Thursday, April 21, 2011


I’ve been to a few more concerts recently, and the latest was the third in as many weeks. There’s something quite special about the immediacy and one-offness of hearing a live performance that leaves most recorded performances as pale imitations.

As it happens, all three were from the Classical side of the Music house, but just to get the balance a little more even, I’m off in a couple of weeks, along with about 20,000 other souls to hear a Pink Floyd tribute band.

First off of the three recent ones was in the recently revamped Birmingham Town Hall. When I say revamped, I do mean revamped. It has had £140 million of yours and my money spent on it. From the outside, it’s high class Victorian/Greek Acropolis. Inside it looks great, with a massive organ dominating the back of the stage. The subject of tonight’s concert was all religious music. It’s a bit odd really – I find endless fascination and power in religious music, the strength of which is oddly unmatched by my beliefs. Can’t explain it, but never mind.

On the bill was Beethoven’s Mass in C, a strangely neglected work which always lives in the shadow of his later Missa Solemnis. I had never heard it before and was looking forward to it, although the faint praise with which it has always seemed to be surrounded did make me wonder a bit. There was a choir of around 70, and an orchestra of 30 or so. So when the “fff” bits in the score came around, there was a decent chance of the roof lifting off just a bit.


I found it a much more mature work than I’d expected, almost operatic in its feel. Much of it had the classic Beethoven chromatic giveaways, and I came away surprised that I’d managed to get to the age I am without once ever hearing it. It was much better than I’d expected. Odd.

The other piece, Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, is one of my favourite pieces of choral writing. Haydn wrote 12 masses late on his life, and this to me is the absolute pinnacle among them, a truly beautiful thing to listen to. I’ve known it for around 50 years now, and its approachability lets you listen to it quite frequently, which I do.

The performances were good to excellent, and as an uplifting tonic to the soul on a cold Saturday night in the centre of Birmingham, it was great.

Next up was the Shropshire Young Musician of the Year in the new Theatre Severn complex in Shrewsbury, our nearest town. Our local Council tax payers have, whether they realise it or not, spent £28 million of their hard earned money on this new building, which sits in a prime position on the bank of the Severn near the Welsh Bridge.

As a building I think it is appalling to look at, a disgrace. It reminds me irresistibly of a failing 1960s Secondary School. The wooden cladding on it is already fading and peeling, looking as if someone has nicked the panels from a local allotment fencing scheme when no-one was looking. I applaud greatly the idea of a cultural centre like this in our town, and we use it quite a lot. But, as an eyesore, a blot on the landscape, it gets full marks from me. A Pox on the architect, or the person who thought up the design and the look of it is what I say. I bet he doesn’t live in Shrewsbury.

Anyway, inside is what really matters. There are two theatres, a larger one seating around 800, and a smaller one where we were for the concert. Four young performers, all still at school, were playing a major Concerto supported by a 55 piece orchestra, for the honour of claiming the title of Shropshire Young Musician of the Year. Some 32 individuals had entered, and the preliminary rounds had whittled them down to the final four.

The local radio station was there to record it, and the theatre was filled to the brim with around 250 people. One of the four soloists playing was the daughter of some friends of mine, so I went along to add a smidgin of support. We had a Trombone Concerto, A Bassoon Concerto, a Cello Concerto and my friend’s daughter tackled the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. She is 16, and played the 35 minute long virtuoso piece from memory, a quite astonishing achievement.


The whole evening was a real wake up call to those who think the younger generation today are a bunch of wastrels. The four soloists were all remarkably good. It must be immensely nerve-raking to stand up in front of the Musical Great and Good of the County, as well as 200 or so other mere mortals and the local radio station recording it all, and play such difficult pieces so well. I know that there is no way on God’s earth that I could have contemplated such an undertaking when I was their age. I thought they all managed it exceptionally.
I’d never been in the small theatre of the new Complex before, and although it’s quite “swish”, the acoustics are horrible. It’s so dead and dry, sucking the vitality of the instruments away from the sound that reaches the audience. I understand they didn’t bother to do any work on the acoustic performance of the space, and didn’t it show. No life, no vibrance and no resonance to enhance the sounds coming from the players. It must have been quite dispiriting for them. Ships and Ha’porths of Tar, I think.

And now to the last of the three. I love the cello, it’s probably my favourite instrument in the orchestra. It’s the warm, autumnal, dark chocolatey sound it makes that appeals to me. And some of my favourite music for the instrument are Bach’s six Suites for solo cello. Richard Jenkinson, Principle cello with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was coming to play two of the Bach suites as well as one of Britten’s Three Suites for the instrument, a piece I’d never heard before. It was in one of the local Churches, which dates from around 1300. There were only about 50 people in the pews, but the church is quite small and it had a really pleasant feel to it all.

The acoustics of the church space were utterly glorious for the cello. The resonant interior let the instrument shine and glitter, and in Richard Jenkinson’s remarkably capable hands, it made a fabulous sound. He played the two Bach works bookending the Britten piece, and gave a mini Masterclass on them, which gave us all an insight into what the music was about. You can be forgiven for thinking that a solo Cello is a bit of an arid and depressing instrument, but in his hands it came alive with a terrific range of sounds and textures. An absolutely glorious feast for the ears.


The Britten was an amazing piece, fiendishly difficult to play but with an underlying lyricism which I found unexpectedly enjoyable. Parts of it sent shivers down my back. A real find for me at least. The good thing about such a small, intimate gathering is that I could spend a few minutes at the end chatting to him, and asking the sort of questions I always want to ask after any concert. Normally with 20,000 other inmates trying to get out and a bank of Neanderthal security men herding you around, you have no chance of getting anywhere near the performers. I thought it was a real gem of an evening, and the good thing is that he’s coming back to play three more of the Bach and Britten suites in a month’s time. This performance is in our local church, where both my daughters were married, all the grandchildren baptised and where my mother is buried.  

Needless to say, I am looking forward to that with great anticipation.

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