The backend of November seemed like a strange time to stage a concert with ‘spring’ in the title but all became clear when the featured works were by those two giants of American music, Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein and it was performed on the eve of Thanksgiving.
The concert was split into two sections, the first was Bernstein’s Piano Trio and the second, Copeland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. There was no interval as the total running time was only an hour which meant that we got to see the amazing work of the technicians in changing the set from the piano, violin and cello setting of the first piece to the multi instrumental format of the second.
The Orchestra of Opera North is always impressive but this chamber setting gave us a chance to witness them up close and personal. I was fortunate enough to have been allocated a seat on the second row which was quite an experience.
The evening began with Annette Saunders, the pianist, welcoming us and outlining the relationship between Bernstein and his mentor Copeland, as she said, it is difficult to imagine Leonard Bernstein being in awe of anyone but he certainly looked up to Copeland, who was 18 years his senior, although they died within six weeks of each other in 1990. Incidentally, when I was researching this piece, I discovered that Leonard Bernstein died in the Dakota in New York City, the same place where John Lennon was killed. Meanwhile, back at the concert, Ms Saunders said that the work was in three movements and asked us to listen out for passages which were later modified in West Side Story. The other two members of the trio were Jessica Burroughs on cello and Guest Leader, violinist Kyra Humphries.
The playing was superb and the performers obviously loving every second of it, as was the audience. A lot of the string sections were played pizzicato which made it sound as though there were more than just the three members.
As the Piano Trio was a quintessentially New York City piece; other snatches reminded me of passages from On The Town. There was a back projection of black and white photographs from the 1930s depicting workmen constructing the skyscrapers of the day, enhancing the experience even further.
The Copeland work, Appalachian Spring, was introduced by Kyra Humphries who informed us that it was originally written as a ballet for Martha Graham and comprised eight sections. It deals with a marriage between a bride and a farmer and draws on folk tunes and music suggestive of the time and place. The most recognisable passage was the one which we now know as Lord of the Dance.
The three members of the Piano Trio were joined on stage, after the aforementioned ‘roadies’ had done their thing, by First Violin Byron Parish; Second Violins Katherine New and Christina Ocaña Rosado; Violas David Aspin and Lourenço Macedo Sampaio; Cello Daniel Bull; Bass Nathan Knight; Flute Luke O’Toole; Clarinet Adam Lee and Bassoon David Baker. The sound was phenomenal and so much greater than the sum of its parts. To be so close to this many wonderful players was a joy.
Naturally, for this piece the back projection shifted to various shots of the rural North-east USA. It is ironic that Copeland was a New York City boy who wrote about the countryside whereas Bernstein was from a small town in Massachusetts but was best known for his urban New York works.
I must say that this was one of the best ways I can think of to spend an hour (6.30pm-7.30pm) for the bargain price of £6. Where else could you experience such musicianship in wonderful surroundings, and be so close to the action. If nothing else it is a brilliant way to dip your toe into the ocean of classical music.
For future performances at Howard Assembly Room please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/howard-assembly-room/ there really is something for everyone.
Feature image provided by Opera North. Other photographs by Stan Graham