ConcertFestive 19/20MusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Opera North Christmas Concert – Dewsbury Town Hall

Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North

Choirs: Chorus of Opera North & Opera North Youth Chorus

Conductor: Garry Walker

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Orchestra of Opera North’s Christmas Concert in Dewsbury Town Hall is now an annual institution, never following quite the same format, but always combining carols with instrumental pieces and mixing the predictable with the unfamiliar.

This year’s concert, under the baton of Opera North’s Music Director-designate, Garry Walker, was structured to feature the orchestra and the company’s choruses separately. Perhaps less adventurous than in some previous years, it nevertheless had the decided advantage of merging the excellent Opera North Youth Chorus with the renowned main Chorus. Opera North seems to thrive by somehow being simultaneously elitist and democratic and it must have been exciting for the young choristers to line up alongside the adult Chorus – it certainly produced some splendid singing for the audience to enjoy!

The concert began with possibly the most wonderfully zany orchestral suite to come out of the 20th century: Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement – why is this such a rarity in concerts? Originally incidental music for Labiche’s farce, The Italian Straw Hat, it consists of six movements of parades, processions and chases, with the occasional meditative lull, and ends with the ultimate in silent film-style hurry-hurry music, with police whistles going off every few bars. The orchestra for Divertissement is a relatively small string section, single winds, but four percussion – and the uproarious performance featured off-the-wall contributions from such Opera North stalwarts as trumpeter Michael Woodhead and percussionist Christopher Bradley.

The rest of the first half saw the expanded orchestra in full concert orchestra mode, rather more predictable, but still fun, with the musicians by the interval having to take their turn imitating dogs, cats and horses as well as playing light music favourites with style and elan. Four Leroy Anderson numbers reminded us of the wit and variety of his music, from the glorious “Joy to the World” introduction to A Christmas Festival to the big band swing chorus of Sleigh Ride. A couple of Strauss polkas (one by Josef, one by Johan II) found the orchestra in fine form for the upcoming Viennese concerts and The Whistler and his Dog was an unexpected treat. Written by Arthur Pryor, the trombone virtuoso with Sousa’s Band, it was once a staple of the variety theatre and came over as old-fashioned in the most charming way, with another veteran of 25-plus years with the orchestra, David Moseley, excelling on piccolo.

For the second half the orchestra thinned down to strings only and the choruses took over, quite often singing a cappella, the medieval carol Adam lay ybounden full of varied vocal colouring. A delicate In the Bleak Midwinter (in the Darke setting) featured solos from Youth Chorus members Eleanor Doran and Henry Etherington. The most substantial work of the second half, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, with Nicholas Butterfield excelling in the solo part, gave more prominence to the orchestra, especially lower strings (beautiful cello introduction).

Peter Gritton’s arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas found all the melancholy implicit in that saddest of Christmas songs (if you have any doubt how sad it is, watch Meet me in St. Louis) before a final Hark! The Herald Angels Sing sent us out fortified against the worst the election results could do.

 

Reviewed on 12th December 2019 | Image: Amy Charles

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