Burt Bacharach: What the World Needs Now


CBSO Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The loss of Burt Bacharach in February of this year was a terrible loss to the music industry. A prolific composer, he had huge success with lyricist Hal David in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, the partnership with David would end and time and tastes would move on, leaving no apparent place for his classy melodies and orchestrations; nevertheless, he continued composing, collaborating and performing pretty much to the end.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), under the baton of conductor, Richard Balcombe, opens proceedings with an overture comprised of a medley of hits. The sound is lush and the orchestration familiar as the orchestral sound fills the hall. All of Bacharach’s trademarks are there: cascading strings, a firm rhythm section, highlights from piano, brass and woodwind, complex and sophisticated melodies – later with the addition of clever lyrics (with occasional doses of ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’s) to accompany them. It’s easy with hindsight to suggest that Bacharach’s music is easy listening; in fact, it is precision-engineered to flow harmoniously to the ear and give that illusion: the more one listens the more one hears and appreciates the genius of the man.

Of course, Bacharach’s output was about songs, so this celebration needs vocalists and this evening we have four superb singers with contrasting voices and styles. They’re all on stage pretty much all of the time, those not singing a given song providing backing vocals and harmonies: the voices meld together exceptionally well.

First up to the microphone is Graham Bickley, a long-time collaborator with our conductor, with Magic Moments. Bickley’s voice is a pleasant light tenor, though when he really opens up his voice has considerable power. Bickley also acts as our master of ceremonies, introducing his fellow vocalists and offering some background around some of the songs. Later he will channel Gene Pitney in 24 Hours from Tulsa, providing plenty of emotion as the torn protagonist. Next up is Abbie Osmon with Do You Know The Way to San Jose. Her voice is high, clear and pure. In this song, the sound balance means the orchestra slightly overwhelms her vocal, but this is corrected later, for example, when she gives us Close to You. She also brings a breathy quality to Wishin’ and Hopin’ and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself. Laura Tebbutt’s voice is bluesy in Don’t Make Me Over, building to an astonishing climax full of emotion and power. The brass highlights in Walk On By provide a neat counterpoint to her vocal here, a vocal full of depth and power. Katie Birtill’s voice has a sultry quality well suited to those songs made famous by Cilla Black – There’s Always Something There to Remind Me and, purportedly Bacharach’s own favourite composition, Alfie. Her voice soars with remarkable power.

Two pieces deserve special mention. Balcombe mentions that not all lyrics written in the 1960s stand up to scrutiny today, with the lyric to Wives and Lovers being a case in point. He remarks that Bacharach reworked the song in the 1980s as an almost entirely orchestral piece and this is performed tonight. It allows the CBSO to show off its quality and delicacy in a beautiful piece of artistry, with some great highlights from saxophonist, Mark O’Brien. And Barbra Streisand, in a 1968 American TV show, duetted with herself in a combination of two songs, A House Is Not A Home and One Less Bell To Answer. In this concert, Birtill and Tebbutt recreate the duet and it is a thing of utter beauty on the ear.

Bacharach takes simple themes and runs with them, generating crises and climaxes as he goes and Balcombe’s understated conducting works with that to ensure that each song has an emotional hit. This evening takes Bacharach’s sublime music – mainly from those glory years of the 1960s and 1970s – and combines them with great singers with a world-class orchestra behind them: the result is a worthy tribute and celebration of a man operating at the very peak of his endeavours.

Selwyn Knight 

Reviewed on 3 November 2023

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