Conductor: Antony Hermus
Soloist: Christian Jones
Excellent as were the orchestra and soloist, this concert was above all a triumph for conductor Antony Hermus. Finally able to fully take up his role as Principal Guest Conductor for Opera North, and due to conduct the main house production of Leonard Bernstein next week, he displayed unrivalled energy and passion to go with his musicality and detailed balancing of sections. The acid test of a conductor is whether he can get an orchestra to play for him. The Opera North Orchestra is famously open-minded, not what you’d call picky about conductors, but even so their commitment and delight in playing for Hermus were obvious.
It was a canny piece of programming, too. Huddersfield audiences respond pretty well to the challenge of the new, but concert audiences are by their nature conservative, so how do you get away with two world premieres (one of them admittedly only one minute long) in one concert? Opera North’s answer was to programme them with two much loved favourites and then deliver wonderfully energised performances of the 19th century classics that treated them as though they were brand new.
Concertos for Bass Trombone are pretty rare animals, but now there’s one more. Gresley, a 20-minute work by Benjamin Ellin, well known in these parts as Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic, was written for Opera North’s Christian Jones. There is a more or less convincing programme that links the music to the life of Sir Nigel Gresley, converting his grief at his wife’s death into the ambition to build great railway engines.
Without ever employing any obvious train effects, Ellin manages to hint at the rhythm and soundscape of the steam railway world. As a tuba player himself, he has an affinity with the lower depths of the brass section and the orchestral trombones play a considerable part in the concerto, including the opening bars. Otherwise he takes the bass trombone into places it seldom goes. Christian Jones was wonderfully assured in showing the range of the instrument, from solemn legato to sprightly dancing rhythms, using mutes to produce unexpected tones.
The other premiere, Dawn Ride Home, by Niall Docherty, like last week’s piece in the Minute Masterpieces series, showed assurance in writing for a large orchestra and, in only a minute, actually achieved some progression. The theme of an early morning train was peculiarly appropriate.
The concert began with Mendelssohn’s Overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), dramatic programme music filled with Mendelssohn’s unfailing ear for melody. Hermus banished any hint of the blandness of familiarity with a dynamic performance that recaptured the excitement 1830s audiences must have felt at the vivid sea pictures.
Something of the same can be said of the performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Famously composed in one summer after Brahms’ 14 year struggle to get out from under the mighty achievements of Beethoven and complete his First Symphony, it is full of the spirit of Lake Worth where Brahms said melodies were so abundant that you were liable to step on them. However, the flood of melody in the symphony goes along with the intellectual rigour of the development of the material. It’s a wonderful work – even more so in Hermus’ exuberant treatment, from the buoyant lyricism of the opening to a white-knuckle ride through the rhythmic shifts of the Finale.
Reviewed on October 7, 2021