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Selected Review


Orchestral

Grace-Evangeline Mason world premiere

CBSO Centre, Birmingham

 

Grace Evangeline Mason

On the afternoon of October 16, members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave their first live concert since the March lockdown. Entitled ‘A Toast to the Twenties’, the programme consisted of four contrasting octets written in the 1920s, together with the premiere of a new octet by Grace-Evangeline Mason. Birmingham’s CBSO Centre was the setting for this socially-distanced and very special hour-long event.

Under Michael Seal’s responsive direction, the persuasive opening account of Varese’s Octandre of 1923 set a very high standard of performance. Each of the eight players (four woodwind, three brass and double bass) made their mark, but the opening soliloquy from oboist Rachel Pankhurst was especially arresting, breaking the orchestra’s collective half-year-long silence with engaging, directly communicative playing that retained the music’s spontaneous, unworldly aspect.

Eugene Goosens was a regular guest conductor in Birmingham from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s. Marking this association, the programme included a rare opportunity to hear his Concertino for String Octet (1928). Its three linked movements embrace neo-classical elegance, bustling energy and, in the central slow movement, an English-sounding, folk-like lyricism. Brisk and crisply articulated, the outer movements had a vigorous charm, while the harmonic fluctuations of the central Andante brought a more reflective, wistful approach. The CBSO players communicated their affection for the score in every bar.

Commissioned by the CBSO for its centenary year, Grace-Evangeline Mason’s My Thoughts Fly In At Your Window (2020) is a two-movement piece for an octet consisting of two violins, viola, cello, double-bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. It was inspired by the closing line of Sara Teasdale’s poem At Night: ‘my thoughts fly in at your window, a flock of wild birds’. The substantial opening movement, which takes its title and central melodic line from the first part of the sentence, was subtle and atmospheric, juxtaposing swirling figurations with several extended, songlike solos. The material grew out of an expressive clarinet line heard at the outset over hushed, held string harmonics. A later solo passage of considerable emotional intensity for cello was eloquently interpreted by Eduardo Vassallo. A sustained viola line ushered in the shorter second movement, which followed without a break. Scored for strings only and quietly teeming with invention, this tiny coda-like utterance was inspired by the idea of a flock of wild birds. It formed a spirited, telescoped counterstatement to the more expansive opening movement. Deft, intricate and concise, Grace-Evangeline Mason’s new chamber piece suited the intimacy of the venue and its delicate tracery and shimmering gestures elicited a first performance of considerable poetry and emotional commitment from the CBSO and conductor Michael Seal.

Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet (1924) were performed with blazing conviction, the lyrical unfolding lines given added piquancy by the occasional, biting dissonance. To conclude the CBSO’s recital, Stravinsky’s Octet of 1923 for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone received a reading of great buoyancy and spirit, the waltz and jazz elements savoured fully but never overdone in Michael Seal’s ideally paced interpretation.

This well-chosen programme showed off the CBSO’s musicality in a triumphant return to the performing stage. A necessarily select audience gave the players a deservedly warm reception.

Paul Conway

 

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