Why the CBSO’s Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 with Kazuki Yamada was ‘exquisite’

Sometimes it’s not really enough to say a performance was beautiful, stunning or ravishing. The adjective on its own doesn’t really do the job, even though sometimes I’m the first to admit that in my rush to get something written down the adjective is the only thing that comes to mind.

Sometimes there’s a need to explain why the adjective has been chosen. Case in point with the CBSO’s exquisite performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 last night at the BBC Proms, conducted by their soon to be Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Kazuki Yamada.

Why exquisite? Because it was one of those rare occasions when the music seemed to be allowed the space it needed to live and breathe. It was as though Yamada had found the moment to trigger the emotion and wasn’t in any hurry to leave anyone behind. None more so than in the third movement where the opening vulnerable clarinet solo was by the conclusion, transformed into something more healing, perhaps even defiant.

To be able to hold onto the moment for what felt like just the right amount of time before letting go and heading in a different direction made this an incredibly special listening experience. We were given the chance to be acquaint ourselves with what was going on. We didn’t linger but we weren’t railroaded either.

For a specific example go to 1 hour 43 minutes and 25 seconds (on BBC Sounds – Prom 14) and listen to the upper strings slow right down until the last note that resolves the chord. (The encore – Elgar’s Chanson De Nuit – illustrates the same technique to even greater effect. )

Prom 14: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Chief Conductor Designate Kazuki Yamada in the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 25 July 2022. Photo by Mark Allan/BBC

To see 90+ musicians directed by one conductor, all pull in one direction to create such a delectable moment in itself. To know that an audience experienced it with them – a musical in-breath and out-breath – reinforces why live performance is such a wondrous cultural encounter, and serves to illustrates what makes this art form so remarkable.

That was just being in the hall. The radio broadcast mix combined depth in the basses and detail in the upper strings and woodwind, exposing some of the detail in the work I’d not heard before. In the third movement in particular, the intertwining of solo melodic lines after the false ending was magical stuff.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2022/23 Season gets underway on Friday 16 September.

📸Mark Allan

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra announces new programme for May – July 2021

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has announced a new series of post-lockdown live audience concerts at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, running from 19 May 2021 until 7 July 2021. Concerts are performed twice – once in the afternoon, and later in the evening, and consist of shorter programmes with no interval. Standard (new) practise in a post-lockdown world.

But what sounds a little bit different and quite intriguing as a result is discovering that a new acoustic screen has been installed at the rear of the Symphony Hall stage, supporting a larger socially distanced ensemble than most at this particular time. That means bigger works and, as long as socially-distancing mitigations are either reduced or removed, a bigger audience too.

CBSO Concert Highlights

Two programmes with Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, including world premiere of Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel Symphony (16 June), and Weinberg and Mahler with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (23 June) 

Edward Gardner conducting Stephen Hough in Saint-Saëns’ energetic Piano Concerto No. 4 (19 May)

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 with Alina Ibragimova (7 July)

UK premiere of Julian Anderson’s major new cello concerto Litanies with Alban Gerhardt conducted by Kazuki Yamada (30 June)

Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, conducted by Nicholas Collon (26 May)

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2 with soloist Paul Lewis and conductor Chloé van Soeterstède (2 June)

Ian Bostridge conducted by Michael Seal (9 June)

A copywriting sweet-spot somewhere between due reverence, imagination, and click-bait

But you wouldn’t immediately gleen that information from the website if you’re not a recipient of a press release necessarily. The What’s On section of the CBSO website presents all of the concerts using titling conventions that assume knowledge or are a little ambiguous.

Thematic titles don’t necessarily reveal the detail of the event – the core content. Similarly, they’re all billed on the navigation page (see above) as 2.00pm concerts. From a user experience perspective this could (unless I had the press release already) lead me to conclude there was nothing available for me to watch unless I was able to break out of work hours and trot along to Symphony Hall. “Mirga conducts Ades” overlooks the key headline element – it’s the premiere of Ades’ newest work. Perhaps the most useful title on the page is Collon’s appearance conducting Shostakovich 5.

This perhaps won’t matter in the short term where the goal is, quite understandably, the need to get the machine working again, and get staff practiced in event management at a challenging point in time. And with capacity savagely reduced by COVID guidelines, perhaps the digital content doesn’t have to work too hard in order to sell the tickets.

Be Thoroughly Good. Tell the exciting story now.

As an enthusiastic audience member with an eye for digital content, I recognise I have an implicit need not being met here.

Live music is returning. The opportunity to hear an orchestra play again is tantalising. There is much aniticipation brewing. It is as though I’ve had all the earwax removed from my ears and I’m now being let loose back in an auditorium.

As a website user I don’t want to have to work hard to work out what I want to treat myself too. I don’t want to be beguiled by an ambiguous concert title; I need tempting triggers – a sort of copywriting sweet spot between due reverence, imagination, and click-bait.

Funnily enough, perhaps the most useful piece of functionality on the page is the one which is buried at the bottom: the ability to add these concerts to your diary via an .ics file.

I flag this with my blog post in mind from a week or so ago. We have this moment in classical music right now, to tell a different story. We have limited opportunities to make a bold statement. When our day-to-day experiences become noisier as they will surely become, so it will be more difficult to gain cut-through with cleaner user experiences.

To discover more about the summer season visit the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra website.