After more than 600 days, live classical music has returned to Huddersfield Town Hall with the launch of a new season of events, and it couldn’t have started with a better curated programme.

The title of this first concert says it all, the pieces starting with a choice from the darker side and ending in a glorious work which was a metaphor for the state of things as we find them today.

One of the many perks of reviewing events, sadly none of them monetary, is that I get invitations not only to the shows etc themselves, but also sometimes into the VIP Area where I can mingle with the guests of honour as well as the organisers and artists. Such was the case on Thursday, 23rd September when I was a guest of Opera North and whisked through the virtual satin rope into a room where the great and the good were assembled. I was greeted by Rowland Thomas, one of the PR people from the organisation, and given a glass of wine. We were having a chat about nothing much in particular when we were joined at our poseur table by a very pleasant chap who began to talk extremely knowledgeably about the pieces to which we could look forward. After a couple of minutes it struck me that it was Garry Walker, the conductor of The Orchestra of Opera North and recently appointed Opera North’s Director of Music. It is funny how the penny doesn’t immediately drop when you see someone in situations other than those with which you normally associate them. I think that had I seen him in a frock coat with a baton in his hand it might have been a bit of a giveaway, even to me!

Garry Walker

When we had been having out three-way chinwag for a few minutes we were joined by Phil Boughton, the Director of Orchestra and Chorus, Opera North, who was there to introduce Mr Walker to those assembled in the room. He gave us a preliminary talk about the works and how emotional it has been getting things back to normal. He seemed to be filling up already, but I think that a few of us were, but in a good way. He finished his address by saying that he had been a bit worried about the rate of ticket sales as the initial demand was low, but, as it became more obvious that the concert would not be cancelled and people got used to mingling again, the demand was soon back to pre-pandemic levels. He summed up his attitude by paraphrasing Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams ‘Perform and they will come!’

There had been an option for concertgoers to attend a free pre-show talk chaired by Phil Broughton which featured not only Garry Walker but also cellist Guy Johnston who was to be the soloist in the second piece on the programme, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. He has an affinity with this work as he performed it 20 years ago at the First Night of the Proms. In 2019 he also managed to track down the cello used by Elgar at the first ever performance in 1919. Sadly the owner would not grant him permission to use it for the centenary celebration. Having said that, Mr Johnston had ‘acquired’ a very special instrument for this evening, a Stradivarius which was probably the most expensive thing I have ever set my eyes on, short of a penthouse apartment in central London or the forward line of Manchester City. He told us a lot about the piece and how Elgar was very good when writing for soloists by making sure that the instrument was not drowned out by the full orchestra.

Phil Boughton, Guy Johnston and Garry Walker

The first item in the programme was by Benjamin Britten, being a Suite on English Folk Tunes, Op.90 ‘A Time There Was.’ It is a collection of five tunes which Garry Walker described as being quite dark in places.

After the interval there was the first of a series of new works entitled Minute Masterpieces. As the name suggests they only last 60 seconds and are aimed at giving new composers an opportunity to show what they can do when placed under such a restriction. Mr Walker explained it by saying that you can tell an awful lot about a person within the first minute of meeting them so this philosophy has been extended to the music. My mind flashed back to the earlier conversation and I wondered what he had made of my initial 60 seconds. Hey, I’m too old to care – but I still do! There will be a different Minute Masterpiece at each concert throughout both this, and next season, thus giving an opportunity to 14 new composers to show what they can do.

The final work was Symphony No.5 in D minor by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is where the Triumph part of the evening’s title comes in. His Fourth Symphony was written in 1936 when he was being hounded by the Soviet authorities, who made things so unbearable for him that his mental health suffered and he withdrew the composition before its first performance. He wrote the piece we were to hear a year later and combined the ideas he had wanted to convey with the demands of the state. It ends with about 250 repetitions of ‘A’ which is a sarcastic send-up of the optimistic tone demanded by the powers that were in charge at the time.

After a couple of comments from the audience we repaired whence we came and got into the mood for the evening’s performance.

I am no great authority on classical music, although I must admit that since I have been attending concerts by Opera North, the radios in my flat are now tuned to Radio 3, so all I can say is that I enjoyed every second. There was a good mixture of familiar tunes and more challenging parts so, as I said earlier, a cleverly curated programme ideal for the first post-lockdown presentation.

I didn’t find the Benjamin Britten Suite as dark as I was expecting, in fact a couple of tunes were quite jaunty. It was the final orchestral work written by the composer and, as such was full of nostalgia.

The Elgar was a magnificent performance of one of the most beautiful pieces of cello music you will ever hear. I must admit that when it began I did struggle to make out the first few bars of the solo but the sound was soon adjusted and all was well from then on. The tone of the cello was sublime, as was the playing by Guy Johnston. I can understand why the owner of this instrument would entrust it to someone so gifted.

The Minute Masterpiece was a rousing 60 seconds’ worth and a real crowd pleaser. If the remaining 13 are this good then the future of classical music is in good hands.

Garry Walker in more familiar pose. Photograph by Justin Slee provided by Opera North

Shostakovich’s symphony was made all the more enjoyable after the explanation provided by the conductor beforehand as I would have missed some of the nuances I was now looking out for.

I try to write these articles to help the casual concert attendee decide whether to go or not rather than to compare the performances with others, there are many far more qualified than I to do that. All I can say is that I enjoyed the whole evening thoroughly and would recommend a trip to see at least one of the other presentations in the Kirklees Concert Season 2021/22. I would also urge that you go to the pre-concert talk as it will enhance your appreciation of the evening no end. As well as orchestral evenings, there are also Chamber and Organ recitals.

For a full list of events in the season please go to https://www.kirklees.gov.uk/beta/town-halls/pdf/kirklees-concert-season-brochure-2021-22.pdf

Other Opera North events are at https://www.operanorth.co.uk/

As a final thought I would like to say that there is a lot of talk nowadays about the relative merits of listening to music on vinyl as opposed to digital media. Forget them both, nothing can get anything close to hearing magnificent music played by superb artists in a live situation. All recorded music is electronic, this is the real thing.

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