However loyal concertgoers are to their local bands, one of the most anticipated aspects in any concert season is the arrival of visiting orchestras. Town Hall and Symphony Hall flexes its international muscles next season with a number of starry ensembles bringing mouthwatering programmes to Birmingham. Symphony Hall is famed for “one of the very best acoustics in the world” and hearing top flight orchestras there is an attractive proposition. 

Symphony Hall, Birmingham © David Karlin
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
© David Karlin

Jostling for pride of place are the Vienna Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. Simon Rattle is at the helm of the Vienna Phil for a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a work which received its world première in Birmingham in 1900. Based on Cardinal Newman’s poem, Gerontius follows a dying man’s soul from deathbed to judgement before God and Purgatory. Its creation wasn’t without difficulty, but it came to be regarded as Elgar’s choral masterpiece. The great British tenor Toby Spence is joined by Magdalena Kožená and Gerald Finley while the BBC Proms Youth Choir provides the choral forces of angels and demons.

The Leipzigers focus on the music of Mozart and Strauss under their charismatic Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly. Maria-João Pires is the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major K467, with its dreamy Andante. The Mozart is sandwiched by Strauss’ tone poems Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the latter being packed with self-quotations. The weighty Gewandhaus strings bring a very special timbre to Strauss writing and this concert – part of a Strauss/Mozart cycle the orchestra is touring – is unmissable.

This year’s two big anniversary composers – Sibelius and Nielsen – are both marked by visits from their native orchestras. The Royal Danish Orchestra includes Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, where in the first movement, a snare-drummer does battle with the full orchestra. Per Norgard’s Iris and Schoenberg’s Erwartung partner the Nielsen.

Town Hall, Birmingham © Adam Fradgley
Town Hall, Birmingham
© Adam Fradgley
In December, the Helsinki Philharmonic performs an all Sibelius programme, two days after the composer’s 150th birthday. The 2015 winner of the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition will perform the Violin Concerto. The evergreen Karelia Suite and En Saga (a fantastic tone poem) will be familiar to many listeners. John Storgårds concludes with the mysterious, one-movement Seventh Symphony.

Also from Scandinavia, the Oslo Philharmonic visits Birmingham, bringing music by their compatriot Grieg, along with Rachmaninov and Mahler. Mendelssohn was a regular visitor to Birmingham, his oratorio Elijah was even premiered there. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe presents as all-Mendelssohn concert, led by Sir Andras Schiff. Mendelssohn is also on the programme in the concert given by Kammerorchester Basel, Daniel Hope directing and performing the Violin Concerto in E minor.

It will be fascinating to compare different approach to the music of Shostakovich, with symphonies performed by the Dallas Symphony and Moscow State Symphony Orchestras. The Fifth is the composer’s response to public criticisms by Stalin over the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The Seventh is a very different kettle of fish. Nicknamed the “Leningrad”, it was dedicated to that city, besieged by the Nazis at the time of its composition. Delving layers of meaning, however, the symphony can also be seen not just as about the German invasion, but also about “all tyranny and totalitarianism”... a side swipe at his arch-enemy Stalin.

Staying with Russia, winners from the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition join the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev in October. Another Russian – Sergei Rachmaninov – is celebrated in two concerts where the Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Interior, Symphony Hall © David Karlin
Interior, Symphony Hall
© David Karlin

Concert performances of Strauss’ Salome and Handel’s Orlando should satisfy opera fans. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s visit should be especially relished, as it brings an opportunity to hear American soprano Lise Lindstrom as Salome. Lindstrom was a searing Turandot the other season at Covent Garden and many who heard her will be beating a path to Symphony Hall in October. Iestyn Davies leads an attractive cast in Handel’s 1733 opera Orlando, presented by The English Concert in Town Hall.

From grand scale to intimate, a number of pianists can be heard in recital through the season. Whether it be Maria-João Pires playing Schubert, Stephen Hough in Liszt, Mitsuko Uchida in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations or Murray Perahia playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, the variety is impressive. Up and coming pianists Igor Levit and Francesco Piemontesi are both serious talents worth catching. Indeed, a whole “Rising Star” chamber series runs through the season, part of the European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO) initiative.

So, whether your tastes favour opera, orchestral or chamber, next season Birmingham should have plenty to tempt you to visit Town Hall or Symphony Hall… or both.


This article was sponsored by THSH.