ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Orchestra of Opera North: Arya – Huddersfield Town Hall

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Conductor: Harish Shankar

Soloist: Jasdeep Singh Degun

It says much for the success of the Kirklees Concert Season that such a sizeable audience turned up at Huddersfield Town Hall for a late Sunday afternoon concert that contained a piece by a 20th century Turkish composer whose fame has not really reached the West, followed by the world premiere of a concerto for sitar and orchestra by a young British Indian composer/performer. The Huddersfield public clearly trusts the Orchestra of Opera North to create a programme that will appeal – and on this evidence they are absolutely right!

Under the young Malaysian conductor Harish Shankar (this was a truly international concert) the Orchestra of Opera North delivered an electrifying performance of Kocekce, a “dance rhapsody” by Ulvi Cemal Erkin which takes its inspiration from the Kocekler, cross-dressing male dancers at the Ottoman court. With its shifting rhythmic patterns picked out in Eastern percussion and dynamic contrasts in the writing for a full symphony orchestra, it formed an exhilarating start to the concert. Fiercely emphatic passages alternated with gentler writing, evoking the world of the souk and the bazaar, the orchestra’s woodwinds excelling, clarinettist Andrew Mason outstanding.

Jasdeep Singh Degun’s Arya, commissioned by Opera North and rather surprisingly not the first ever sitar concerto, was striking in his ability to be both Indian classical and Western classical and sound at ease with both. In a helpful and revealing programme note, he expressed his dislike for the word “fusion” and defined Arya as “simply the music that I want to present to the world.”

And it sounded like that. The orchestration was fairly light: no brass or horns, just strings, double woodwind plus cor anglais, and percussion. At times, notably in the relatively fast second movement, the sitar was integrated into the orchestral sound; in both the first two movements there was a quasi-improvisatory (or, perhaps, genuinely improvisatory) passage for the soloist, equivalent to the classical cadenza, where the unique sound of the sitar emerged in all its glory; the use of the lower woodwind sonorities was especially effective, at one time sitar and bassoon sharing a melody.

Arya proved to be thoroughly accessible, the subtly changing melodic patterns oddly reminiscent of Philip Glass; it always put Degun’s virtuosity on the sitar to the service of the overall concept. Intense, but never troubled, it ended by fading into serenity.

The second half was more familiar, especially the first of three works by Sibelius. Under Shankar the always popular outer movements of the Karelia Suite (the Intermezzo and alla Marcia) were as bright and incisive as you could wish, but, if anything, the Ballade had even more impact, with its lyricism and subtle dramatic contrasts. The cor anglais solo proved an aperitif for The Swan of Tuonela, Catherine Lowe’s beautifully played characterisation of the swan the highlight of an evocatively bleak interpretation.

Sibelius’ Symphony Number 7 is never going to be his most popular, with his inspiration compressed into a 20-plus-minute single movement and little opportunity for melodic development. However, Shankar ended a memorable concert by leading the orchestra through Sibelius’ intensely concise musical arguments with total conviction.

Arya touring the North and Midlands with a modified programme

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