I was amongst the great throng at the Albert Hall in London last night when the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was performing under its Finnish conductor, Sakari Oramo. It was swelteringly hot. The conductor, whose physicality is such that you feel you can hear the music through the eloquent movement of his body as well as from the players themselves, had a red towel near at hand with which he frequently dried his sweating brow! He has an excellent rapport with the orchestra of which he has been Music Director and Chief Conductor since 2003.
I have known the C.B.S.O. for over thirty years and was pleased to recognise some of the same instrumentalists still at work. It has enormous panache and passion, this orchestra, with a superb integral sound and a body of string tone to equal that of any other orchestra. I noticed that Oramo has first and second strings either side of the rostrum, with violas and cellos completing the arc. This seems to be an increasing practice, reverting to what was once the norm.
Other people’s enthusiasms can be boring to people who don’t share them, but being in the Albert Hall as it houses the annual Promenade Concerts, is quite an emotional thing for me. It is of course huge – with room for 6,000 people , its red and gold décor emphasising its imperial origin, with many of the three tiers of boxes still owned by some of the families who, buying them, contributed to the original cost. The giant organ has been reconstructed in recent years and boasts 9,999 pipes. (Couldn’t they have managed an extra one to complete the number?!). In the choir stalls looking down on the orchestra, I was sitting very near to the one of the largest pipes and was glad that it wasn’t in use. Blamed for its poor acoustic over the years,I had no problems last night. The sound was clear and warm, and the balance of the orchestra so good that every note could be heard.
And the programme? Webern’s ‘Passacaglia, which I hadn’t heard before and want to hear again, and Shostakovich’s first Violin Concerto played magnificently by the Canadian born violinist Leila Josefowicz. There is an astonishing cadenza in the third movement that seems never to end and held the audience in thrall; that alone merited the ovation she received at the work’s end. She and the conductor walked off arm in arm as they left the platform. They have recently recorded the concerto in a live performance on the Warner label. Brahms fourth Symphony ended the programme in a performance of great power but also with the romantic side of the composer not forgotten. A superb performance, and a great evening.