MUSIC / Regional variation: BBC Orchestras - Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
Although it was billed as a celebration of the achievement of the BBC and its orchestras, the 'Variations on an original theme' festival at Symphony Hall had a distinct whiff of the positive learning experience about it. Apart from Radio 3's benevolent presence, British music performed by British orchestras was firmly on the agenda.

More specifically, the 'learning experience' part of the package featured Elgar throughout, and some more contemporary fare. However much our musical life seems dominated by London, no composer represented at this festival could be described as anything other than provincial in the best sense. In Birmingham, Elgar is almost a local lad. John Casken, whose Tableaux des Trois Ages was given by the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier on Friday, sticks firmly to northern roots, while James MacMillan and his Confession of Isobel Gowdie is as Scottish as could be.

Elgar's heritage, another sub- theme, is hard to assess, but perhaps there was a connection between him and James MacMillan. The energised stasis that constitutes much of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie might be seen as a great-grandchild of Elgar's slow, rubato-laden harmonic rhythm. If we were going in search of lineage, then a slice of Vaughan Williams would not have gone amiss. Britten was there on Thursday in the shape of the Four Sea Interludes, in the company of Shostakovich's Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings; and on Friday, Berlioz crept in with the BBC Philharmonic, represented by his Symphonie Fantastique (with a view, perhaps, to poking fun at Elgar's assertion that 'a symphony without a programme is the highest development of art').

There were plenty of contrasts, not least in the BBC Scottish SO's concert on Sunday under Jerzy Maksymiuk. Elgar's Violin Concerto got off to a fairly wild start, but the orchestra settled to its task of supporting rather than following the soloist by mid-movement. Kurt Nikkanen's solo playing was inspiring: sweet and impassioned in equal measure. The only thing that seemed to be lacking was a touch of humour. Those thirsting for a glint of that had to wait for the end of the second half and a pungently characterised Enigma Variations.

The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is nothing if not serious. MacMillan pursues his harrowing subject with integrity and the results on Sunday night were extraordinary. In less exacting acoustics The Confession must grip without transcending the conventional boundaries of taste. But in Symphony Hall, its 13 fortissimo chords and searing interruptions to the aftermath leapt out of the texture with obscene immediacy. Harrowingly effective without doubt, but is it art?

Less contentious, and more co- ordinated, was the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Tadaaki Otaka on Thursday night. The washier passages of Britten's Sea Interludes were too sharp-focused for comfort, but Elgar's Symphony No 1 received an almost ideal performance. The string section basked in the limelight of its exposed lines; Otaka's control of structure convinced throughout and led to a blistering return of the main theme at the end: fierce and honest rather than grand. This festival has been full of lessons.

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