For some reason the radio reception in my bathroom limits my listening choice to Radio 2, Stray FM or Classic FM. The first two are rather frenetic for first thing in the morning so my ablutions are usually carried out to the strains of the more well known pieces of the classical canon. I do sometimes find myself questioning the meaning of the term ‘classical music’ when I hear them play themes from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Ghost, and can’t help but wonder whether the next piece will be Stayin’ Alive or a liberally bleeped extract from Eminem’s 8 Mile. It hasn’t happened yet, but who knows? 

On further reflection film music has been composed by some of the most revered figures in classical music history and the concert by the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Ben Palmer with soloist Kristïne Balanas, as part of the Kirklees Concert Season 2019/2020, was a wonderful illustration of this. The featured piece, Stravinsky’s Firebird, although strictly speaking written as a ballet suite, has been used in several films, most notably Disney’s Fantasia 2000 whilst the other composers featured on the night were active in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The concert opened with Casablanca Suite by Max Steiner who wrote the music for the eponymous film as well as over 300 others, including Gone With The Wind, three of which won him Oscars. It was good to hear how the music stood up for itself without the film being shown. The piece revolves around two themes, Le Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, and As Time Goes By, which was written by Herman Hupfield. The varying passion and volume in the rendition perfectly illustrated the threat of war and the romantic aspects of the picture. 

Ben Palmer. Photograph by Jochen Kratschmer

Before the performance began we were invited to an informal chat between Phil Boughton the Director of Orchestra and Chorus, Opera North, the conductor for the evening, Ben Palmer, and Krïstine Balanas, the young Latvian violinist who would feature in the second item on the programme. We were promised a ‘visual’ experience and that is just what Casablanca Suite provided. You didn’t need to see the massing troops or the plane on the tarmac to be swept along in the passion of the piece which also drew on Moroccan musical phrases to provide a sense of place. If there is such a thing as visual sound, the pieces tonight certainly provided it. 

The second piece of the evening was Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.35. It is divided into three movements; Moderato Nobile, Romance: Andante and Finale:Allegro assai vivace. Kristïne Balanas absolutely nailed this work, her performance being not only technically brilliant but extremely emotional. It takes a young person whose fingers, and brain, are still agile enough to play such a complex piece as this. Referring to the pre-concert chat I was intrigued to learn something about playing the violin which, not being a musician, I had not realised, and that is that it requires not only digital dexterity but also a discipline in breathing. We all realise the importance of this in singing and the playing of wind instruments but it never occurred to me that it was necessary in the playing of a violin. Ben Palmer, when talking about the piece, also told us that he lets the orchestra judge for themselves as to when to come back in after the solo. It ends on a high note and there can be a slight variation as to the time when they are needed to rejoin proceedings so he indicates to them a second to two before the crescendo and lets them feel when to take the plunge. The empathy between orchestra and soloist does the rest. 

Kristïne Balanas. Photograph provided by Opera North

The concerto itself was another one which conjured up images and having passages which possibly influenced John Williams as there are snippets of Star Wars and ET in the piece. Although it was the next item on the programme which referenced winter in the title, there was a definite seasonal feel to this concerto. Another example of the oxymoron, visual sound. After receiving tremendous applause Ms Balanas returned to give us a wonderful solo encore before we repaired to the bar for refreshments.

The second half began with Winter Bonfire, Op.122 by Prokofiev. This comprised excerpts telling the story of a group of Pioneer boys from the city who take a train to a collective farm for a day in the country, returning in the evening. The excerpts are titled: Departure – The Train, The Snow Falls, Skating, Reverie, Departure and Return. Each section again evoked the activity and the feeling of the subsections. Ben Palmer revealed in his pre-concert talk that he has trouble in restraining himself from pretending to pull the lever which activates the train whistle when conducting but he managed to exercise sufficient self-control on this occasion. 

The final work of the evening was Firebird by Stravinsky. The version to which we were treated was the 1919 Suite rather than the original 1911 Suite. The 1919 Suite is the one used in Fantasia 2000 and is scored for a smaller orchestra than the original. Once more the range of volume was very effective and the whole piece superb. I do not intend to go into the minutiae and technicalities of the piece as I would only be quoting from the programme because I don’t know what I am talking about. No change there, then! Seriously, I write for people who enjoy music rather than the aficionado who will know all about the work and its technicalities already. On that basis, I felt that it was a superb concert and congratulations should be offered to all those involved in organising Kirklees Concert Season 2019/2020.

Orchestra of Opera North. Photograph by Justin Slee

Opera North conducted by Ben Palmer was its usual superb self and shows just how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful collection of musicians in our midst.

One final observation is about the venue itself. This is the first time that I have visited Huddersfield Town Hall and I must say that not only are the acoustics superb to my untrained lugholes but the seats are comfortable enough to allow you to listen to the performance without the need to keep shuffling to get comfy. That is a good thing as, on Sunday 23rd February, I will be returning for the World Premier of Arya, a work for sitar by Jasdeep Singh Degun, who I had the pleasure of being introduced to at the interval of this evening’s work. I cannot say how much I am looking forward to that. No pressure Jasdeep!

Feature image provided by Opera North

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