Kazuki Conducts Carmina Burana, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 27th April 2023: 5***** David Gray and Paul Gray

An enthusiastic Symphony Hall audience turned out in force to welcome the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new Chief Conductor, Kazuki Yamada to his inaugural concert in the role. 

Yamada, already a familiar conductor in Birmingham, introduced the concert with his typical easy charm, drawing attention to the first item on the programme, Andrzej Panufnik’s  Sinfonia Sacra. This work has strong associations with some of CBSO’s previous chief conductors. 

Panufnik himself was the orchestra’s chief conductor from 1957 to 1959, and the first performance was conducted by Louis Frémaux, another holder of the post. A symbolic piece of programming, therefore: one that looks back on the CBSO’s rich, 103-year history and, by implication, looks forward to a similarly fruitful association between this exciting new conductor and his orchestra. 

Beyond the symbolism, Sinfonia Sacra is a work that stands on its own merits.  Trumpets placed around the upper reaches of the choir introduced the work with increasingly layered, interwoven canonic fanfares.  This is a piece rich in evocative contrasts, which builds to a rousing climax. The orchestra seemed to feel the hand of history on its shoulder, and they responded enthusiastically to Yamada’s commanding leadership in a committed and impassioned performance.

Maestro Yamada is a man to watch: even his mother thought so; she had flown in specially from Japan to witness her son’s stunning premiere! And it really was stunning: every follower of the CBSO we know is a-buzz with the infectious genius of this delightful man. It reminds many of us of the time Sir Simon Rattle joined the CBSO in 1980 (1980-1998); and just look what a Golden Age Sir Simon brought. These are such very exciting times in Birmingham – a city which, in terms of the average age of its residents (under 30 years of age!)- is now the youngest city in Europe.

The second work of the evening needed no introduction:  Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a spectacular choral piece, famed for is memorable melodies and boisterous rhythmic vitality.  Yamada kept the more rhythmically driven movements playful and dance-like, and his reading was fresh, new and judicious. 

The opening chorus, O fortuna, set the quality benchmark for what was to follow: powerful, expansive choral singing, metronomic precision and crisp diction, with a tightly controlled sense of anticipation.

Two of the soloists, Jennifer France and Morgan Pearse had been whisked in at the very last moment to cover the indisposition of the advertised soloists. Given this last-minute dash, they were terrific. Baritone soloist, Morgan Pearse, gave a physically and vocally energised performance.  His vignettes were vivid and filled with colour.  If his falsetto in Dies nox et omnia was a little underpowered, this imbued the movement with an appropriate feeling of vulnerability and emotional ambiguity.

Many performances of Carmina go for the safe option and assign the role of the ‘roasting swan’ to a countertenor.  It was good to hear it sung by a tenor; it is not supposed to sound comfortable!  Matthias Rexroth took the stratospheric tessitura in his stride, and interacted with the chorus and audience to great comic effect.

Soprano, Jennifer France, managed the extremes of range required with ease and elegance.  Her In trutina provided an exquisite moment of calm and stillness in the ribaldry of the Cour D’AmoursYamada managed this section of the work to perfection, with a real feel for the building and release of tension, culminating in a searingly transcendent Ave formosissima.

A thrilling concert which bodes well for this exciting and charismatic conductor’s tenure with CBSO.  The evening also marked the departure of Stephen Maddock after 24 years as a superb CBSO Chief Executive.  So much has been achieved, Stephen should be very proud indeed.  And also – welcome to Emma Stenning, who succeeds Stephen in the role.  What an exhilirating time to be taking over.

David Gray & Paul Gray are Reviewers for Birmingham, West Midlands and (often) the Three Choirs Festival. If you would like David & Paul to come review for you, drop us a line at p.gray.20@abdn.ac.uk

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