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ROOKIE REVIEW: Grand Organ Gala

Rookie Reviewer Alice McIlwraith went along to the first of many Symphony Hall 25th celebration concerts and what better way to kick off the festivities with our beautiful grand organ taking centre stage. See what she thought of the concert.

The Symphony Hall is currently celebrating its 25th birthday, and as part of the celebrations, what could be more fitting than to showcase one of the Hall’s greatest assets and most iconic features – the grand 6000 pipe symphony organ. The London Concert Orchestra were joined by the Birmingham Choral Union, the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Corps of Signals and organist Darius Battiwalla, playing a selection of widely loved classics to a sold-out Hall.

I’m going to be completely honest when I say that I had doubts about this concert after looking at the programme. I was drawn in by the promise of Saint-Saëns’Organ Symphony, but remained highly dubious about some other choices. Works such as Pachelbel’sCanon in D, Mendelssohn’sWedding March and Handel’sHallelujah Chorus have become so intrinsically bound with popular culture that I had almost forgotten their original context (and perhaps being a music student led me to automatically be a bit snobbish about such popular pieces)! How wrong I was; I left the Symphony Hall feeling absolutely delighted and unashamedly enjoyed all of the pieces played – remembering that these works have stood the test of time due to the fact that they are incredibly enjoyable to listen to.

Parry’s renowned anthem I Was Glad was a wonderful start to the afternoon, illustrating the immense sound that these groups of players could produce. Despite competing against the forte from the orchestra and organ, a special mention must go to the Birmingham Choral Union, whose rich, wonderful tones managed to carry beautifully across to the audience.

A personal highlight was the finale of the first half, where the orchestra performed a spectacular rendition of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. For me, the true stars of this performance came from the woodwind section, particularly in the final movement, where the dialogue between the instruments was seamlessly played.

Some of the pieces gave different sections of the orchestra a chance to show their talents. Pachelbel’s Canon in D was beautifully performed, with the strings rich in tone and wonderfully balanced with each other. Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev was yet another chance for the brass to shine, joined again by the Fanfare Trumpeters.

The main attraction was, of course, the organ, and Darius Battiwalla did not disappoint one bit. Throughout the concert we were lucky enough to hear solo pieces for the instrument, and Battiwalla’s note-perfect renditions of the Mendelssohn, Bach, as well as the notoriously difficult Widor, were a real treat to hear.

What made this event so special was the genuine love that every individual seemed to have for the Symphony Hall that afternoon. Stephen Bell’s consistent commentary and interesting stories about the pieces and the Hall itself ensured that the audience were very much involved with the performance throughout, only heightened by the encore at the end, in which Bell invited all to join with the Birmingham Choral Union for the final verse of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’ The Symphony Hall is, and will continue to be, one of the things most treasured in Birmingham, and this concert was certainly a fitting celebration.

Alice Mcilwraith is a final year music student at the University of Birmingham, majoring in musicology. One of her biggest passions is going to concerts, and has done so throughout her entire life, experiencing and enjoying a variety of genres. She looks forward to reviewing the wide range of concerts and events that THSH has to offer.