Birmingham Symphony Orchestra enthrals the audience at the Corniche Breakwater

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra kept the audience engrossed with a challenging program featuring the guest soloist, the Canadian virtuoso James Ehnes.
James Ehnes performs with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Corniche Breakwater. Christopher Pike / The National
James Ehnes performs with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Corniche Breakwater. Christopher Pike / The National

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s UAE debut on Monday night gave the audience the chills – in more ways than one.

The British music maestros were performing as part of the Volvo Ocean Race stopover, and the new season of Abu Dhabi Classics, so the gilded surroundings of the Emirates Palace ­Auditorium, the normal venue for such gigs, was swapped for a floating outdoor stage at the ­Corniche Breakwater.

The outdoor event may have been a little chilly by usual standards, but the orchestra’s challenging programme – featuring the guest soloist, the Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes – ­received a warm reception.

Led by conductor Michael Seal, the orchestra began with the Four Sea Interludes from the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes.

The piece’s oceanic theme was split into four movements. The opening Dawn section was delicate, as clarinet ­arpeggios fluttered over deft harp and violas. Clanging church bells were introduced in the second section, Sunday Morning, before some assertive flutes and xylophones wove into the next part, Moonlight.

The orchestra fully announced itself in the piece’s volatile finale, Storm. Seal did a sterling job of creating a sound both clear and aggressive. The timpani thundered in a battle for supremacy with an almost squalling brass section.

The second piece was dedicated to Ehnes, who stepped on stage to take on Burch’s ­Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, op26. The 1866 concerto is renowned for its advanced technicality, with three movements exhibiting disparate moods and pace.

The first section had Ehnes slowly making his impression felt. He quietly emerged from behind the flutes with a brisk cadenza, repeating the theme with increasing muscularity. The second movement was rich in melody as the violin introduced new ideas over an orchestra constantly on the move.

Ehnes took on a more rhythmic sound on the final section with the violin almost galloping over the orchestra to conclude with a energetic flourish.

For the final piece, the orchestra returned to its roots by performing a piece by Edward Elgar, the British conductor who led the symphony’s first performance in 1920.

The orchestra fluidly went through the Enigma Variations op36, the differing passages almost acting as musical vignettes exhibiting various moods ­including melancholy and ­romance.

It was an apt choice for the finale, as the second-last movement had the orchestra returning to a nautical theme with the timpani evoking the deep rumbles of a cruise liner – it was a fine finish to another entertaining Abu Dhabi Classics concert.

The season continues with a piano recital by Khatia Buniatishvili at the Manarat Al Saadiyat Auditorium on January 7. For more details go to

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM


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