Making his debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in this concert, Ben Gernon cut an affably disheveled figure, despite full evening dress, as he bounded on to the stage at Symphony Hall. This orchestra does like its young conductors and Gernon is probably one of the youngest lined up for this season. He is nevertheless acquiring experience with the world’s greatest orchestras at quite a rate. He has already completed a Dudamel Fellowship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and is debuting with an impressive range of ensembles this season.

Ben Gernon © Hannah Taylor
Ben Gernon
© Hannah Taylor
Gernon has local connections, too: a tuba player, he is an alumnus of the CBSO’s own youth orchestra and he was raised and schooled in nearby Newport, Shropshire. Perhaps this explained a palpable sense of affection for him from the audience, present for this delicious programme of French and Russian music.

Gernon maintained a relaxed presence in Ravel’s orchestral suite, Le tombeau de Couperin, coaxing and conjuring gorgeous sounds from the orchestra without a baton in a manner not unlike Stokowski. The filigree passages for oboe in the Prelude proved no challenge for principal, Rainer Gibbons, who demonstrated his artistry both here and in the lyrical solo passages of the Minuet. The subversive Forlane, composed in an ironic response to the Roman Catholic papal ban on the supposedly more sinful tango, was ideally poised. The closing Rigaudon was a suitably jolly romp to round off this wistful fare.

Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major is surely one of the best birthday presents in history. It was the composer’s gift to his son, Maxim, for his 19th birthday. It has been played by several generations of the composer’s family over the years and is one of his most accessible works, with barely a trace of the sardonic humour or grit found in most of his output. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21, too; they have particularly similar second movements, both featuring touching melodies spun over a left hand triplet figure accompaniment.

This movement was realised exquisitely by pianist Anna Vinnitskaya and the orchestra. They moved as one in all the changes of harmony with only subtle hints of rubato, never over-egging the expression. The strings, in particular, produced a warm glow with a satisfying bass line. The segue into the lively finale was perfectly judged by Vinnitskaya and the orchestra navigated the tricky metre changes very well indeed considering the swift tempo, albeit on the edge of their seats. It made for great fun for all. It was a pity, therefore, that Vinnitskaya had opted for such a headlong tempo in the first movement. Gernon did well to keep the orchestra just about on track at that speed. No doubt many were thrilled by the ride, but I found it all rather breathless.

Gernon is to be congratulated if Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony was his choice of programming. It’s not often this gem of a piece gets a concert performance, especially when compared with the final three symphonies. Gernon has clearly taken the symphony to his heart, however, as he gave it total commitment, as did the orchestra. Importantly, he waited until the hall fell absolutely silent before ushering in the evocative opening to the first movement. This movement and the last were given punchy, taut accounts, ensuring Tchaikovsky’s more academic moments really felt like they were driving in the direction of the climaxes.

The wintry spell was cast by magically hushed strings and exceptional playing from the woodwind principals. The Mendelssohnian third movement scherzo found Gernon baton-less once more. While Andris Nelsons had made a bit of a meal of this movement a couple of seasons ago in an otherwise excellent performance, his younger British colleague made it seem more effortless and it’s by no means an easy movement to conduct. Gernon and the orchestra concluded the symphony in triumphant style, even risking a daredevil accelerando in the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s resplendent coda. This was an exciting debut and I hope Birmingham audiences will be seeing some more of Mr Gernon in the future.

****1