It was just my luck to discover last year’s Dewsbury Town Hall Lunchtime Concert Season only in time to catch the last one so I had resigned myself to waiting until the end of September for the next. What a pleasant surprise to find out that there was a one-off event to celebrate Summertime on 14th July. It goes to show that you should keep a regular watch on Opera North’s website.
The music is obviously the raison d’être for my visit, but I love the ambiance of the event. Being a lunchtime concert there is food available and the auditorium is set out with chairs surrounding circular tables, so you can take your dinner in with you. Ey up, this is Yorkshire where we have dinner at dinnertime not teatime. The food is like the best cricket club tea you have ever had with a selection of triangular sandwiches – complete with crusts, soup, slices of cake and tea or coffee. How very civilised. My four mixed triangles, a wondrous chocolate and orange carrot cake and coffee came to £7.40, an absolute bargain. Needless to say, there wasn’t a run on soup with the high temperatures outside.
I got there early as I didn’t want to diminish my enjoyment of either element of the visit by not being able to give them both my full attention. One of my better decisions. It also gave me an opportunity to read the programme and have a chat with my table mates who had done a detour on the way home to Newark from a holiday touring the North of England, just to see this performance. What a great way to end a jaunt.
After an introduction by Phil Boughton, Director of Orchestra and Chorus, Opera North, telling us that the performers were part of the main body of singers but not involved in the current mainstream productions, thus this was an opportunity to step out from the chorus and perform solos, duets and trios to gain experience. Such a great idea. There was obviously a plug for the forthcoming Kirklees Concert Season, the details of which can be found at https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/opera-north-website-uploads/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/14165441/Kirklees-Concert-Season-2223-Brochure.pdf so, when you have read the rest of my words of wisdom, pop back here and give it a peruse.
The proceedings were led by Martin Pickard, Piano and Director, who has been with Opera North since 1989. His biography on the programme suggests that he is not half bad at his job! He began each segment of the recital by giving us the background of the pieces and what to listen out for. As a virgo I appreciated the way in which they were presented in chronological order, the first having been written at least 800 years ago and the final one in 1941. They even swapped the running order round at the end to facilitate this. He didn’t say that, I discovered it when I was researching the pieces for this article.
The first five songs were all madrigals from the 15th and 16th Centuries, except for the above mentioned, Summer is Icumin In, from well before then. The soloist on this piece was Campbell Russell, who remained in the body of the choir whilst performing so I couldn’t get a photograph. Sorry, sir.
There followed pieces by Thomas Morley, Francis Pilkington and Josquin des Prez, all beautifully sung without piano accompaniment. The choir was made up of three sopranos, three mezzos, three baritones and four basses so the combination was wonderfully rich. You could say that they had all the bases covered – but you wouldn’t.
Next came three works concerning travel and voyages. The first, Les Berceaux (The Cradles) by Fauré was sung by soprano Victoria Sharp, whose voice was both powerful and expressive telling the story of the wives who would rock the cradles whilst waiting for their husbands to come back from sailing expeditions.
Tom Smith, tenor, was given the solo in the following piece, L’Invitation au Voyage, by Henri Duparc, and a wonderful job he made of it too.
Next came Three Songs from Lieder im Freien zu singen (Songs to be sung in the open air) by Felix Mendelssohn. The first was about a nightingale, the second a peaceful, shady valley and the third a hunting song. These were sung by the full ensemble.
Arthur Sullivan was the next featured composer with the first three songs written in collaboration with WS Gilbert. I am not a great G&S fan – G&T yes but that is another story. I don’t find the humour to my taste, but each to their own. The first was from Ruddigore and was the Bridesmaids’ Chorus, performed by the women singers and featuring mezzo, Anna Barry as the girl who is always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
Soloist Kathryn Stevens was the soprano who treated us, literally, to a rendition of The Sun Whose Rays Are Ablaze from The Mikado.
The last Gilbert and Sullivan song was Three Little Maids From School, from The Mikado. This could have been quite amusing but there was a spoiler in the programme. I don’t see any way in which this could have been avoided but the idea was good. Three of the women singers took up their positions on the stage but when the piano introduction began, three of the men pushed them aside and sang the song instead. There were laughs from the audience even though the programme named the singers, but hey, we were there to enjoy the summer mood not pick holes in the factsheet, except me of course! I must say that it was brilliantly done with the chaps not camping it up but singing as men, there were two basses and a baritone so no choice really, and the displaced ladies looking on incredulously. Although they did have some fun trying to open a fan.
The final Arthur Sullivan piece was one he wrote alone and was about nostalgia. It was called Come Away and is said to have been written on the last day of his life. It was a poignant song to begin with but being armed with that fact by Martin Pickard, made it all the more moving. It was beautifully sung by Victoria Sharp, Hannah Mason, Robert Gardiner and Gordon D Shaw.
The next two pieces were folk songs and brought back memories of school music classes. The first was The Ash Grove which we sang in Grammar School, but then went on to give performances in the playground with, shall we say, alternative lyrics. I understand that these are still substituted in rugby clubs up and down the land. Being much more grown up now – honest – I found the original words far better, especially when sung by Bass, Richard Moseley-Evans.
The second, The Sally Gardens, made me realise from an early age that perhaps teachers weren’t as clever as they would have you believe. We were taught this song at primary school and, living in an East Leeds slum, I had no idea what a Sally Garden was, in fact I had precious little idea of what an ordinary garden was. Being inquisitive I put up my hand and asked the teacher who told me off for being so silly as not to know. I wasn’t so silly as to realise that she was covering up her own ignorance by having a pop at me. I learned much more than music in those classes. Anyway, this Irish song was sung on the day by another bass, Paul Gibson who fully brought out the pathos in the piece.
The final songs of the day were performed by the full ensemble and were; Let’s Do It, sadly not the Victoria Wood version – now that would have been a heck of a finale – but the Cole Porter song from 1928, and Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s Chattanooga Choo Choo first performed by Glenn Miller in the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade. I was brought up on swing music as my mum and dad were both big band fans. Factoid, my dad was the manager of the Mecca Ballroom in County Arcade just after the war, and that is where he met my mum. He was shocked as he thought she was at home doing the ironing! There you are, a period-specific joke to end with.
As with G&S I am not a big fan of crossover music and, although sung superbly well, I feel that the words of Let’s Do It are a bit too intimate to be performed by a choir of thirteen people, although, whatever floats your boat.
I am really glad that I found this concert on the website so, I now give you permission to scroll back up to the Kirklees Concert Season Programme link, however, if you can’t be bothered or have now lost the will to live, here’s another to Opera North https://www.operanorth.co.uk/
You didn’t think that I would finish by not telling you what a Sally Garden is did you. Well, since you ask, the Salley (sic) Gardens in question were suggested to be on the banks of the river at Ballysadare near Sligo in Southern Ireland where sally/salley/or sallow trees were cultivated to provide roof-thatching materials. I can see why the music teacher thought that I was so thick now. Our back-to-back with no hot water was obviously covered in thatch, as were the shared toilet at the end of the street and the midden. Ah, the rustic charms of Olde Worlde England.
All photographs by Stan Graham