ConcertFestive 15/16Live Music/GigMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Orchestra of Opera North: Lutosławski, Mahler – Huddersfield Town Hall

Conductor: Richard Farnes

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

In July 2016, Richard Farnes leaves his post after 12 years as Music Director of Opera North. His tenure has been remarkably successful in many ways, not least his relationship with the orchestra which, already excellent in 2004, has reached new heights under his stewardship.

His final concert in the Kirklees Concert Season was expected to be a memorable one – and so, in many ways, it was. After so many seasons of balancing the popular and the challenging, Farnes was entitled to sign off with a programme that put the emphasis on the latter.

Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 1954, is a piece Farnes had long wished to programme. Though it was in many ways an excellent choice, in that it provided dramatic opportunities for a much-enlarged orchestra and highlighted the quality of the individual sections, it could hardly be considered popular; however the audience were nonetheless impressed by the performancedespite the difficult concert piece.

The Intrada is full of aggressive rhythms, played with biting precision by the orchestra, with the cellos taking the opening theme at the start of an evening where the section received unusual exposure – and played superbly. In the second movement, the attention switched to the upper strings in a virtuoso display of high-speed brilliance and to percussion and double-basses together for an unexpected coda.

Lutoslawski’s writing is by no means without melody, but often it is fragmentary, so the passacaglia form, with its repeated bass, gave more unity to the final movement. By turns intense and urgent and, less often, lyrical, the movement gave all sections of the orchestra the opportunity to shine before the final shattering climax.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 complemented the Lutoslawski perfectly. Once again the orchestra was massive: one trombone fewer, certainly, but still brass and horns totalled not far off 20, and the ranged percussion again featured double timpani. The contrasts were even more striking, the sound at times whittled away to almost nothing and melodies ranging from vigorous dance to delicate hints of the sounds of nature.

The opening was magical, with the bird songs of the woodwind and the distant sound of off-stage trumpets over the buzzing drone of the cellos. Though the movement finished with exultantly whooping horns, as did the second, Farnes generally was happy to create a sense of stillness: after all Mahler’s tempo direction is “Slowly, dragging”.

Perhaps the most remarkable movement in the symphony is the third, a Funeral March based on an ominous minor-key version of Frere Jacques. Farnes brought out all the mystery of an ethereal double bass solo over soft, distant-sounding timpani before the grotesque parody of mourning arose from the shrill woodwind.

The trust and understanding between conductor and orchestra were evident in the “stormily agitated” and, finally, grandly triumphant last movement. So it was throughout a highly demanding programme which will be repeated at Leeds Town Hall on December 5, 2015.

Touring locally | Image: Contributed

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