THE CRITICS: MUSIC: He's a safe pair of hands, all right. Too safe, maybe

Sakari Oramo/CBSO Concertgebouw, Amsterdam Candide Olivier, London An Equal Music Wigmore Hall, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Some weeks ago, I wrote about how Britain's least privileged provincial orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony, raised its own stakes at a residency in one of Europe's two great concert venues: the Musikverein, Vienna. This week, in mirror image, I bring you Britain's most privileged provincial orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony, playing Europe's other great hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. They make a telling contrast.

The Bournemouth Symphony tours to get known, but Birmingham tours to stay known. After 18 years with Simon Rattle, it's a famous band; its CDs are its calling-cards. And everybody knows it has the finest concert hall in Britain. That it also has the best rehearsal and administrative facilities of any British orchestra - in a new headquarters building that opened last autumn - completes the picture. "Privilege" is almost an understatement. The CBSO has been kissed by God.

But God, in Birmingham, was Simon Rattle, and he's gone - succeeded by a young Finn, Sakari Oramo, who is barely known outside his native country. So the CBSO has to sell him, hard. Hence the Concertgebouw. And in a sense, the orchestra is back to square one. But the interesting thing is that the CBSO management appears to want that: turning circles and, if possible, repeating history.

The repetition is quite close. Like Rattle when he first came to the CBSO's notice, Oramo is young (born 1965) and with limited conducting experience (he'd been a violinist). Also like Rattle, he was appointed after just three guest-dates with the orchestra. Ed Smith, the CBSO's long-serving chief executive and the man responsible for both the Rattle and Oramo hirings, says that in each case it was done "largely by hunch". But the Oramo hunch was shared by at least one other orchestra - the Stockholm Philharmonic - which made him an offer at the same time as Birmingham. The basis was his manifest integrity and straightforwardness as a musician. He was seen not to be a careerist in pursuit of stardom, but someone who would knuckle down and build a real relationship with his musicians.

Straightforwardness, though, has its downside. Watching him in the Concertgebouw, his un-flamboyance verged on awkwardness. His technique isn't elegant. And he had chosen to conduct an all-Sibelius programme that was hard to bring to life: the late symphonic poem Tapiola and early choral symphony Kullervo - a more or less apprentice piece with glorious moments but (as it was said of Wagner) aching quarter-hours. Sibelius never quite knew how to pull the score together; and I'm not sure Oramo did either, in a reading that was conscientious rather than dynamic.

But that said, he's a likeable musican with a quiet confidence that clearly wins his players over (four-fifths of the business of conducting). He's intelligent, perceptive, motivated; and although the critical response to his first months with the CBSO has been mixed, he seems unfazed by the task of stepping into Rattle's shoes with a repertory - Mahler, Sibelius, and Musica Britannica - not very different to his predecessor's. It's only a declared intention to perform Tchaikovsky that will get him away from Rattle's territory.

As for recordings, there is nothing pending - which must worry the CBSO whose relationship with EMI was never direct, only through Rattle. Oramo hasn't yet pulled in a single contract. So there's another area where his profile needs some fuel-injection.

Watching him walk down the sweeping staircase to the podium at the Concertgebouw - the longest, grandest, and most cruelly exposed platform-approach in any hall I know - I wondered if he quite had the charisma to make something of his time in Birmingham. But then, I daresay critics wondered similarly about Rattle 18 years ago. We'll have to wait and see, and hope that Ed Smith's hunch works a second time.

The new National Theatre production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide is reviewed elsewhere in these pages as theatre (see Robert Butler, page 8) - which is only right for an adaptation (by director John Caird) which has specifically turned the piece into a "play with music". But Candide has had as many lives as it has had librettists. As some of these lives are operatic, it's appropriate to use this space to say how wonderfully successful, on the whole, this adaptation is.

The problem with Candide has always been its crazy, sequential structure, which provides no real dramatic shape in scenes that mark time through a random journey. As successive generations of "collaborators" have moved in on the piece over some 40 years, so it has grown and shrunk, shape- shifting between music-theatre, cabaret and opera. Ten years ago at Scottish Opera, in a production by Jonathan Miller, it seemed to settle into some kind of finality. That was the version on which Bernstein based his unforgettable Barbican concert performances with the LSO - recorded by Deutsche Grammophon - and the best fun I've ever had, legitimately, in a concert hall. Christa Ludwig sang the Old Lady, Nicolai Gedda the Governor. Jerry Hadley was Candide, June Anderson (who could still sing then) Cunegonde.

At the National, things aren't so grand. No LSO, no grandi voci. There's just a small stage-band that will sound thin to anyone who knows the piece "symphonically", particularly in the overture where Caird offers no visual distraction beyond the ruminating figure of Voltaire (a mistake). For five long minutes you fear the worst.

What follows, though, is theatre of such brilliance and vitality that nothing seems amiss at all. The extra text (Caird has gone back to Voltaire) skips by with actors rather than opera singers to deliver it. And there's very little in the reassembly of the piece that isn't for the better - including a more substantial introduction to the Old Lady before she throws herself into her big number, and a shift in placement of the Kings' scene so that it supplies the motivation for Candide to cultivate his garden. Best of all, the role of Martin (played by Denis Quilley) is enlarged into a proper foil for Pangloss. Forty years ago, when Quilley took the title role in the first ever UK staging of Candide, there was no Martin to enlarge. He didn't feature as a character.

The central characters in Vikram Seth's new book, An Equal Music, are musicians with a homing tendency toward the Wigmore Hall. Last weekend, in a curious turnaround of art back into life, the Wigmore housed a concert of the music from the book: Bach, Schubert, Beethoven - Seth's tastes are solidly core classic - linked with readings by the author. It was nicely done but hardly necessary. Because this book is music; it surpasses illustration.

An Equal Music is a narrative of love and hurt, and when it talks of music it equivocates between insider knowledge and outsider innocence. There are whole pages of performance-detail in the book that make me, as a critic, wince. But they are oddly truthful, and the marker- buoys of a response to sound that carries deep into the structure of the writing. Its prose style ebbs and flows between plain-speaking and something like Shakespearian blank verse. The chapters are "phrased" into breath- length sections which tend to close on rhythmically precise codettas. And there's a structural symbolism of "fugues" that permeates the book at various levels. The characters spend a lot of time playing them. But then the whole novel tells a fugal story of recycled love that repeats at a counterpoint with itself and with other, "second subject" loves.

It's an extraordinary book that finds music in everything, and everything in music. That the Wigmore concert tried to turn this tender, touching novel back into what Auden would have called the "pure contraption" that inspired it was a nice idea. But it was still superfluous.