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.

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:

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…     “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

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…     “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:

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…     “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.”     …

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:

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…     “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:

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…     “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.”     …


Winter Words from Ian Bostridge

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2012/13… more events…

Part of A Boy Was Born… more events…

Wednesday 16 January

Town Hall

Town Hall logo

Ian Bostridge tenor
Julius Drake piano

Schubert Twelve songs from Winterreise (A Winter’s Journey) 35’
Ives Memories; Thoreau; 1, 2, 3; Remembrance (A sound of a distant horn); Feldeinsamkeit 12’
Britten Winter Words 22’

Encore – Britten – Waly Waly

Benjamin Britten wrote Winter Words for the tenor Peter Pears, and the duo were legendary interpreters of Winterreise, Schubert’s dark journey of the soul in a bleak winter landscape. Ian Bostridge – one of today’s greatest interpreters of the music of both composers – continues that tradition and performs twelve songs from Winterreise next to Britten’s matchless settings of Thomas Hardy.


Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “As Bostridge insisted at the beginning of the recital, the 12 Schubert songs that he and Drake were performing from Die Winterreise were not an extract from the complete song cycle, but its original version: Schubert set the first 12 Müller poems and performed them to his friends before discovering the texts of the other 12 to create the cycle we know today. If this ur-Winterreise lacks the emotional punch provided in the later version’s second half, it still makes a wonderfully rounded and satisfying whole, which Bostridge pointed up with his usual subtlety, intelligence and discriminating vocal colour.”


Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “Ian Bostridge began his programme with Schubert’s first thoughts on Winterreise and ended with Britten’s Winter Words, (this was part of THSH’s A Boy was Born Britten Fest) and chilled and harrowed us in the process.

The tenor combines a creamy, otherworldly timbre with hypnotic, compelling body-language, prowling around the piano, gripping its rim as he leans and sways – all of this entirely natural and instinctive, no suspicion of contrivance – all of this conveying the sense of an artist totally possessed by his subject.”     …

The Year 1912: Ives and Prokofiev

Thursday 24 May 2012 at 7.30pm

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

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andrew Litton conductor
Lise de la Salle piano

Ives: Three Places in New England 18′ Listen on Spotify
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 16′
Walton: Symphony No. 1 45′

1912: and as Charles Ives imagined what it would sound like if two marching bands collided, the student Prokofiev threw his feisty First Piano Concerto straight in the faces of his outraged professors. Andrew Litton turns up the voltage for this high-octane programme, and then goes even further, with the symphony that threw a stick of dynamite under British music. Walton’s volcanic First Symphony is always a gripping ride – and knowing how much Litton relishes it, we don’t think he’ll pull his punches. Hold on to your hats!

To listen to some of the music in this concert, and explore the rest of the season, using our Spotify playlists, click here.

Lise de la Salle’s encore – Debussy – Preludes Livre 1 no 6, Des pas sur la neige.


Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “And immediately we were into the taut, grinding passion which colours all of the magnificent opening movement, inexorable, horns trilling defiantly, timpani a constant presence, and Litton all the while taking huge risks — which, given this orchestra which seems incapable of leaving the top of its form, all came off. At the end, after the finale’s blistering fugue and desperately hard-won affirmation (though the Last Post-style trumpet does gainsay that), the sense of satisfied exhaustion on both sides of the stage was paramount.”     …