Monday, 18 November 2013


I took a break from being splenetic and incandescent with rage this weekend. No, really. Even someone as permanently grouchy and curmudgeonly as me needs the occasional day off. To soothe my furrowed brow, I went to Birmingham. Or more specifically, because I'm sure you're all wondering how being in Birmingham could help any mental torture, I went to Symphony Hall for a couple of concerts in their international series.

The first one was Mahler's Seventh Symphony, played by the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducted by Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, the hip young gunslinger of conductors who established El Sistema to provide a route out of the favelas for the poorest children in his country. I'm not a huge Mahler fan to be honest, finding too much of it bombastic, but the experience of one of his big symphonies is stunning, and Dudamel did a fine job. Perhaps now there's a vacancy at the CBSO, he fancies his chances?

If you don't know Mahler, you probably do know Mahler through echoes and homages, especially if you watch films much. No Mahler, no John Williams and a host of other soundtrack composers. In particular, no Star Wars Imperial March, no Star Trek theme and arguably no Red Dwarf theme either: the seeds of all these pieces are in there.

The other concert was Maxim Vengerov and the Polish Chamber Orchestra playing Mozart's Violin Concertos 4 and 5, followed by some Tchaikovsky. Again, not my favourite periods or composers but I was in the mood for some high-octane virtuoso stuff, and by Toutatis I got it. Playing the 1727 Kreutzer Stradivarius, Vengerov played like a man possessed (and a man who likes to show off). He wrung everything from that violin, and the orchestra did him proud too. He gave two encores (both Saint-Saens pieces) and got a standing ovation. A superb night. Or it would have been were it not for the man sitting next to me, who appeared to have contracted St. Vitus' Dance. Worse than that, his clothes appeared to be made of foil, his skin was like paper and his beard reminded me of the old guy in this ad.

He couldn't stop rubbing his sleeves, hands or whiskers, even in the quietest, most intense moments. I wanted to relocate his teeth to his lower intestine, which I am sure was not Mozart's intended emotion.

Here he is playing it elsewhere some years back, without any audience sound-effects.

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