Conductor: Aleksandar Markovic
Soloists: Ellie Laugharne (soprano) & Heather Lowe (mezzo soprano)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
As with Opera North’s Christmas Concert at Dewsbury, the company’s Viennese Whirl took a popular form and tweaked it, giving the less familiar material an airing and slipping in the occasional more challenging piece before serving up helpings of Sachertorte as 9:30 pm approached.
Vienna-style New Year concerts depend largely on the waltzes and polkas of the Strauss family; Johann I and his three sons, notably Johann II. These were certainly on show in Huddersfield. The evening began with Johann Strauss II’s Overture to Indigo and the Forty Thieves, a sprightly opener with waltz-type melodies, and his brother Josef was soon represented by the unusually ambitious Delirien Waltz, a swirlingly feverish opening giving way to a delightful and increasingly exuberant waltz theme. Yet it was not until after the interval that we heard the first really familiar Strauss waltz, Johann II’s Kunstlerleben; we didn’t get to take a trip on the beautiful blue Danube until the final item and had to wait for the second encore to clap along to the Radetsky March.
Instead, we had the joy of two familiar pieces of Offenbach: the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman charmingly sung by Ellie Laugharne and Heather Lowe and the Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld which gave the orchestra every chance to shine in woodwind and strings solos as well as the might of the brass in the Infernal Galop. Then there was a scene from the unrelated and decidedly less populist Strauss, Richard, with the two singers bringing the necessary emotional commitment to Ariadne auf Noxos before we could relax again into Waldteufel’s Skaters’ Waltz. Of course, the Strausses were prolific composers and delving into their less well-known compositions has to be a good idea; here we had a couple of brilliant examples of the polka-schnell, one by Johann II, one by Josef.
Apart from the imaginative programming, the concert’s biggest strength lay in the conductor, Aleksandar Markovic. Opera North’s new Music Director, a long-time resident of Vienna, has worked for many years in, and on the fringes of, the old Austrian Empire, and his idiomatic reading of the music of 19th Century Vienna came as no surprise. Shifts in rhythm and dynamics were controlled with firmness, but flexibility, and his love of the slow-(very) fast Hungarian dance, the Czardas, was obvious: Lehar’s Hor’ ich Cymbalklange from Zigeunerliebe found Heather Lowe and the orchestra both at full throttle.
The music of the waltz kings (Robert Stolz and Emmerich Kalman also got a look in) can be played by so many different ensembles, but nothing compares with the range of colours of a full symphony orchestra – from piccolo to bass trombone, both played superbly here. And Markovic’s rapport with the orchestra was obvious; by the end of the evening, his disarmingly informative links had created an equal rapport with the audience.
Runs until 31 December 2016 at Leeds Town Hall | Image: Contributed