The reason for this all-American programme was ostensibly pragmatic: the concert was to coincide with the opening night of the British-American Business Council annual conference. In practice, the programme was a triumph. Significantly, dozens of schoolchildren were present to witness an evening of fine and involving music-making.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra © Neil Pugh
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© Neil Pugh

The concert began with Charles Ives’ Variations on America. There were periodic guffaws from the audience, not all of whom would have realised that the composer was not sending up our own national anthem but, in fact, making a series of irreverant variations on “My country, ’tis of thee”, the de facto national anthem (set to the same tune) in America in 1891 when Ives composed it. In fact, Ives composed the piece for organ and it was William Schuman who orchestrated the version presented in this concert in 1963.

The piece must have seemed alarmingly modern at the time, with its daring excursions into polytonality. Contemporary European ventures seem quite conservative in comparison. Conductor Matthew Coorey, ensured a tightly sprung opening and made sure that the collective orchestral tongue was firmly in cheek throughout.

The programme also featured a rare concert hall outing for Bernard Herrmann’s “narrative for string orchestra” from his score for Psycho. It was a thrilling to hear this fine symphonic film score played by a world-class symphony orchestra, particularly as it was film music that first drew me into the world of classical music. The attentiveness, throughout the concert, of the schoolchildren present suggested that at least a few more young people will hopefully follow in my footsteps.

Coorey’s highly disciplined conducting style ensured a taut attack in Herrmann’s irresistibly angsty “opening titles” scene. The string players of the CBSO clearly relished the Stravinskian writing, with numerous bow hairs lost in attrition as the suite progressed. Perhaps most recognisable of all is the graphic murder scene featuring those iconic and terrifying violin glissandos, which, the excellent programme note suggested, were a reference to Norman Bates’ taxidermic avian collection.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring provided a welcome contrast to Herrmann’s tense score. Leader Zoe Beyers’ dreamy solo emerged over a characteristic Copland evocation of a vast and open American landscape. Copland’s desire for music to communicate and connect with audiences was in full evidence here, those schoolchildren still rapt, with numerous woodwind solos delivered with character and space. This is, of course, a ballet score and it was presented as such with great panache by Coorey, who ensured absolute clarity in some of the more complex rhythmic passages.

These dance and rhythmic elements would seem to have been strong influences on Leonard Bernstein when composing West Side Story. The well-known symphonic suite from the musical ended this concert in spectacular style. Huge forces gathered on stage for this and included a battery of percussion instruments. The drum kit was enclosed in a Perspex sound shield so it was obvious that we were in for a sonic extravaganza. The percussion section, and the kit drummer in particular, deserve a special mention for their outstanding contributions. Also, the principal trumpeter’s elaborations in the gleefully exciting “Mambo” deserve a shout-out and were greeted with grins all round.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a Venezualan youth orchestra to give a thrilling performance of this piece. If there was anything to criticise it may have been the slightly hammy Lenny-like dancing that Coorey engaged in during the piece (who could conduct it straight, though?) or the fact that the tragic final coda did not quite have the impact it can.

The revelation of the evening came in the form of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser, a setting of Walt Whitman’s eponymous poem for solo baritone and orchestra. The performance was utterly harrowing, as one might expect from the graphic text, which portrays something of the gruesome experiences he witnessed as a volunteer in hospitals treating victims of the American civil war.

Roderick Williams was the unflinching baritone protagonist, looking the audience squarely in the eye as he sang with a beautiful, creamy tone. Though the orchestral writing is characteristic of Adams, with its pulsing ostinatos and the addition of a synthesiser to more standard orchestral forces, the vocal line reminded me at times of Britten, who would surely have approved of setting this sort of material to music. The mood of the music changed with each verse and particularly vivid orchestral outbursts accompanied key phrases. Alan Thomas on two types of trumpet provided tender solos and Beyers was, once again, a tirelessly sensitive violin soloist. These solos provided some salve to the horrors. This was, without doubt, adult listening, so one hopes those children in the audience were successfully transported away from these grim scenes with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances and the generous Candide overture encore.

*****