Presenter: Pui Fan Lee
Conductor: Martin Pickard
Soloist: Nicholas Watts (tenor)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Orchestra of Opera North’s How it Works concert attracted a youthful audience, stretching to the occasional babe in arms. The programme, including some challenging 20th Century works, seemed aimed at a rather older age-group, but the gap was bridged by the introductions of Pui Fan Lee, a CBeebies presenter and erstwhile Teletubby, who combined playful conversation with the little ones and interesting facts about the music, not too technical, but useful enough.
Pui succeeded in treating the Town Hall as if it were a much smaller space, asking questions and getting answers from the children, and also showed plenty of courage in encouraging audience response, for example, imitating machines – very effective, thanks to Martin Pickard’s amiably clear conducting.
The other factor in the success of the concert was the committed playing of the orchestra, unfazed by the crying and chattering of small children. The final piece, the last movement of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, was as stirring a performance as you could wish for in an orthodox concert, with Darius Battiwala (organ), Paul Philbert (timpani) and the brass section raising the roof in the closing pages.
The first half saw Pui introducing the different sections once Pickard and the orchestra had laid down a marker with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, certainly a jolly piece, but one with enough aggressive modernism to cause at least one little girl to cover her ears. Then came Pui’s soothing presence. Having persuaded the assembled children to try to say the name “Shostakovich” and moved on to evocative strings for the La Traviata Prelude by Verdi, she used kazoo and comb and paper to introduce the woodwind for Stravinsky’s Dance of the Firebird.
The Sea Interlude, Storm, from Peter Grimes, found the brass relishing being on familiar territory: with a performance of Billy Budd only two nights previously, Benjamin Britten and the sea are pretty much in the orchestra’s DNA. The final section feature was a rather more surprising choice – and utterly delightful. The percussion section, also well represented in Peter Grimes and much of the second half, enjoyed Kodaly’s Viennese Musical Clock from Hary Janos, demonstrating that percussion is more than just drums in its array of bells and gongs wittily impersonating the clock. The first half ended with an extract from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a suitably colourful prelude to the half-time ice-creams.
The second half began with two pieces that Pui was able to use to point to features that had already been explained, notably the variety of percussion: John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, exhilarating as ever, and – less familiar and utterly charming – Heitor Villa-Lobos’ The Little Train of the Caipira, full of train rhythms and Brazilian percussion, dutifully demonstrated by the musicians before the start.
The final pieces turned to two instruments not in the normal complement of the orchestra: the human voice, with Nicholas Watts finding all the sweetness of Donizetti’s Una furtiva lagrima, and the organ, in Saint-Saens’ triumphant finale.
Reviewed on 23 October 2016 | Image: Contributed