How do you please a crowd? That seems to have been the overriding question dominating last Saturday’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall. In many ways this was less to do with the actual choice of music than with the way the music was performed. Though not entirely.

Michael Seal
© Eric Richmond

In the case of Gary Carpenter’s 2018 choral work Ghost Songs, the ‘crowd’ was clearly defined, primarily at least, as children. While a piece composed for children to sing (on this occasion performed by the CBSO Youth and Children’s Choruses) obviously needs to be tailored to less experienced musicians, it was disappointing to realise that the whole tone of the piece was essentially limited to them too. Setting words by Marion Angus, Robert Louis Stevenson and one anonymous text, any hope of attaining something meaningfully ‘ghostly’ was dispelled in the opening minutes. Carpenter’s music aspired to little more than a faintly pantomimic and often filmic notion of ghostliness – more Caspar the Friendly Ghost than Paranormal Activity – in which simplification and sugar replaced anything resembling an authentic sentiment. While the concert as a whole had a distinct light music flavour, nowhere was the occasion lighter than here. Though performed admirably enough, it was a work only likely to please the most undemanding of ears.

It wasn’t apparent in a newer work like the Carpenter but in the Vaughan Williams there was the distinct impression that Michael Seal saw his role on the podium as less to do with steering a personal musical interpretation than with keeping an eye on the autopilot. This had a weird impact on the London Symphony, causing it to appear to fluctuate between two main modes of expression: treading water and violence. Here again was that sense of crowd-pleasing: that in order for the symphony to make the most immediate and dynamic impact, its contours should simply be exaggerated. There were, it’s only fair to say, times when this was undeniably striking. The opening movement’s sudden explosion into rhythmic life and its unexpected bursts of fanfare were impressive, while the slow movement – so much more ghostly than in the Carpenter – at times took on an uncanny monolithic quality.

Yet Seal’s approach ultimately did much more harm than good. The Scherzo somehow found itself reduced to a mere trifle, while the finale entirely came apart at the seams. It was clear that the ‘vision’ of this performance was on short-term moments rather than large-scale scope. Such a continual emphasis on the here and now – oblivious to the then and thence – made the music by turns dull and exhausting, resulting in the final movement having no coherence, sounding like the worst kind of disjointed whimsy, as if Vaughan Williams’ composition process had involved nothing more than randomly following his nose. Perhaps that’s a reasonable description of modern-day London, but it surely bore little resemblance to what the composer had in mind.

Despite these handicaps, nothing could mar or inhibit the beaming joy of John Foulds’ April – England. The work’s lilting pastorale quickly evolved into an hypnotic rotating bass formation with free-flowing ideas above, sometimes locking into place, elsewhere skipping and spilling over its notions of regularity. Here, Seal was demonstratively in charge of things, seemingly controlling the weather with his bare hands, causing the work’s ominous moments to be swiftly dispelled as if he were evaporating dark clouds overhead. It was impossible not to get caught up in such simple, sweet happiness; this was crowd-pleasing at its most genuine and authentic. If only these eight charming minutes had been reflected in the 70 that followed.