Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Classical Pride review – Pride Month’s last London hurrah

7 July 2023

LGBTQ+ composers and performers spotlighted in an impressive collection of brilliantly performed pieces.

classical pride

Davóne Tines, Nicky Spence, Ella Taylor, Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, CBSO & LGBTQ+ Community Choir (Photo: Barry Creasy)

Like ‘the long 18th century’ LGBTQ+ Pride Month tends to stretch beyond June, and Friday evening saw the celebrations finally close with a tightly executed concert of ‘classical’ music from composers both past and present with allegiance (albeit sometimes invisibly at the time) to the rainbow flag. From the past: Piotr Tchaikovsky, Francis Poulenc and Leonard Bernstein; from the present: Julian Anderson and Caroline Shaw.

Serving up the multi-hued banquet were the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, along with the LGBTQ+ Community Choir (specially put together from existing choruses The Fourth Choir and London Trans Choir, with additional LGBTQ+ members of other choirs and institutions), the pianist duet (and couple) Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, and singers Ella Taylor (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor) and Davóne Tines (bass-baritone). With Chef d’orchestre Oliver Zeffman directing the team and Nick Grimshaw as Maitre d’ introducing the dishes, this proved to be an evening of high-end dining.

Bernstein’s Overture to Candide provided a suitably up-beat beginning. Zeffman has a neat and economical style of conducting that oozes meticulousness, yet allows some room for emotion, and the CBSO responded well to throw bags of energy into to the busy rhythmic opening, yet also delivering some warm strings and precise woodwind for the ‘O Happy We’ theme; the requisite sparkle of the ‘Glitter and be Gay’ codetta was all present and correct.

Precision was also the watchword for the opening of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Poulenc used the words “gay and direct” to describe the piece, and this phrase absolutely sums up its ‘in your face’ mercuriality and whimsy, clearly designed to enchant Poulenc’s glittering beau monde circle. The orchestra did not disappoint on this front, whether it was through the campy rattle of castanets or the knowingly delivered comedic creeping bass of trombones and tuba in the first movement, the mannered exposition of the outrageous Mozartian pastiche in the second, or the prim exactitude of the spikey rhythmic orchestral interventions in the third. Kolesnikov and Tsoy were a dream team, demonstrating that unique synergy that pianists who have strong personal relationships always display (one thinks of the Labèque sisters, or even further back to Ogdon and Lucas), whether it was in the delicately played rippling passages over long orchestral lines, in the seamless handover of the Mozart material, or the fearsome trilling and skipping of the third movement.

“Serving up the multi-hued banquet were the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra…”

Julian Anderson’s Echoes, a setting of excerpts from Hopkins’ poem ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’ for orchestra, chorus and baritone solo was written specially for the evening. It’s clearly of our time, but displays influences of both 20th century Modernism and Minimalism (one is reminded, in parts, of Adams’ Harmonium).

The orchestra turned in an excellent account, bringing the exotic sonorities of the piece (there’s a deal of work for bells and gongs) to the fore. The chorus part is challenging – occasionally rhythmically complex, often harmonically novel, and requiring whispers and shouts; full marks, then, go to the chorus master Graham Ross, for pulling together singers unused to working together to deliver a convincing and assiduously blended sound. Davóne Tines delivered his lyrical – but often angular – material with emotion and scrupulous attention to line; his voice is full of upper harmonics, making for a lovely clarity and lightness of tone, but, sadly, it didn’t always cut through some of more heavily orchestrated passages.

Caroline Shaw’s Is A Rose provided an interesting contrast to Anderson’s piece. A setting of three poems (by Jacob Polley, Shaw herself, and Robert Burns) for three soloists, it takes Burns’ ‘O my Luvve is like a red, red rose’ and riffs on it, evoking images of nature and domesticity. The music itself is lush and filmic – the largely string accompaniment summoning the rich chordal harmonics of the English Pastoralists – but the recurring sarabande rhythm (and the inclusion of a harpsichord) takes us back further to the Baroque era. In ‘Annunciation’ Tines’ voice – so suited to Baroque work – came into its own to deliver a gossamer web of gorgeous vocal texture. Shaw’s poem ‘And So’ is barely accompanied, leaving the soprano to deliver its lyricism (from the opening harpsichord twinkles) from the soul. Taylor did not disappoint, and with their rich, creamy voice, brought the intimacy of this love song to life. In the Burns poem the sarabande theme returns, along with some atmospheric choral humming and a heartrending oboe solo over the pastoral strings. It was Nicky Spence’s turn to sing, and, again, the material suited his voice perfectly, enabling him to deliver the long rhapsodic lines with his usual professionalism and poise.

Tchaikovsky’s short symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet closed the concert, and once again, the orchestra under Zeffman made excellent work of conjuring all of its shifting moods. Control of tempo and dynamic were spot on (the slow build to the ‘fight’ theme was expertly controlled, and the horn tension before the love theme nicely restrained). Zeffman, though, didn’t hang about, and this was a generally sprightly performance; the broader themes were just slow enough, but some of us like a little more wallowing.

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