Conductor: Oliver Rundell
Of all the great Victorian Town Halls across the old West Riding, Dewsbury offers the best concert acoustics, so it was an especial joy to see a symphony orchestra (albeit with fairly modest forces – 30-plus) return after a long hiatus. Opera North’s Christmas Concerts at Dewsbury are always imaginatively planned and 2021 was no exception, though it was rather less ambitious than usual.
The variety of presentation was reduced by the inevitable excision of audience carols and the understandable omission of the Opera North Children’s Chorus. No matter: the Orchestra and Chorus were there, together with the rather wonderful Youth Chorus. The staples for the evening were carols sung mostly by both choruses, with orchestra, often with interesting arrangements, with one or two real rarities among the other pieces.
A majority of the carols were presented in arrangements by Jonathan Rathbone, respected choral arranger/conductor and former musical director of the Swingle Singers! That leaning towards the jazz idiom surfaced in a terrific arrangement of We Three Kings where a dramatic orchestral introduction was followed by an infectious dance rhythm (bolero?) in the accompaniment. Another variation on traditional versions of carols came in Will Todd’s Three Jazz Carols, Once in Royal David’s City the one to gain most from the piano and drum kit accompaniment.
Especially striking was Rathbone’s arrangement of Masters in the Hall, 19th century poet/painter/designer William Morris’ words sung by the Opera North Chorus to a melody by the great viol virtuoso Marin Marais – a rollicking climax to the evening before the final good nights on We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
The Chorus also shone in two unaccompanied pieces: Angela Morley’s delicate setting of Quelle est cette odeur agreeable (a melody known to the earthier music listener as the boisterous drinking song Fill every glass from The Beggar’s Opera) and Walking in the Air transformed by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange with the men of the chorus providing the wordless accompaniment for the women’s soaring melody part. A particular highlight was the Youth Chorus displaying delicate phrasing and precise control of dynamics under the baton of their Chorus Master, Nicholas Shaw, on Morton Lauridsen’s setting of James Agee’s Sure on this Shining Night.
Oddly, given that the concert was, with that exception, conducted by Opera North Chorus Master Oliver Rundell, the two most substantial pieces were instrumental. Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano, a musical evocation of three Botticelli paintings, with his usual gift for combining antique style with 20th century orchestration, was a delightful conclusion to the first half. The Christmas connection came in the second movement, The Adoration of the Magi, woodwind suggesting the appropriate oriental setting and alternating with the hymn tune Veni Veni Emmanuel.
The real rarity came in the works of Mel Bonis, the late 19th century/early 20th century French composer whose neglect must have something to do with her gender. On the evidence of this concert she deserves to be remembered (and played), but she is no lost genius. After the excellent Helen Evora had sung her Noel de la vierge Marie in the first half (rather operatic vocal line, lush accompaniment with the odd up-to-date dissonance), the second half orchestral piece was her Suite en forme de valses, attractive, stylish, essentially salon music.
The evening may have been a little less boisterous than some previous Dewsbury Christmases, but the audience delight at the return of the Opera North team was evident and, as the evening wore on, the exponential growth in Santa hats and tinsel on the stage reminded us that fun, too, can be infectious.
Reviewed on December 16th 2021