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Orchestra of Opera North – 2020: An Isolation Odyssey

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Conductor: Tobias Ringborg

With an opera and concert season cut short by the coronavirus outbreak and a devoted audience to satisfy, Opera North has been making an impact via the internet, with a whole series of performances, official and unofficial, newly filmed or recordings of previous triumphs, notably the Ring Cycle.

The most ambitious of the new projects, though only some five and a half minutes long, is 2020: An Isolation Odyssey, a virtual performance of the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and named with reference to the Stanley Kubrick film it was featured in.

The full work was scheduled for performance by the orchestra in late March under the baton of Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg and, when that was cancelled, cellist Daniel Bull and viola player Lourenco Macedo Sampaio decided to ask Ringborg to conduct this virtual performance. So he is seen conducting the score in a beautiful wooden church in Sweden while 40 musicians from the orchestra, in their own homes, dressed in full evening dress, play their parts – and then all that was needed was to put the whole thing together!

The result is inspiring, technically and musically highly impressive and occasionally amusing. At the heart of it is a fine performance of the iconic “Sunrise” and the intense and intricate section for strings that follows. Images complement the music and are in themselves powerful or diverting. It all begins with Ringborg in a dimly lit church, then, as the sun rises, brighter images of brass players surround him. The focus, constantly shifting, ranges from a single musician to a spreading montage that eventually encompasses all the musicians.

The majority of the musicians are filmed decorously enough in their homes – a good chance to check out their taste in art – but it’s possible to notice a highly unlikely wolf mask, performances in garden or street or, best of all, the percussionist with his two children, also in bow ties, covering their ears as he crashes his cymbals.

The whole thing is very serious but not solemn, tinged with fun, and thoroughly uplifting in cheerless times.

Other items to be found on Facebook or Youtube or both, often under the banner Opera North at Home, include two examples of pianistic virtuosity and technical trickery (at a more modest level than the Strauss project). Stalwarts of the Music Staff Annette Saunders and Martin Pickard, in their respective homes, romp through a buoyant split-screen account of the Prelude to Carmen and Chorus Master Oliver Rundell delivers a remarkable eight-handed version of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, videoed from four different angles and dizzyingly complex.

Of several performances by Chorus members (plus principal clarinet Andrew Mason showing off by playing two of the things at the same time), an unexpected treat, recently posted on Facebook) is Alex Banfield joining forces with Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta – who is definitely not a member of the chorus, but an award-winning international singer noted for several brilliant performances at Leeds two years ago. Alex and Wally (as she is billed) come up with a beautifully harmonised version of the wonderful Stanley Brothers favourite, Angel Band.

Just to prove that music has no boundaries!

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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