CBSO / Nelsons / Irène Théorin - Symphony Hall Birmingham, 28 January 2009
Birmingham on a dull January afternoon earlier this week. Contrary to received wisdom it was both warmer and drier than London but despite that not exactly a cheering sight. Tucked away behind the tree at the back is Birmingham Symphony Hall.
One dodgy underpass later, et voilà:
The entrance is the mirrored bit on the right of the photo above. And inside - the world's longest programme queue:
The public areas may be a bit mall-like for comfort, but the hall itself is a mighty art deco spaceship of chrome and panelling. On the right and left of the organ are special acoustic chambers that are opened or closed depending on the music performed. For today's loud programme they were fully open:
It's the home of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who recently appointed the phenomenal Andris Nelsons as their Music Director. Nelsons is Bayreuth-bound this summer, and his first concert of 2009 with the CBSO promised a glimpse of his Wagnerian goodies.
The 2000+ hall was three quarters full - a pretty impressive achievement for a midweek afternoon. Mostly greysters, of course - who else has the time during the day? - though I did spot a few schoolboys and even an Ilan Volkov lookalike.
So Nelsons wasn't quite the youngest person in the house, but it was a close run thing. He began the show with a story. So overwhelming was his first operatic experience at the age of five that he wept and couldn't sleep all night. The opera was Tannhäuser, and he chose the Overture and Venusberg Music to open this concert.
Springing around the podium like a cat on bonfire night, his five year old self threatened to burst out from his tail suit, galvanising the orchestra to play with a passion and energy you just wouldn't believe was possible on a cold Birmingham afternoon. To say he's bonded with his orchestra would be the understatement of the century - these players were glued to his every glance.
But a great performance takes more than just enthusiasm, and his structuring was masterful. He conjured that sense of something beyond a self-contained concert piece, genuine 'bleeding chunks' hewn from a greater whole. It made me want to listen to the whole thing straight away.
Despite conducting from a pocket score that just would not stay open, he captured the essence of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, more introduction than summation, drifting with doomed inevitability into the Liebestod. Irène Théorin, majestic in shimmering black gown and bleached electro-Pob, sounded tentative, not quite in charge, and the orchestra supplied most of the rapture and poignancy.
But she convinced totally as Brünnhilde, with a scorching Immolation scene ending the second half's Götterdämmerung extracts. Nelsons amped up the power, and Théorin floated brightly and clearly over the orchestra, her top notes radiating brilliantly and thrillingly around the hall.
Worth the trip.
Another dodgy underpass. In this one it's still Xmas: