ROOKIE REVIEW: BPO@ 75 - Symphony of a Thousand

Rookie Reviewer, Nikolaj Schubert shares his thoughts on Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra’s 75th anniversary concert.

Redemption through love – this is the ethos expressed by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony, a powerful text setting of the Latin ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ and the final moments of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ that was considered by the composer and indeed many of his contemporaries to be his best work. Written for orchestra, chorus and soloists on an unimaginably large scale, attempts to truly convey to an audience this universal message for humanity in performance must surely rank as one of the most daunting prospects in all of classical music. Not, it seems, for the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, who, together with an array of massed vocal forces, took on this challenge and delivered in glorious fashion: a performance both worthy of Mahler and of the impressive anniversary that the BPO is deservedly celebrating.

For me, the secret as to how the performers could so subtly bring across Mahler’s message lies in the fact that they were all already experiencing it – this symphony, built on the unifying power of love, had unified hundreds of people in their love for music, delivering a shared experience that resonated so warmly through every note. It seems fitting then, that the first mention, and indeed the first moment of music of the concert, should go to the largest group, the chorus, a combined force of several of the city’s choirs. From their opening exclamation of ‘Veni’ with the organ they carried the music with a richness and majesty any professional opera chorus would be proud of, expertly weaving through lines of complex polyphony and erupting in splendour for every momentous climax. Credit must go here to Julian Wilkins and the various choir leaders for training such a formidable force of musicians who not only captured the essence of the piece but did so with such visible joy throughout.

While throughout the symphony the BPO produced a wonderfully rounded, warm tone, the orchestra’s proudest moment came in the restrained and complex opening of the second half that acts almost as an operatic overture to the ‘Faust’ text, as with all vocalists silent they were able to bring out Mahler’s exquisite orchestration in such vivid detail, with melodic lines moving gradually between instruments and subtle colourations on every note. The woodwind and French horns especially shone through this quieter music with such finesse. Special mention too must go to the brass, as every moment of climax in the concert was fed by the warmth of the lower instruments and given sparkle by the soaring trumpets in a spectacular manner.

Above all of this, it was the vocal delight of Alison Roddy as Mater Gloriosa (Virgin Mary) from up by the organ that astounded. In these moments she soared over the orchestra with such clarity of tone, so tender yet with so much power, perfectly encapsulating her role as the benevolent ‘Mother in Glory’ that at this moment finally grants Faust’s soul salvation and entrance to heaven. For Mahler these two lines were all the more crucial, as the personification of love through the ‘eternal feminine’ that Goethe explores in his text here becomes an expression of Mahler’s love for his wife Alma and the Mater Gloriosa character an idealised version of her. For Alison Roddy to deliver her two lines in such a personal manner was not only deeply moving, it gave the symphony the impetus it needed to reach the triumphant ending in all its glory. Among the other soloists, Claire Seaton, Morgan Pearse and Jeremy White stood out. Seaton, despite having to be seated and walking only with crutches, was able to deliver her virtuosic music in a highly nuanced fashion and delightfully complimented the generous sound of the BPO strings while Pearse and White each delivered rousing solos in the second half.

Technically, the performance was by no means perfect – entries could have sometimes been cleaner, occasionally notes were split – but just as Mahler delivers a message of redemption through love so these issues pale into insignificance against the monumental scale of this concert’s achievement. This was not simply an amateur attempt at large scale symphonic repertoire, this was Mahler the way Mahler is meant to sound and it is a source of immense pride that Birmingham continues to be able to produce art on this level. The packed seats at Symphony Hall highlight the enduring importance music and culture has in this city and in a time of austerity that has already decimated much of the performing arts scene we must fight our utmost to keep it.

Nikolaj Schubert is an undergraduate Music student at the University of Birmingham. Currently completing his final year, he will major in composition while continuing to play trumpet in both jazz and classical ensembles.