Romeo and Juliet

  • Wednesday 20th April, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Tchaikovsky  Romeo and Juliet Overture, 21′
  • Bernstein  West Side Story – Symphonic Dances , 23′
  • Prokofiev  Romeo and Juliet – highlights , 50′

Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…” But whether we’re talking Montagues and Capulets or Nureyev and Fonteyn, medieval Verona or New York gangland, one thing’s for sure: Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers have inspired some truly glorious music. Tchaikovsky’s impassioned overture, Bernstein’s explosive dances and Prokofiev’s bittersweet ballet: guest conductor Lahav Shani will commit to each of them, body and soul.


Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “Shani and the CBSO gave a vivid account of the music. As the Jets and Sharks strutted their stuff in the ‘Prologue’ the playing was at first incisive and sassy and then brash and exciting, the bongos beating out frenetic tattoos. Shani ensured that ‘Somewhere’ was suitably yearning while the Coplandesque ‘Scherzo’ was light on its feet. The percussion section drove ‘Mambo’ along in manic style and as the movement reached its exuberant conclusion the CBSO trumpeters had a field day, blowing, as they say, mean horns. The sultry rhythms of ‘Cha Cha’ were well inflected. The ‘Cool’ Fugue is a terrific invention: who but Bernstein would have thought to introduce a 12-tone, rigorous fugue into a Broadway show – and who but Lennie would have made it so gripping? This section, above all, is where you realize how musically advanced West Side Story is. Shani built the music powerfully, generating a strident climax. ‘Rumble’ is just as advanced in terms of Broadway music; here it was done with great panache. Finally, the tender, tragic ending was really well done, the CBSO strings playing with great sensitivity.

Another Russian take on Romeo and Juliet followed the interval. A couple of years ago Andris Nelsons and the CBSO played a selection of numbers from Prokofiev’s great ballet score (review). Here Lahav Shani offered a selection that contained many of the same pieces. I remember that I greatly enjoyed the Nelsons concert and Shani’s performance was another fine one. Like Nelsons, his selection included many movements that lie at the heart of the drama but both conductors sensibly interspersed two or three of the lighter dance movements.

The start of Shani’s performance – ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – augured well, the massive dissonant chords built thrillingly and, at their peak, thrust home with great power. In the same movement we had the lumbering Knights’ Dance but also passages of much greater delicacy. ‘The Young Girl Juliet’ began with scampering eagerness but when Prokofiev shows us the more thoughtful side of her nature Shani was just as adept in bringing out the nature of the music. The ‘Balcony Scene began with a lovely depiction of a moonlit night from the CBSO. At the start of the encounter between the two young lovers I admired very much the lustrous tone of the cello section, and then the violins took over and sent the music soaring to the heights. Under Shani’s enthusiastic leadership the orchestra invested the music with ardour and romantic sweep but just as impressive was the spellbinding clarity that the players brought to Prokofiev’s magical scoring at the end.

From ardent young love we moved to violence with ‘The Death of Tybalt’. This was vivid and dramatic. The fight itself was fast and furious; no quarter was given. After Tybalt had been slain his body was borne off with shattering power.”     …


Review by Katherine Dixson, BachTrack: (for same programme on 23rd April)

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…     “Tchaikovsky‘s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was his third attempt at this subject but was still one of his early works. Its substantial introduction opens with solemn woodwind foreshadowing Friar Laurence’s fateful involvement then moves into pugnacious, jagged music, the irregular accents conjuring up flashing swords and setting up the conflict with a bang. Brass and percussion, particularly cymbals, were in their element while Shani showed both great enthusiasm and control over the build-up of volume and intensity. Furious bowing from the strings added a visual reference point as you could just imagine weapons flying. The audience was well and truly hooked.

A complete change of colour occurred with the move into the luscious love theme: tempo, dynamic, articulation and melody producing a heart-stopping plaintive contrast with the clash and clamour of the previous scene.  A delicate harp spoke of moonlight shining on Juliet’s balcony. Shani urged the players to heights of tenderness, just as much as total involvement in the foreboding of eerie chords and fateful trumpets pealing out the Friar Laurence theme again as the tragedy unfolds. The funeral march coda, prefaced with menacing cello, brought the piece to a carefully-placed, emotionally-charged ending.”     …


The Firebird

Thursday 3rd March, 2016, 2.15pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Tchaikovsky  Hamlet , 20′
  • Saint-Saëns  Cello Concerto No. 1 , 19′
  • Berlioz  Romeo and Juliet – Love Scene , 14′
  • Stravinsky  The Firebird – Suite (1945), 29′

Leonard Elschenbroich’s encore – Lutoslawski – Sacher Variation
A dark kingdom, a troubled prince, and a spine chilling mystery… OK, so Hamlet and The Firebird don’t exactly tell the same story! But they both unleash music of sweeping passion and dazzling colour, just as Romeo and Juliet gave Berlioz a chance to pour out his romantic soul. Nicholas Collon leads a colourful toast to Shakespeare, and partners the award-winning Leonard Elschenbroich in Saint-Saëns’ warm and witty First Cello Concerto.

Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

Click here for full review

…     “Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet is not heard as often as it should be. It lacks a big, sweeping tune such as one finds in Romeo and Juliet and it’s not as wild and passionate as Francesca da Rimini but it’s still a fine piece. Collon led a very successful performance, establishing a sense of foreboding in the opening pages and then bringing out all the dramatic elements as the music unfolded. There was a lovely oboe solo (Rainer Gibbons) portraying Ophelia and, indeed, in that section the rest of the woodwind were just as fine. I was impressed with Collon’s handling of the score though perhaps just a little more ‘give’ in the piece’s lyrical passages would have been welcome. He obtained excellent, keenly responsive playing from the CBSO. In the brief coda Tchaikovsky’s tragic ending was successfully done, not least because Collon didn’t overdo the emotion; an element of patrician restraint was most appropriate.

The young German cellist, Leonard Elschenbroich joined the orchestra for the Saint-Saëns concerto. It was written in 1872 for the Belgian cellist, Auguste Tolbecque who must have liked the work for I learned from Richard Bratby’s programme note that he was still playing the concerto in public in 1910 at the age of 80. And why would he not have liked the piece? It’s relatively short – about 20 minutes in this performance – but it gives the soloist plenty of opportunities to shine both in virtuoso writing and in lyrical stretches. The three movements play without a break.

It seemed to me that Elschenbroich was very well suited to the concerto. Needless to say, he had the necessary technique to despatch the virtuoso passages with seeming ease. Moreover, the consistently burnished and lovely tone that he obtained from his 1693 Goffriller instrument meant that the many lyrical passages were a delight. Indeed, his tone compelled attention throughout the performance. I especially liked the central Menuet movement. Here the orchestral strings displayed sensitive courtliness in playing the minuet material at the start – and later their woodwind colleagues were equally felicitous. In the meantime Elschenbroich made his countermelodies sing in a most attractive way. The vivacious finale was despatched with high spirits by soloist and orchestra. This was a most enjoyable account of a thoroughly engaging work.”     …

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth

Wednesday 17 February, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture, 9′
  • Prokofiev Sinfonia concertante, 37′
  • Tchaikovsky  Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), 45′

“Pathétique” means “full of emotion”: simple as that. And from first bar to last, Tchaikovsky’s epic Sixth Symphony brims with anguish, longing and unforgettable Tchaikovsky tunes. The charismatic young Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare won’t stint on the passion; nor will his wife Alisa Weilerstein – soloist in Prokofiev’s huge, brooding “symphony concerto”. Hector Berlioz lights the fuse amidst a riot of Italian sunshine.


Review by Katherine Dixson, BachTrack:

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…    “From the opening notes it was clear we were in for a warm, emotional time of it. By the end of the first movement, with interventions from different quarters of the orchestra but basically an improvisation for the cellist, you could sense that Weilerstein held the audience in the palm of her hand. The middle movement also held the gems of a heart-rendingly lyrical melody and a captivating extended cadenza, as well as some noteworthy wind highlights. 

Theme and variations was the order of the day for the final movement, with a relentless sensation of impetus throughout.  The cello played the stately main theme, contrasting with a more light hearted cadenza. This in turn led to a little comic relief courtesy of bassoon then cameo for soloist and a sextet of solo strings, which they all clearly enjoyed. Countless high arpeggios on the cello concluded this passionate interpretation and the audience responded equally warmly. 

If Prokofiev hadn’t long to live after Sinfonia Concertante was finished, Tchaikovsky’s death came even harder on the heels of his Symphony no. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique”. He famously commented on being pleased with this symphony: “I give you my word of honour that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy in the knowledge that I have written a good piece”, but he died just over a week after its première, rumoured to be suicide although never proven.

Unusual in its mood, since minor key symphonies in the 19th century were generally darkness-to-light journeys, this remains dark, reflected in the “Pathétique” label which conveys deep feeling and suffering. By the end of the finale, the music fades away into the darkness from which it emerged in the first place. A sense of struggle is highlighted by dynamic extremes and it’s full of powerful emotion. But there are plenty of beautiful lyrical melodies, as well as opportunities to showcase the various orchestral forces, with the balance well-handled by Payane – the violas were under the spotlight for a couple of passages, and rightly basked in their applause afterwards. The whole indulgent performance got an enthusiastic reception from the packed Symphony Hall audience.”



Baiba Skride: Tchaikovsky

Wednesday 16th December, 7.30pm


City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Rimsky-Korsakov The Snow Maiden – Suite, 12′
  • Tchaikovsky  Violin Concerto, 34′
  • Sibelius  Symphony No. 1 , 38′

Baiba Skride’s encore – Erwin Schuloff –

Our artist in residence Baiba Skride has been compared to the legendary violinists of the past, and critics reach for words like “transcendent”, “mesmerising” and “unparalleled” to describe her playing. But here in Birmingham, we’ve long since taken this schoolfriend of Andris Nelsons to our hearts. In partnership with Andrew Litton, her performance of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Violin Concerto will make a gloriously sunny upbeat to Sibelius’s powerful First Symphony.

CBSO+ 6.15pm 15-16 Artist in Residence Baiba Skride talks to CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock.


Be Uplifted this Christmas!

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.”    

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.”     …

Winners of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition

BICS 2015/16 –

Valery Gergiev conducts the Winners of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition

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

Wednesday 28th October

Symphony Hall

Mariinsky Orchestra
Valery Gergiev conductor
Lucas Debargue piano
Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar baritone
Clara-Jumi Kang violin
George Li piano
Yulia Matochkina mezzo soprano
Alexander Ramm cello

Debussy Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune 10’
Tchaikovsky Variations on a Roccoco Theme 18’
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor 28’
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1 (2nd Movement)
Verdi Overture to La forza del Destino 8’
Tchaikovsky Joan’s aria from Maid of Orleans 7’
Tchaikovsky Yeletsky’s aria from Queen of Spades 6’
Liszt Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major 19’


Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra are bywords for energy, passion and the kind of red-blooded, life-or-death commitment that only Russian artists can deliver. And in Tchaikovsky’s anniversary year, the Competition named after him is still probably the world’s most prestigious music contest.

XV International Tchaikovsky Competition winners
The six winners that will be performing were announced in July 2015 from each of the following categories: piano, violin, cello, male voice, female voice and are as follows:

Exclusive:The artist Norman Perryman, whose paintings of conductors and soloists (including Valery Gergiev) are displayed throughout Symphony Hall, has a new book, which is currently on sale at the Symphony Hall shop. Norman will be signing copies as well as prints from the shop before and after this concert. For more on this click here.


Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph:

Click here for full review

…     “French pianist Lucas Debargue only managed 4th prize, but seized everyone’s attention at the competition, and his sensational performance here of Scarbo from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit showed why. He portrayed the sinister apparitions of the magic dwarf Scarbo with a fevered intensity that made one’s skin prickle.

Just as impressive in a different way was Clara-Jumi Kang, a German violinist of Korean parentage. Like Debargue she won only 4th prize, a decision which seems even more mystifying in the light of her performance last night of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. To capture this work’s impetuous energy and undercurrent of sadness, all within a tone of relaxed seraphic grace is a feat very few violinists can manage, but she is certainly one of them.

To see the final rounds of this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition, visit