A symphony in harmony

Coming soon: a scene from the 2011 Tokyo production of Davd Bintley's The Prince of the Pagodas which opens at Birmingham Hippodrome on Bebruary 25.

An Evening of Music and Dance

Royal Ballet Sinfonia and Birmingham Royal Ballet

Symphony Hall


BIRMINGHAM is lucky to be blessed with not just one world class symphony orchestra but two – a claim few cities in the world can make.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia might be heard playing their important part but they are usually only seen  merely a sort of ethereal glow with an odd glint of baton emanating from some mysterious underworld beneath the Hippodrome stage when Birmingham Royal Ballet perform.

Just occasionally though, after a short period to allow their eyes to adjust to the bright world above ground, the musicians are brought out into the daylight to show what a fine orchestra they are in their own right.

Under principal conductor Paul Murphy they took us though Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 5, the beautiful Clair de lune from Debussy and an interesting Waltz from Jazz Suite No 2 from Shostakovich.

The second half brought us the Oxford Street march from the prolific Eric Coates, Marietta’s Lied by Erich Korngold, with a violin solo from leader Robert Gibbs,  and Le Carnaval Romain from Berlioz. All played to perfection.

The musical highlight though was a wonderful performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue from 1924, a piece which fused jazz and classical music and perhaps for the first time put serious American music on the map.

Company pianist Jonathan Higgins gave a virtuoso performance with the complex piano solos but not only was there an exciting musical performance but also a world premier of a ballet choreographed by BRB dancer Ruth Brill – her first for a public audience.

Ten dancers led by William Bracewell and Samara Downs, the men all in black and the five women in black and blue tutus, had the task of interpreting one of the best known orchestral pieces in the world and did it with aplomb.

Ruth Brill who added dance to George Gershwin's bustling slice of Americana, Rhapsody in Blue. Picture: Tim Cross

This is not an easy piece to either play or set to dance. It has different rhythms, from ragtime and notated improvised piano solos to sweeping orchestral sections and is a collection of pieces which all relate to each other yet don’t depend upon each other.

Thus the earliest recording from 1924, just after its premiere, with Gershwin on piano, last just under nine minutes – the maximum length for a two sided Victor disc. The full version, played at Symphony Hall, can run to more than 18 minutes, more than twice as long. Yet both work from the opening with that instantly recognisable trill and glissando on clarinet, played at Symphony Hall by Ian Scott, to the full crashing orchestral crescendo.

Ballet pieces are written for dance and thus the music, beautiful as it may be, provides a canvas to be painted by the dancers, Rhapsody is already a fully fledged masterpiece which means dance can never compete only complement which is something Brill managed to achieve with some skill.

She wanted to emphasise that this was an evening of music and dance so there are sections when the dancers pause and acknowledge the music as the orchestra play on and other parts where ten dancers flow with the complex blues rhythms created by Gershwin, or create individual patterns to match the syncopated music.

The result was a well constructed and pleasing whole with dance and music fusing together and showing considerable promise for Brill the choreographer.

Other ballet pieces included James Barton, Aranch Baselga and Fergus Campbell in a pas de trois  from Les Rendezvous by Daniel Auber, choreographed by Frederick Ashton and Tyrone Singleton and Elisha Willis in a touching pas de deux from David Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast with Carmen Flores on viola.

The second half brought us Joseph Caley and Momoko Hirata in a beautiful pas de deux  from Birmingham Royal Ballet’s next production, a British premiere of Benjamin Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas choreographed by David Bintley.

We saw a glimpse of the future with 46 students from the Elmshurst School for Dance shining in selections from Scenes de Ballet by Alexander Glazunov.

Finally favourites Chi Cao and Nao Sakuma gave us the Diana and Acteon pas de deux from Riccardo Drigo. When both are smiling and dancing well they truly are a pleasure to watch and rounded off a glittering evening of both music and dance.

Roger Clarke

Read Ruth Brill’s interview about choreographing Rhapsody in Blue and hear Gershwin’s own 1924 and 1927 recordings.

The Prince of the Pagoda’s opens at Birmingham Hippodrome on February 25 and runs to March 1

 And pars de deux


NORMALLY the musicians are out of sight of the majority of the audience at performances by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, but not this time.

Instead of being hidden away in the orchestra pit, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia appeared on stage for an annual opportunity to show their faces and their paces, and what an impact they made, just behind the dancers.

Under the guidance of principal conductor Paul Murphy, they opened the concert with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5, impressed with Debussy’s Clair de lune and excelled in Waltz from Jazz suite No. 2 by Shostakovich.

A superb solo violin performance, too, from the leader, Robert Gibbs, in Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied, from Die tote Stadt.

Not forgetting, of course, the part played by the BRB, who whet the appetite with a beautifully danced pas de trios from Les Rendezvous, featuring James Barton,  Arancha Baselga and Fergus Campbell.

A touching piece, too, from Beauty and the Beast, danced by Tyrone Singleton and Elisha Willis, and while you wouldn’t automatically connect Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with ballet, ten dancers thrilled the audience with choreographer Ruth Brill’s interpretation, pianist Jonathan Higgins providing a glorious solo.

A glimpse of the future was provided by the outstanding youngsters of Elmhurst School of Dance before a stunning finale with the BRB’s stars of today, Chi Cao and Nao Sakuma in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux.

Completing a superb evening, glamorous former principal ballerina Deborah Bull linked the programme together as a stylish compere. 

Paul Marston


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