the mood. Perhaps the shift in mood required was too extreme, but in these performances by the increasingly impressive Steven Osborne, it was impossible not to surrender to Ravel’s introverted milieu, where even the ‘jolly little tune’ that kicks off the G major concerto has an air of abstraction hinting that tears are never far away. Although real depth of feeling threatens to intrude in the Adagio assai, the jazz-derived rhythms of the outer movements preclude too much introspection and the work finishes leaving the listener agreeably puzzled. As so often with Ravel, ambiguity is the key and Osborne had the measure of the solo part, which he despatched with unshowy virtuosity. Here and in the left-hand concerto, he showed himself to be a master of Ravel’s diffident art, as he did in a penetrating encore of Oiseaux tristes.”     …


Review by Rebecca Franks, The Times (££):

Click here for full review (££)

…      “Steven Osborne was the truly superlative soloist: refined, direct, intelligent and instinctive. Every note was exactly in its place; the music sparkled and flowed. Glossy strings brought Hollywood glamour to the Left Hand Concerto, while the G major Concerto was a sunny riot of colourful detail.

And then it was the UK premiere of Become Ocean, Adams’s 42-minute, Pulitzer prize-winning orchestral soundscape. It is, explained Morlot, a meditation to be experienced rather than heard. I put away my notebook and let the music take over. Imagine staring at the ocean, noticing the surface ripples, then the short chop of waves, the roll of the swell, and – if you sit there long enough – the powerful pull of the tides. That’s what Adams translates into music; despite its meticulous construction there’s a complete lack of artifice. This isn’t music that “goes” anywhere, yet it is profoundly transformative. The ocean rises and falls. We sit and observe. My neighbour walked out, visibly riled. But I loved it.”


(fab) Blog Post by Dave Fawbert, ShortList:

Click here for full post

…     “Imagine this popping up on your Facebook page.

Become Ocean


Just look at it. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It looks like a sea of worker ants hauling miniature bridges across a page. And then you read the accompanying comment – it goes on for 42 minutes? There’s nearly 18,000 notes? What the hell is this piece? How would you go about composing such a thing? How on earth would you play it?

I had to hear it.     […]


It was utterly glorious.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, shortly before beginning the piece

The orchestra was split into three sections: full-sized strings, woodwind and brass with each given slowly-moving passages of sound which rise and fall at different paces, while Ben’s piano, a celesta and several percussionists maintained the constant, underlying rippling effect, without pause. At three points in the performance, the peaks coincided. As a bonus trick, the entire piece was palindromic – so 21 minutes in, the whole thing was played in reverse.

It was staggeringly beautiful. As someone who has only dabbled in the ambient genre, this, to my limited knowledge, seemed to evoke the feelings of the very best: the gentle waves of sound of Jonsi & Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, the patience of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports and – I realise this is slightly specific – a constant reminder of the feel of the beautiful horn section toward the end of DJ Shadow’s Stem/Long Stem (the section around six minutes in).

It was surprisingly consonant: notes moved around but never clashed. Suspensions were left hanging gorgeously as other notes slowly moved to join them, never rushing. The passages unwound at a slow pace, yet Ben’s piano and his xylophone friends either side maintained a constant feeling of movement.

Fascinatingly, you would never have guessed the palindromic nature of the piece; the second half felt new and different. Moreover, for a piece 42 minutes long, it was over in what seemed a flash. Truly, this was transcendental stuff.

Afterwards, I asked Ben – fresh from playing 18,000 notes in 2,500 seconds (that’s a constant 7.2 notes per second, maths fans) – if it would be performed again soon. Sadly, due to the rather niche nature of the piece, he replied that it was unlikely.

What a shame. For I’m telling you now: they should put this stuff on the NHS. Forget Prozac, this is the only high you need in your life.”     …

A to Z of the CBSO

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Saturday 19th September, 7.00pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Vivaldi Four Seasons (excerpt)
  • Zimmer Pirates of the Carribean
  • Williams – Star Wars = encore


Put 90 top-flight musicians on one stage, and there’s no limit to what they can do. Three centuries in the making, the symphony orchestra is still the ultimate piece of music technology: at home in the concert hall or the movie studio, and capable of summoning up over 300 years of music in breathtaking live sound. Tonight, Michael Seal and the full CBSO walk you through an A to Z of the orchestra: with music ranging from Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine to Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean!

If you’re not sure where to begin with the CBSO, come along for just a tenner to find out more. And if you’re a regular – why not bring a friend to introduce them?

San Francisco Symphony

and Michael Tilson Thomas

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2013/14

Friday 14th March

Symphony Hall

San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conductor

St Lawrence String Quartet

Ives (arr Brant) The Alcotts from A Concord Symphony 6’
John Adams Absolute Jest for Orchestra and String Quartet 27’
Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique 49’

Encore – Copland – Saturday Night Waltz

America is a land of new perspectives; and under its dynamic music director Michael Tilson Thomas the San Francisco Symphony has built a worldwide reputation for innovative programming. Tonight they present a fresh take on music by Charles Ives, a true American original, before teaming up with the St Lawrence String Quartet for John Adams’s vibrant new quadruple concerto (you can listen to a short extract from the piece here). And to finish, Berlioz’s spectacular Symphonie Fantastique – music that never stops sounding new.

In the video below, Tilson Thomas gives an exclusive introduction to the works featured in the concert.

Oliver Condy, Editor of BBC Music Magazine explains why he has recommended tonight’s concert:

During his time at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas has transformed his orchestra into perhaps the finest in the US. His energy is thrilling, and his passion for the American music he’ll be conducting will doubtless be palpable. As for the radical Berlioz? He and MTT were made for each other.



Michael Tilson Thomas talks to Christopher Morley:

Click here for full article

…     ”   “For me, making music is a journey I like to compare to going to a park. You may know the park, you know the trails. But the company in which you find yourself has a great effect on the nature of that journey.

“Over many years having walked these trails in these symphonies with my colleagues in San Francisco there’s a sense of ease of our ability to turn our attention to one thing or another while having the big objective of the journey in mind.”     ”   …



Review by John Quinn, MusicWeb, SeenandHeard:

Click here for full review

…     “After a good deal of busy music a brief, slower section dominated by the quartet, initially accompanied by tuned and un-tuned percussion, seems to act as both slow movement and cadenza. The orchestra becomes involved in this slow episode after a while and the music then accelerates into hyperactivity in a way that put me in mind of Shaker Loops and, later, of Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The work seems to be heading for a tumultuous end and then, in a masterstroke, Adams cuts off the quartet and full orchestra and the last word – a quiet one – is provided by the deliberately mis-tuned piano and harp.

I enjoyed Absolute Jest greatly and I’m impatient to hear it again. So far as I could tell on a first hearing it received a fabulously virtuosic and committed performance from both the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the orchestra. I was delighted to see that the Birmingham audience gave the piece a very warm reception.

After we’d all got our breath back during the interval Tilson Thomas conducted a work that he says is in his bone: Symphonie Fantastique. This is a score tailor-made to show off a virtuoso orchestra and that was achieved here. However, I mustn’t give the impression that MTT treated it as a ‘mere’ showpiece for such was not the case. The introduction to the first movement was shaped delicately and with great finesse in the playing. The different hues of Berlioz’s amazingly original scoring were expertly realised. When the main allegro was reached the reading was lithe. The San Francisco woodwinds had ample opportunity to show their agility and the strings were capable of great dexterity without ever sacrificing their natural sheen and lustrous tone.

The waltz was elegant and graceful, though I would have loved it if the two harps had been positioned on either side of the orchestra instead of side by side: Leonard Slatkin does this on his recent recording and the results are wonderful (review). Tilson Thomas ensured that the waltz was moulded winningly, the music always light on its feet. There was much marvellously nuanced playing in a highly atmospheric account of the Scène aux champs. Here was poetry but always allied to expert technical control. I’ve heard some other conductors impart a touch more menace into the March au supplice, usually by adopting a slightly more deliberate tempo than was chosen here. The march was quick-ish but even if it lacked a degree of menace it was still powerfully projected.”     …



Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph

Click here for full review

…     “The piece from Ives was actually risky in a different way. Entitled Alcotts, a   movement from the Concord Piano Sonata as orchestrated by Henry Brant, it   began with a modest flute solo, like a half-remembered folk-tune. Below, a   choir of clarinets cushioned the tune; above, strings floated like morning   mist. To capture that dewy immaculate sound and to still an audience into   rapt concentration at the beginning of a concert is a difficult feat, but   they pulled it off. A less showy opening to a tour would be hard to imagine. 

How effortful and busy John Adams’s recent Absolute Jest seemed in comparison.   Adams is at pains to explain that his piece, which makes a lot of hectic   play with scraps of Beethoven tossed between a solo string quartet and the   orchestra, is definitely not a joke. He means “jest” in the sense of the   Latin “gesta” meaning deeds or exploits. Now when a composer starts playing   with Beethoven’s sublime late quartets and burrowing into Latin   etymologies, he’s clearly making a bid for the high ground. You have to sit   up straight and pay attention.”     …



Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “It was almost a magnificent Symphonie Fantastique. The ball scene was elegant with the orchestra’s high strings silkily seductive and the pastoral episode was illuminated by a beautifully- played duet of cor anglais and magically distanced oboe.

In the march to the scaffold, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas wisely refused to rush, giving the movement an atmosphere of grim inexorability. The witch’s sabbath cackled wickedly with some ripe and saucy wind playing, trenchant brass and an impressively thunderous timpani contribution which brought the evening’s loudest ovation.

But Thomas’s approach in the opening movement was too mellow and level-headed, not adjectives appropriate to Berlioz especially in this work, and instead of languorous despair and fervid elation we merely had meandering thoughts and slight pique.”     …

Bach to the Future

30 November 2013 at 7.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 

Pekka  Kuusisto   director / violin

Reich: Triple Quartet 15′

Bach: Violin Concerto in E major 17′

Reich: Violin Phase 15′ Listen on Spotify
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 12′

Adams: Shaker Loops 28′

Vibrant, colourful, and   buzzing with energy: the American minimalist music of John Adams and Steve Reich   has swept through contemporary culture like a blast of pure oxygen. But there’s   nothing minimalist about its emotional power, and in this life-affirming programme   directed by the inspirational Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, it’s the perfect   complement to two of Bach’s most tuneful masterpieces. Three masters speak to   each other across three centuries: this is music to refresh heart and soul in   equal measure.

Due to the popularity of the Birmingham Christmas Market please allow ample time for your journey to Symphony Hall.

Pop up performance: The CBSO’s Leo Quartet performed Steve Reich’s   Different Trains

If you like this concert, you might also like:

Mozart’s Gran Partita, Wednesday 26th February

Summer Serenade, Thursday 5th June

Thomas Adès: New Horizons, Wednesday 11th June



Review by David Hart, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “The director/soloist was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, whose disarming charm and informality (including busking Scandinavian folk dances during platform rearrangements) was clearly a hit with the audience. His Bach interpretations were just as quirkily individual, tonally unforced and even pallid at times, with some phrases allowed to almost disappear into inaudibility – though in full flow he resorted to some very scratchy articulation, which the supportive, small CBSO string group led by Laurence Jackson wisely did not emulate.”     …

Variations on America

Wednesday 15 May 2013 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 

Matthew Coorey  conductor

Roderick Williams  baritone

Ives: Variations on America 7′

Herrmann: Suite from Psycho 10′

Copland: Appalachian Spring – Suite 24′ Listen on Spotify

Adams: The Wound-Dresser 20′

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances (West Side Story) 23′ Listen on Spotify

Encore – Bernstein: Candide Overture

No country is as diverse as the USA – and that goes for its music too. But whether you’re walking Leonard Bernstein’s mean streets or deep in Aaron Copland’s green hills; whether you’re at the movies with Bernard Herrmann or searching a nation’s psyche with John Adams, you’re guaranteed sincere feelings, epic vistas and larger-than-life tunes. And, of course, fun – as conductor Matthew Coorey kicks off with Ives’s outrageous musical spoof of a tune that you might just recognise…

This concert coincides with the prestigious annual conference of the British American Business Council (BABC), taking place in Birmingham from 15–17 May 2013.



Review by Peter Marks, BachTrack:

Click here for full review

…     “The programme also featured a rare concert hall outing for Bernard Herrmann’s “narrative for string orchestra” from his score for Psycho. It was a thrilling to hear this fine symphonic film score played by a world-class symphony orchestra, particularly as it was film music that first drew me into the world of classical music. The attentiveness, throughout the concert, of the schoolchildren present suggested that at least a few more young people will hopefully follow in my footsteps.

Coorey’s highly disciplined conducting style ensured a taut attack in Herrmann’s irresistibly angsty “opening titles” scene. The string players of the CBSO clearly relished the Stravinskian writing, with numerous bow hairs lost in attrition as the suite progressed. Perhaps most recognisable of all is the graphic murder scene featuring those iconic and terrifying violin glissandos, which, the excellent programme note suggested, were a reference to Norman Bates’ taxidermic avian collection.  […]

[…]  Roderick Williams was the unflinching baritone protagonist, looking the audience squarely in the eye as he sang with a beautiful, creamy tone. Though the orchestral writing is characteristic of Adams, with its pulsing ostinatos and the addition of a synthesiser to more standard orchestral forces, the vocal line reminded me at times of Britten, who would surely have approved of setting this sort of material to music. The mood of the music changed with each verse and particularly vivid orchestral outbursts accompanied key phrases. Alan Thomas on two types of trumpet provided tender solos and Beyers was, once again, a tirelessly sensitive violin soloist.”     …




Review by Maggie Cotton, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “Conductor Matthew Coorey’s reduced strings scared with  Hermann’s Psycho film music; impending doom mesmerising a rapt audience with  memorable hacking down-bows of screams and murder. “Violins did it!”

With Aaron Copland one is in a deepest Appalachian Spring.  Mysterious countryside, wide skies, gentle mountains. A story of lovers, country  folk, all encompassed by deliciously lop-sided rhythms, hymns, fiddlers and  square-dancers. Smiling pastoral music, not a gun in sight. All obviously  enjoyed by the players, fully entering into the spirit of the music.”     …


Dancing in the Streets

Tuesday 1 March 2011 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121-780 3333

 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Carlos Kalmar  conductor
Steven Osborne  piano

Adams: The Chairman Dances 12′
Bernstein: West Side Story – Symphonic Dances 23′
Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain 23′
Gershwin: An American in Paris 17′

From Gershwin tapping through the streets of jazz-age Paris, to John
Adams imagining Mao Zedong and Madame Mao in a show-stopping
foxtrot – there’s no denying that American composers have got rhythm!
South American-born conductor Carlos Kalmar knows all about that,
and tonight he leads the CBSO on a high-kicking celebration of the
American way of dance. Expect some serious Latin flair in Bernstein’s
West Side Story dances, the smokiest of blues in An American in
Paris, and – at the heart of the programme – something completely
different. The superb British pianist Steven Osborne should bring just
the right mixture of poetry and panache to Falla’s enchanted,
shimmering Nights in the Gardens of Spain begun in 1911. 

Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

“Anyone who says they “don’t like 20th-century music” should have been at Tuesday’s CBSO concert, from which they would have emerged smiling in acquiescence at its sheer approachability.

This was a programme to die for, beginning with a tautly driven account of John Adams’ The Chairman Dances under the decisive baton of Carlos Kalmar.”   …


Review for this programme at Bridgewater Hall, by Michael Cookson, MusicWeb:

The Planets: An HD Odyssey

(European Premiere)

Birmingham International Concert Season 2010/11

Friday 8 October 7:30pm at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Houston Symphony
Hans Graf conductor
Ladies of the City of Birmingham Choir

Stravinsky Fireworks 5’
Adams Dr Atomic Symphony 25’
Holst The Planets 65’

Sponsored by University of Birmingham.

Encores –  Liadov? –  “Baba Yaga” and Mozart – ?

“The images . . . were often astonishing. Photographs from rovers and satellites, radar images and computer-generated graphics were combined to give the audience the impression of circling individual planets and sometimes flying over their awesomely barren landscapes.”  New York Times Holst’s The Planets was inspired by his interest in astrology. Nearly one hundred years later he would have been astounded by the state-of-the-art, high definition images from NASA’s exploration of the solar system. For tonight’s European Premiere, Producer Duncan Copp has brought these images together with a commentary by the world’s leading planetary scientists, all projected on a large screen above the orchestra.

Classic FM’s Anne-Marie Minhall, says of tonight’s recommended concert:
“Classical music reaches for the stars in this unique project between the Houston Symphony and NASA no less. Premiered in the Space Agency and Orchestra’s home city in January 2010, this will be your chance to watch some extraordinary images of our solar system alongside Holst’s astrological masterpiece”.

Part of the Sounds of Space weekend at Town hall and Symphony Hall.

Houston Symphony UK Tour blog:

Review by Elmley de la Cour, Birmingham Post:

…”Conductor Hans Graf, undoubtedly an instrumentalist’s dream, directed with pin-point clarity. His beat was one of the aspects of the concert that certainly was in high-definition. His tempos were also refreshingly brisk, ensuring that no automaticity crept into the Holst classic.” …

Review by Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International: (for same concert, different location!)

…Their “HD Odyssey” brought not just the music but stunning photography care of NASA, giving us a virtual tour of each planet as we hear Holst’s music. Producer/Director Duncan Copp’s images are truly breathtaking […]

…Jupiter works best – it’s so well done that it’s like watching choreography – with Mars and Neptune particularly striking too. Venus works less well and the serene images of Uranus are positively anachronistic viewed alongside Holst’s music until, that is, a virtual eclipse seems to fit the final bars beautifully.” …