Even in the Twilight Concerts at the Howard Assembly Room, modest in length, resources and even more so in pricing policy, the planners of the Opera North season show their usual canniness in programming. The programme for November 24th featured a much loved favourite, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, guaranteed to fill the hall (and it did!) and a rather wonderful piece that none of us knew, Bernstein’s early Piano Trio. On Thanksgiving what could be more appropriate than an all-American programme? The fact that Copland was an early mentor, and lifelong friend, to Bernstein made the programme coherent – it wasn’t difficult to find hints of Copland in the young Bernstein’s trio. And finally there was the connection to the Bernstein Double Bill in the recently completed Main House season – now that’s joined up thinking!
Most of us are familiar with Appalachian Spring in a full orchestral version, but Copland originally scored it for nine strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano – and this was the version played by a contingent of the Orchestra of Opera North, directed from the violin by guest leader Kyra Humphreys. With founder leader David Greed (42 years in post) reducing his work-load prior to 2022 retirement, guest leaders have stepped in from time to time – and Kyra Humphreys seemed to relish the role, even giving an amiably informative introduction.
Appalachian Spring tells the story of a young pioneering married couple setting up in Pennsylvania – the music originally accompanied a Martha Graham ballet – and moves from high spirits to contemplation in eight vividly melodic movements. The disparate elements are gloriously fused in the celebrated variations on the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts.
Hearing it in the 13-piece original was a revelation, the orchestral textures so clear and fresh, the woodwinds joyously individual or joining expressively with the strings to colour the orchestral sound, the whole thing freer and more flexible.
To start the concert pianist Annette Saunders introduced the Bernstein Piano Trio, to be played by herself, Kyra Humphries and cellist Jessica Burroughs. The growing habit of classical musicians talking to the audience is something to be encouraged! The trio, she pointed out, encompasses many different elements, its meditative opening soon a thing of the past. Saunders, Humphries and Burroughs sailed through fugues and hoedowns with dynamic precision and made the most of the humorous and playful elements. It was Benjamin Britten who titled a piece Playful Pizzicato – on the evidence of this Bernstein had at least as good a claim to the title. For a 19-year-old to write a piece of serious chamber music with so much humour took plenty of chutzpah – something Leonard Bernstein never lacked.
In the comfortable elegance of the Howard Assembly Room, with slowly changing American images projected behind the musicians (New York skyscrapers for Bernstein, wooded hills for Copland), this was an ideal way to round off a working day.
Reviewed on November 24th 2021