With the exception of a single, isolated concert in November, this was the first time the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra had played before a live audience in Symphony Hall for 15 months. The hall to which they have returned is not quite the one they knew before. Not only has the planned work on reshaping the entrances and foyers been completed, but in the auditorium itself the platform has been extended backwards by a couple of metres so that with the risers previously used for the woodwind and brass removed, an orchestra of up to 80 players may be accommodated, even with social distancing.
There is a series of eight weekly programmes (each played twice) in the CBSO’s summer season, which runs until July. Edward Gardner is conducting the first and last of them. He took advantage of the extra onstage space by ending his opening concert with Debussy’s La Mer in its full, original scoring, and giving the three “symphonic sketches” the heft of a real symphony, especially in his deliberate account of the opening movement.
Some performances of La Mer have more glitter than this one, but there had definitely been no lack of glitter or fizz in the account of Saint-Saëns’s Fourth Piano Concerto that had opened the concert. Stephen Hough was the soloist, dazzling in the precision of his bravura flourishes and assertively muscular in the statements of the theme on which the first movement is built, as the concerto’s mood switches from the portentous to the frivolous and back again.
Between the two French works there was Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea, with its churning strings, threatening brass, and tracery of tuned percussion, and an ancestry that seems to include both the music of John Adams and that of his namesake John Luther Adams. It’s a concise and effective piece of Americana.