Conductor: Howard Shelley
Soloists: Andrew Long (violin)
Kevin Gowland (flute)
Richard Hewitt (oboe)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The first appearance of the Orchestra of Opera North at CAST in Doncaster was supposed to be an occasion, but initially, it seemed ill-starred. After a misunderstanding over starting time, there was no printed programme available, then, as the orchestra gathered, there appeared to be many familiar faces missing. This proved to be something of a false alarm: there were a few absentees (notably leader David Greed), but the lack of brass in the first piece and the fact that three orchestra members were warming up as soloists exaggerated the situation.
The major reason for the concert proving ultimately successful and enjoyable was, quite simply, Howard Shelley. His collaborations with the orchestra on Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos on disc and in the concert hall have been memorable and the Pastoral Symphony provided an enthralling second half to the concert. Furthermore, Shelley took it on himself to be a talking programme – and a very good one he proved, thoroughly amiable, not unduly reverent, but providing real insights, even reading from George Meredith’s poem that inspired The Lark Ascending and from Beethoven’s intensely moving Heiligenstadt Testament.
One of Opera North’s great skills is in programming, whether an opera season or a single concert, and this looked to be typically canny, with two contrasting popular favourites sandwiching an obscure concerto by Antonio Salieri and solo opportunities for the orchestra. In the event, it took until the second half for it to catch fire, perhaps because the opening two pieces featured the orchestra, in each case somewhat depleted, very much in an accompanying role.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending regularly gets podium placings in the Classic FM Hall of Fame, but its pastoral lyricism is not necessarily best placed at the start of a concert. Associate Leader of the orchestra, Andrew Long, made light of the technical difficulties and gave an intelligent and sensitive reading, only needing a touch more lyrical warmth. Shelley drew lovely hushed sounds from the orchestra.
Howard Shelley got it right about Salieri’s Concerto for Flute and Oboe: Salieri, he said, was not a great composer, but the concerto is a delightful work. Well, it was very pleasant to listen to, with section principals Kevin Gowland and Richard Hewitt suitably accomplished and the two instruments blending well with similar range and contrasting tone, but the piece doesn’t live in the memory. Salieri, of course, owes any fame he has in the 21st century to the spurious claim that he killed Mozart!
The second half belonged to Beethoven, his Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral”, another Classic FM favourite, and Howard Shelley displayed his usual ability to go, very unobtrusively, to the heart of what Beethoven is about, whether in dynamic shading, a momentum that seems to build by itself or the precise foregrounding of details of the score. Here he drew superb playing from all the woodwinds in the first two movements and super-subtle strings in the final Shepherds’ Rejoicing.
Reviewed on 30 May 2018 | Image: Contributed