A few days ago I posted an article, Part – 6, about the events in Leeds over the festive period which you should book ‘blind’ because they were one-offs so you couldn’t read a review before making up your mind. I also said that, as they were at Howard Assembly Room and in association with Opera North then you were on safe ground. I am now providing proof of that statement!

No matter what your religious beliefs, or absence of them, you can’t deny that Christmas Carols are some of the best songs ever written and also great to sing along to. I have never done drugs – honest officer – but can’t help assisting Jimi Hendrix by giving full throat to Purple Haze when it hits the speakers at Chez Graham, so you don’t have to believe what you’re vocalising. Howard Assembly Room Christmas Concert – Winter Wonderland took the performance of these seasonal tunes to new heights.

David Le Page. Photograph provided by Opera North

The concert was performed by musicians and choristers from Opera North under the Musical Direction of David Le Page, who also played violin and arranged most of the pieces. There were old favourite from schooldays such as In The Bleak Midwinter and I Saw Three Ships, through Steeleye Span’s chart-topping Gaudete, pop-pickers, to lesser known works, especially by me.

Even though a lot of them were familiar, the arrangements were most certainly not and many contained folk, Celtic, Arabic and jazz influences, some of them had the whole lot! When it comes to Christmas music I don’t usually like it messed about with too much but this concert enhanced, rather than destroyed the pieces. I think that that was because they were all performed with huge smiles across the faces of musicians and singers alike which reflected the joy of Christmas, essentially a celebration of the birth of a child.

Orchestra members. David Le Page with violin

The instruments were utilised to their full potential with even the harpist, Céline Saout, beating out a rhythm on the frame for one of the pieces. Christopher Bradley on percussion featured heavily with a full range of the apparatus at his disposal, including what I believe was a musical saw. I did see him bowing something but was not in a position to identify it. Ria Nolan provided some gravitas with her double bass and Michael Woodhead added a brass element on trumpet. He had opened proceedings from an elevated position behind the stage giving the impression of a herald angel. I will give him the benefit of any doubt as to the second word in that definition. The cellist was Clare O’Connell who played the whole set with the biggest grin I believe I have ever seen, and which I am sure was contagious although I couldn’t be sure as we audience members were all masked up. Finally I come to the other two mega smilers, a second violinist who is tragically left nameless in the programme, and David Le Page himself, who got his fiddle to make sounds, some of which I doubt it was designed to do. I am not using the word ‘fiddle’ in a derogatory way here, far from it, the instrument was used as it would have been in a ceilidh band on several occasions, plus I didn’t want to repeat the word ‘violin’ too many times.

Mr Le Page is not only a brilliant musician and arranger but he is also the model of modesty in that he just took his position on the stage with the rest of the players and walked off with them giving absolutely no indication of his major role in proceedings.

The choir with Chorus Master Oliver Rundell. The two soloists are on the extreme left and right of the group.

The all-female choir was conducted by Chorus Master Oliver Rundell and comprised eight sopranos and seven mezzos so a little too numerous to mention individually. I also can’t mention the two singers who performed solo parts as, like the violinist, they are not identified in the programme. They were both excellent with one of them singing O Little Town of Bethlehem accompanied only by the harp to begin and end with, the other orchestra members contributing in the middle. Sublime.

The concert lasted for an hour but seemed to flash past in half that time, so entertaining was it.

I realise that I am usually gushing with praise about Opera North productions, and there is obviously good reason for that. As someone who is relatively new to live classical music I am still in awe at the amazing talent on display and the sound which comes from a well rehearsed group of superb musicians and singers. I will, however, allow myself one moan at this event. Look, it is Christmas and what would a proud elderly Yorkshireman want more for a present than a good whinge.

This is not exclusive to Opera North but I am not a lover of downloadable programmes. There, I’ve said it. It is not that I am averse to technology, far from it, I operate two blogs, and was computer programming in the late 1970s, but because I do not possess a printer for that very reason. My whole life is handled from my desktop, tablet and phone including tickets, official documents, banking, COVID Passport and even returning clothes which don’t fit to M&S. There is one thing for which tech is not suited, however, and that is theatre programmes. You don’t want to be emitting an incandescent glow by looking at the running order of pieces of music or consulting the document to ascertain the setting for the act of a play in a dark auditorium. Yes, I did take the photographs using my phone but I took them as the performers were taking their positions and turned off the device before they began, unlike a chap in the row in front of me whose mobile rang a couple of times.

I understand that there have been a lot of measures taken in the wake of the pandemic but there was a range of brochures and flyers in the box office so why not an information sheet. While I am in mid-rant, if you do produce a downloadable programme please let it show the full details. I would have loved to know the names of the two soloists and the incognito violinist. Having an electronic version should provide an opportunity to instantly update details which might not have been available at the time a physical edition had to go to press.

Having said all that, there is one advantage to downloadable programmes, and that is that I can pass the link to you so that you can see the names of the choristers and read more about the brilliant David Le Page. https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/opera-north-website-uploads/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/09134242/HAR21-PROG-Winter-Wonderland.pdf

Now that I have got that out of the way I can look forward to another twelve months of wonderful performances both at the Howard Assembly Room and the Grand Theatre. If I am ever invited again after that!

Unless otherwise stated, photographs by Stan Graham

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