MusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Orchestra of Opera North: The Firebird – Huddersfield Town Hall

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Conductor: Ben Palmer

Soloist: Kristine Balanas

The Kirklees Concert Season of the Orchestra of Opera North treads the knife-edge between popular favourites and the shock of the new with remarkable skill. Next month, astonishingly, Huddersfield hosts the first performance of a newly commissioned Concerto for Sitar; in January the programme could fairly, if paradoxically, be described as popular pieces no one knows! All the music was very accessible, but even the only regularly performed piece, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, was played in the less common 1919 version.

Put together a conductor, Ben Palmer, with particular expertise in film music and an orchestra which spends much of its time in theatre pits and the programme became totally logical: before the interval two Austrian giants of Hollywood music and after the interval two Russian masters of music in the theatre, all four very much of an era, born between 1882 and 1897.

There were one or two more composers involved, but nobody did more than Max Steiner and Erich Korngold to establish the Germanic symphonic language as the lingua franca of Hollywood from the 1930s onwards. Steiner’s Casablanca Suite, played with suitable panache by the orchestra, united the key elements of that film: a real Warner Brothers opening, all brass and tuned percussion, swirling sounds of the souk and unashamed borrowings of As Time Goes By and The Marseillaise (a triumphant finale). The middle section veered towards Variations on a Theme by Herman Hupfeld and Richard Casey seized the chance to do a Dooley Wilson on piano.

Korngold continued writing concert pieces beside film composition, but for many years they have been sadly neglected, only now coming back into focus. His Violin Concerto shows the continuity between film and concert hall for Korngold, using themes from his film scores to build a classically constructed concerto which was premiered by the great Jascha Heifetz.

The first two movements are lyrical, romantic, perhaps not as memorable melodically as one had hoped, and the Latvian violinist Kristine Balanas was intense and expressive while relishing the virtuoso flourishes at the end of the first movement. However, the final movement made the strongest impression. Korngold’s theme here is the most American of all – not surprisingly, it was written for a film of a Mark Twain story – and initially anticipates the work of the godfather of a quite different school of movie composition, Aaron Copland. Balanas moved from the initial dance theme through multiple accelerations and changes in time signature with dazzling virtuosity.

Prokofiev’s Winter Bonfire was nearly an inspired choice. The story of a journey of Pioneer boys to visit a collective farm in the snow was scored for narrator and children’s chorus as well as orchestra and this performance was of substantial extracts, not the complete work. The opening departure and train journey were delightful – Prokofiev in full Lieutenant Kije mode – but, as things wore on, the truncated version became pleasant rather than involving.

Palmer led a disciplined and dynamic reading of The Firebird: the fluttering of the magic bird’s wings beautifully evoked by woodwinds and harp, Katschei’s dance full of brutal power, the key bassoon and horn solos impeccably delivered, the final statement majestic. It would have been good to use a word like “incandescent”, but somehow it wasn’t quite that.

Reviewed on January 23rd 2020

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. 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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