Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor: Justin Brown
Soloist: Jeni Bern (soprano)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The model for all the Straussian celebrations in the New Year is, of course, the Vienna Philharmonic’s concert on New Year’s Day and, by the time of Justin Brown’s third concert with the Orchestra of Opera North, we had nearly got to the day itself. A packed house at Leeds Town Hall enjoyed an entertaining and musically accomplished couple of hours on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.
The programme was, if anything, even more slanted towards Johann Strauss the Younger than usual. Only a selection from Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhandler and one piece each from father Johann and brother Josef broke the monopoly. However, Johann Strauss II was an astonishingly prolific composer – in his amiably informative introductions Justin Brown referred to well over 400 opus numbers – and the programme included plenty of less well-known pieces.
Brown showed a distinct fondness for Strauss’ pieces in foreign style. The famous Russian Marsch-Fantasie was delivered with characteristic bite, as was the Persian March, and the naughty boys in the percussion section, having behaved all through the first half, were allowed a few supernumerary cracks and bangs as they donned their sombreros to race to the interval with the Banditengalopp. And, of course, the Hungarian flavour of much Viennese music was well represented, with Jeni Bern suitably flamboyant in the Czardas from Die Fledermaus, followed by the more obscure, but delightful, orchestral piece Eljen a Magyar. Later the headlong Czardas from Ritter Pazman found the orchestra astonishingly light on its feet for such a large ensemble.
Away from Johann the Younger, two highlights were supplied by Josef Strauss and Carl Zeller. The waltz The Music of the Spheres begins in almost ethereal style, with more modern sounding harmonies than one associates with the Strauss family, before settling to a series of attractive waltz themes. In contrast to some of the more rumbustious pieces on offer, Brown obtained playing of refined delicacy from the orchestra. Jeni Bern’s two songs from Der Vogelhandler were in fine contrast, a song in praise of the “happy Palatinate” following the beautiful and haunting Als gebluht der Kirchenbaum.
The relaxed and idiomatic conducting of Justin Brown, Music Director of the State Theatre in Karlsruhe, assured fine playing from all sections of the orchestra, from the fleet woodwind of Johann the Elder’s Lisztian Furioso Galopp to the precise strings in the Neue Pizzicato Polka (not the famous one).
The scheduled programme finished, as usual, with The Blue Danube, the second of Strauss’ mature and highly developed concert waltzes in the second half; the other, the elegant Emperor Waltz, as ever disproved any suggestion of triviality or superficiality about Strauss’ music at its best.
After the cruise on the beautiful blue Danube, it was time for the encores, time to bring out the thunder sheets and clappers for the Thunder and Lightning Polka and give father Strauss the last word with the perennially popular Radetsky March.
Reviewed on 31 December 2017 | Image: Contributed