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Birmingham Symphony provides non-stop drama

Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Simon Rattle.
With Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Symphony Hall, April 9 and 10.
By Allison M. Marino
Staff Reporter

Terror coursed through my veins as the cymbals continuously crashed and the chorus chanted wordlessly just meters away in the pirate scene in Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloe. No, this scene was not performed by dancers, but by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus as part of their national tour. With Simon Rattle conducting, the CBSO treated Symphony Hall audiences to three different programs of nonstop drama, including such musical landmarks as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The tour's theme, "The Revolution of Expression," refers to the ground-breaking musical activity that occurred during the years 1911-13, with each program focusing on works from a single year. Even the encores were composed in the appropriate year.

Daphnis and Chloe, the most outstanding work of Thursday's concert, is technically a ballet score, yet the composition is in essence a symphonic work needing no dancers and perhaps not even the story of romance that accompanies it, especially when it is performed with the fire of the CBSO. A feeling of passion and spontaneity marked Rattle's conducting, yet no nuance in Ravel's colorful writing was ignored. In the popular Suite No. 2 (with the opening "Dawn" scene), it was easy to imagine a perfect sunrise and Daphnis stretching as he emerged from a luxurious sleep. Accompanied by the sumptuous sounds of this intoxicating sunrise, Rattle's broad arm movements seemed almost magical. A final climax was reached after Daphnis and Chloe were reunited and the pirates dispersed, as the chorus ascended ever upward and the orchestral tension and volume only increased; Rattle was literally jumping with the syncopation as the orchestra wildly followed him to the sudden, joyous conclusion.

The CBSO's rendition of Daphnis and Chloe drove home the importance of live performance. The orchestra's powerful visual presence on stage could not be reproduced on a recording or a videotape, nor could the dynamic range, which exceeded that of any compact disc. At times, I saw the violinists' bows moving, yet could not hear the sound; in other passages, such as the pirates' abduction of Chloe, the ensuing violent dance, and later, the jubilant finale, I was nearly blasted out of my seat not only by the full orchestra, which included 10 percussion instruments, but also by the 80-member Tanglewood Festival Chorus, directed by MIT's own John Oliver. When the music was too loud, no one could reach for a remote and turn it down. In combination with Rattle's superb artistic direction, this immediacy made Birmingham a wonderful contrast to the refined and mature BSO. Wild, loud, and talented, Birmingham's passion at times seemed uncontrollable, adding an element of power and emotion that seemed truly inspired. Appropriately, the audience went berserk after Daphnis and Chloe, with cheering, foot stamping, and a standing ovation.

Soprano Elise Ross and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group gave a different sort of dramatic performance on Friday with a work from Vienna, the other progressive musical hotbed of the early twentieth century. In a darkened Symphony Hall, a lone beam of light, representing moonlight, set the stage for Pierrot Lunaire as Ross, garbed in elegant silk robes, captured the audience with her Sprechstimme, Schoenberg's term for pitched speaking. Ross told the audience (in German) the bizarre story of Pierrot -- a Viennese Romantic carried to grotesque, clownish extreme -- with such emotional intensity that the tale seemed unreal and fantastical. Her quick mood changes within the inherent sameness of the dissonant Sprechstimme kept the audience's attention, while her attacks were never too harsh, giving the seemingly chaotic music a certain smoothness. The climax of the 21 verses of Pierrot Lunaire was clearly "The Moonfleck," in which Pierrot is obsessed with removing a spot on his black jacket which is actually a spot of moonlight. Ross and the CBMG captured the insanity and irony of Pierrot's confusion in this verse, after which the mood settled and Pierrot's agitation eventually faded into wishful daydreams. The audience responded well to this unusual work, though not with as much abandon as for Daphnis and Chloe.

Birmingham handled the other pieces of the 1911 and 1912 concerts, Debussy's Images and Nielsen's Sinfonia espansiva, with creativity, though at the end of the Nielsen selection the orchestra was uncharacteristically caught in a mezzo-forte dynamic for too long, flattening the contour of the piece. Pianist Emanuel Ax's expressive and accurate execution of Prokofiev's first piano concerto fit right in with the rest of the CBSO's energetic performance. Though I was unable to attend the CBSO's 1913 program, I am sure that Rattle's passionate leadership made the concert a happening.