The 6th January is the twelfth day of Christmas and pretty much everywhere the decorations are down and thoughts are turning back, some might say thankfully, to everyday life again. There had to be a last hurrah, and in Birmingham it was provided by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a late New Year Concert in traditional Viennese style. Although less than a week into 2019, those few days did make the whole ‘New Year’ thing feel rather flat. Nonetheless, the CBSO tried to stretch out the season until the very last. The stage, replete with two Christmas trees, began filling up with white dinner jackets that would make a good business case for an advertising campaign by a detergent manufacturer. Finally, for good festive measure, conductor Stephen Bell treated us to his alternative Christmas Cracker humour between the musical pieces. 

Jennifer France © Nick James
Jennifer France
© Nick James

The quality of the music, however, was excellent. Although the music of the Strauss family and their contemporaries might not be expected to test an orchestra of the CBSO’s standard, the musicians were utterly faultless in their execution. The balance of sound, the tuning, the confidence, the weighting of the sections, the tightness and unity of the orchestra was really first class. Possibly, they were too perfect, by which I mean that in achieving perfection they played with a hint of restraint – beautifully crafted fireworks, but no big explosions. But better that than explosions without beauty.

There were all the usual big Johann Strauss II pieces, which are the works that bring the punters in – the Overture from Die Fledermaus, Tales from the Vienna Woods and, of course, On the Beautiful Blue Danube. I doubt that a betting man would have been offered good odds from anyone on a stake that The Radetsky March would get the aisles clapping as an encore. In an effort to raise this predictable programme to a higher level, there were pieces by two other composers, Emile Waldteufel and Franz Lehár. The CBSO also introduced a wonderful soprano to the Birmingham concert stage, Jennifer France.

Waldteufel’s Estudiantina Waltz is not a particularly familiar work, but an instantly enjoyable one with a lovely low trumpet melody. It blended into the programme seamlessly. Likewise, Lehár’s light operetta pieces “Vilja” from The Merry Widow and “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss” from Giuditta, were right at home alongside the Strauss favourites. Again, these were instantly appealing musical pieces that retained quality and integrity without requiring too heavy an investment in profound contemplation. Ideal for the occasion.

Lehar’s music, and Johann Strauss II’s The Voices of Spring benefited significantly from the vocal delivery of Jennifer France. Her glittery sequined dress as scintillating as her ascending scales, she showed panache, control and musical maturity in both English translations and original German libretto. Miss France has won a number of awards, most recently the 2018 Emerging Talent (Singer) Award from the Critics’ Circle. It is easy to see why. She swaggers with confidence, has a clarity to her voice and the ability to pitch her coloratura’s effortlessly. She owned the stage and the audience’s attention and she made this matinee concert a success.

I left Symphony Hall having heard some old favourites played exceptionally well, having been introduced to a couple of pieces with which I was unfamiliar and having enjoyed the vocal talents of an emerging soprano. I even enjoyed some of Stephen Bell’s gags. Despite the predictability of the concert, there was something fresh presented and the feeling of optimism that inhabits Viennese music pervaded. It is that feeling of optimism that has provided a recipe of success for Viennese concerts since the 1940s. 

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