Thursday’s Symphony Hall concert was a fascinating juxtaposition of lightness and seriousness. As well as being evident in all of the music, conductor Kazuki Yamada embodied this himself, his intensity when facing the orchestra contrasting with the bubbly zing of his address to the audience, expressing his happiness at being appointed the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s next Chief Conductor.

Kazuki Yamada and the CBSO
© Hannah Fathers

This juxtaposition was nowhere more outrageously demonstrated than in Poulenc’s Gloria. A veritable archetype of volte-face religious expression, Yamada opted to allow the sharp shifts in tone – still sounding so bold and strange 60 years after its first performance – to sit together with no attempt to smooth over the joins. The result seemed less the product of a febrile mind than one of overflowing, multi-faceted enthusiasm, akin to the irrepressible jaunt of Leonard Bernstein’s choral music. Poulenc’s bursts of extraversion, peppering the work with metric irregularities, and building climaxes through the accumulated effect of repeating phrases, became an emphatic assertion that articulations of religious faith ought to embrace the possibility of simply having fun. In such a context, its more inward sequences maintained their oddness while also conveying a clear authenticity, Yamada not wallowing in them but keeping them light and breezy, Carolyn Sampson’s exquisite solos sounding more angelic than ardent.

The sharpest mix of light and serious came in Fauré’s brief Messe basse. A slim but sincere work, it received a slim but sincere performance by the CBSO Youth Chorus directed by Julian Wilkins. The deliberate simplicity of its ideas felt exacerbated in such a rich programme of music as this, to the extent that it ended up serving as a kind of innocuous second-half palette cleanser. 

Kazuki Yamada and the CBSO, Chorus and Youth Chorus in Symphony Hall
© Hannah Fathers

Thus cleansed, the CBSO delivered the kind of performance of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3 in C minor that indicated what’s to come when Yamada’s tenure begins in 2023. Here was an orchestra evidently giving it their all – and then some – for their next maestro, throwing themselves into the filigree and the fire of the music with such delicacy and force that it became practically Mahlerian. For his part, Yamada elicited remarkable power from the orchestra with the slightest of minimal gestures, in the process making the work’s structure cohere so strongly that it sounded like a single 40-minute span of convoluted musical evolution. The CBSO’s full-throttle approach was nonetheless highly malleable, Yamada pulling them back to create a tone of stately grandeur during the first movement’s soft episode, pushing them on in the second movement’s Presto sequences, making the rising piano scales almost impossibly fleet. 

While the sheer scale of the Saint-Saëns, bringing the evening to an end, was enormous, it was as nothing compared to the performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture that opened the concert. Famously regarded by the composer as rather trivial, this assessment was turned on its head in a rendition of the piece that returned to the 1960s experiments of Karajan, who used voices to sing the opening section of the work, and Igor Buketoff, who also used them to reinforce the nationalistic ending. It could have been so crass and overblown – yet it was nothing of the kind. On the contrary, here was that most rare of things: one of the most famous pieces of music ever composed, made to sound with all the impetus and edge of a world première. Yamada went further, teasing out countermelodies often missed in the urge to focus on the big tunes. More than a mere crowd-pleaser, it was a jaw-dropping display of joy, confidence and triumph that bodes enormously well for Yamada’s future with the orchestra.

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