Like just about everyone else in UK classical music, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has spent the first half of 2021 in extreme uncertainty as to what might be possible when. Now, though, they’ve published a solid season of concerts – or, at least, the first half of a season, lasting from September through to their New Year concert on 9th January.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO
© Andrew Fox

How many conductors can you fit into four months? The CBSO will have a vacancy for Music Director next summer, when Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla steps down from her short-lived but impressive time in the post. Whether or not that’s the reason, this autumn season gives off a the flavour of a programme of auditions, with no fewer than 15 conductors joining the orchestra in addition to Gražinyte-Tyla. Five already have permanent conducting positions with the orchestra: Michael Seal (Associate), Kazuki Yamada (Principal Guest), Jaume Santonja Espinós (Assistant), Simon Halsey (CBSO Chorus) and Julian Wilkins (CBSO Youth Chorus). The others form a diverse sampler of conducting talents from across the globe: Gustavo Gimeno (Spain), Cristian Măcelaru (Romania), Finnegan Downie Dear, Richard Balcombe and John Wilson (England), François Leleux (France), Kevin John Edusei (Germany), Marta Gardolińska (Poland), Gergely Madaras (Hungary) and Eduardo Strausser (Brazil). For anyone in the Birmingham audience who wants to compare and contrast what the current conducting scene looks like, this autumn is going to be the chance to do it.

The majority of the repertoire being played should be in the audience’s comfort zone, being focused on Romantic and post-Romantic works. Many of these are familiar favourites: some are well loved but not performed so often in concert; some are rather less familiar. The season’s opener, played twice on 16th and 18th September, contains all three: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (a favourite crowd-pleaser) is being performed with Poulenc’s Gloria and Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony (neither of them exactly top ten but still popular) and Fauré’s Messe basse (a relative rarity).

Dame Sarah Connolly
© Christopher Pledger

If what you’re after is core Romantic symphonies, your first option is Gimeno conducting Tchaikovsky's Pathétique on 22nd-23rd September, followed by Măcelaru with Brahms 1 on the 30th. There’s also Beethoven's Pastoral on 6th-7th October, Mendelssohn's Italian on 3rd November and Dvořák's New World on 9th December. Each of these is accompanied by at least one high profile soloist: the Tchaikovsky is paired with Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, sung by Dame Sarah Connolly; Steven Osborne plays Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto (with Brahms 1), James Ehnes takes on Britten's Violin Concerto (with Beethoven 6), Benjamin Grosvenor plays Beethoven's First Piano Concerto (with Mendelssohn 4). With the Dvořák, cellist Raphael Wallfisch and baritone Sir Simon Keenlyside perform the UK premiere of Jonathan Dove’s song cycle In Exile, written for the CBSO, while the season’s first world premiere is Mark-Anthony Turnage’s seven minute Go For It, commissioned by the orchestra to celebrate its centenary in 2020 but postponed for obvious reasons (it features in the Brahms/Rachmaninov concert).

Later symphonic work includes Samuel Barber's Symphony no. 1, played with a bunch of other favourites in a 20th October concert entitled “Jess Gillam’s American Roadtrip” (look out for Gillam playing the Villa-Lobos Fantasia for Saxophone). On the dark side, Michael Seal conducts the CBSO Youth Orchestra as it stares into the abyss with Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 – a portrait of Stalin and the Stalin years – on 31st October, while a more lyrical and nostalgic side of Russianness can be found on 1st December with Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3.

Gražinyte-Tyla conducts the CBSO and the CBSO Chorus in two contrasting large-scale non-symphonic works. The concert on 6th November is entitled “A Covid Requiem” and will feature Fauré's Requiem amongst other music yet to be announced. It’s time for opera on 16th November in the shape of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, with a strong cast of soloists headed by Elena Tsallagova (whom we described as “a sassy, pert Vixen” at Glyndebourne). 

Simon Halsey
© Matthias Heyde

There’s lighter fare in the season, much of it with a French accent: François Leleux conducts Prokofiev’s second suite from Romeo and Juliet on 14th October in a programme that includes Rossini, Mozart and Berlioz; Kevin John Edusei conducts Debussy and Ravel favourites, while Jaume Santonja Espinós conducts Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals in a family concert on 24 October which includes the season’s second world premiere: Carnival of the Endangered Animals by the acclaimed and prolific film composer Debbie Wiseman (for an idea of what makes Wiseman tick, see our 2017 interview). Lighter still are the two “Friday Night Classics” concerts: on 22nd October the CBSO and Richard Balcome celebrate the 50th birthday of Elton John’s Your Song with a parade of his greatest hits in symphonic form, while 3rd December sees a concert dedicated to Classic FM's Hall of Fame – Swan Lake, The Lark Ascending, Ride of the Valkyries and their ilk.

The year closes with a set of three Christmas choral concerts conducted by Simon Halsey (the repertoire hasn’t been announced yet), while the CBSO and Eduardo Strasser bring in the New Year – somewhat later than usual on 9th January – with a Musikverein-style concert of Strauss waltzes and polkas – The Blue Danube, Tritsch-Tratsch, Fledermaus and plenty more.

You can see details of upcoming CBSO concerts here.

This preview was sponsored by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.