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Review: Airedale Symphony Orchestra, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 29th February 2020

THE lavish orchestral and choral forces assembled for this enjoyable programme of Broadway musical theatre and opera were led with tremendous aplomb by John Anderson, the Airedale Symphony Orchestra’s permanent conductor since 1989.

Jerome Kern’s 1920s musical Showboat ignited an electrifying evening. A medley of ‘hits’ contained within the Overture led into Ol’ Man River, pensively sung by baritone Neil Balfour and the Chorus. The Promise of Living from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land was performed with blazing fervour by the chorus and ASO. Copeland, who was dubbed “The Dean of American composers”, unforgettably conducted a Suite from The Tender Land in this very hall back in October 1976.

Leeds Philharmonic Chorus Master Joseph Judge then directed his unaccompanied choir in a finely nuanced performance of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei. Next came Marietta’s sublime aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City). This was sung with a gorgeous sense of line by soprano Sarah Power.

Composer Randall Thompson was represented by Choose Something Like a Star, from his Suite of Seven Country Songs for chorus and orchestra. Gershwin’s meandering jazz infused rhapsody An American in Paris showcased the full orchestral panoply – including a battery of percussion, five saxophones, and a trio of car horns! Part One ended with Make Our Garden Grow, the gloriously uplifting orchestral and choral finale from Bernstein’s operetta Candide.

Robert Russell Bennett’s forty minute-long concert arrangement of Gerswin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess filled Leeds Town Hall with light and colour. Familiar numbers like Summertime – ravishingly sung by Sarah Power; I Got Plenty of Nothing – a soft-grained performance from Neil Balfour, and Bess You is My Woman Now, were all featured. The casually dressed Leeds Philharmonic Chorus injected life and swaying movement into the big choruses like Gone, Gone, Gone; Overflow, I Ain’t Got No Shame, and The Promise’ Lan’. The stupendous finale Lawd, I’m On My Way was encored. Astonishingly, this was a first Leeds performance of Porgy and Bess. Surely, a fully staged production from our own trailblazing Opera North is long overdue.

Geoffrey Mogridge

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette, Wharfdale Observer

Rich Pickings on Porgy & Bess

This delightful and entertaining concert at Leeds Town Hall begins with Kern’s lively Overture for Showboat. It skilfully takes the themes of the show (largely romantic) and threads them in an alluring medley. Already the Airedale Symphony Orchestra are proving their high status. This is followed by another Showboat excerpt, namely Ol’ Man River featuring baritone Neil Balfour and the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus. While this is a splendid start, Balfour’s vocals do not manage to shine out above the orchestra as they clearly should.

The full chorus and orchestra really pull all their weight for Aaron Copeland’s The Promise of Living from the 1954 opera The Tender Land. For this the chorus really shine brightly and carry the uplifting themes exquisitely. But for me the highlight of the show has to be Agnus Dei, the choral adaptation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Rarely performed in this form Leeds Phil really prove their worth with exquisite and exacting tone and pitch.

Then just when you think that the mood cannot get any higher on comes soprano Sarah Power. She is simply gorgeous with the soaring notes of Korngold’s Marietta’s Aria (from Die tote Stadt) held perfectly. The Chorus continue the beatific mood with Randall Thompson’s Choose something like a Star which is a poetic masterpiece.

A more sustained piece comes in the form of Gershwin’s wonderful An American in Paris. It comes replete with three saxophonists, solo trumpet and, yes, four car horns! It has a metropolitan feel throughout and can be tempestuous with pounding percussion, or softer with sublime strings. The multiple false endings really keeps the audience on their toes. And the end of the first half is Bernstein’s witty Make our Garden grow from Candide.

After the interval we have another Broadway smash, the Suite from South Pacific which the orchestra perform with great confidence and aplomb. But the real meat of the evening comes in the form of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess in an arrangement by Robert Russell. Power belts out a sonorous Summertime with exquisite beauty, we are really hanging in her every word and blends perfectly with the orchestra.

Despite my earlier reservations about Balfour one has to admit his voice is a treasure, just not suited to the role. Leeds Phil really excel themselves in the second half with the ability to be both boldly brash and subtly subdued. There are just so many fabulous numbers we are really spoiled for choice to name the concert version’s peak. But I will plump for It ain’t necessarily so for the highlight, as much for its irreverent lyrics as the catchy tune.

A final note must go to the mastery of conductor John Anderson with a match made in heaven between Airedale Symphony Orchestra and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus that is simply a very fine feast for the ears.

 

 

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Town Hall on 29 February 2020

Rich Jevons RichJevonsBlog

‘The Kingdom’ in Ely Cathedral, 30th November 2019

Author: Dr Rosemary Westwell Published: 2nd December 2019 08:52

Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Faust Chamber Orchestra and soloists: Eleanor Dennis (soprano), Jane Irwin (alto), Ed Lyon (tenor) and Gareth Brynmor John (bass) gave a fine concert on Saturday in Ely Cathedral.

The work they performed was the relatively unknown ‘The Kingdom’ by Elgar. Conducted by David Hill these singers and instrumentalists certainly gave the work good measure. Elgar’s splendid composition, complete with many familiar motifs, managed to combine the best of his style in a mature and meaningful way so that we were transported easily from one scene to another, being told once again the story of Jesus and the impact he had on his disciples and the world.

Rarely have I heard such keen orchestration, the sounds selected representing perfectly the sentiments intended. While the strings were the mainstay, as expected, spreading warmth, tenderness, excitement or pathos as the music required, the woodwind brass and percussion were all in evidence but only when there was a need for them. The timpani, usually a tool to underpin the underlying beat, in this work created a special dark atmosphere.

These singers and instrumentalists were so good that we were constantly transfixed. The text was brought alive with great depth of feeling. While the drama was not ‘overt’ it was definitely there and deeply powerful. Sounds of joy, reverence, awe, excitement, triumph or gentle peacefulness seamlessly permeated the words making them highly expressive and personal. This was only possible because of the intense musicality of the musicians involved.

This exceptional concert was dedicated to the late Sir Stephen Cleobury.

Dr Rosemary Westwell www.aboutmyarea/cambridgeshire/ely/

The Kingdom, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 23rd November 2019

SIR Edward Elgar visualised his own devotional equivalent of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. This would be a triptych of oratorios focussing on the life of the early Christian Church in Jerusalem. Accordingly, the Apostles and the Kingdom were premiered at Birmingham Town Hall in 1903 and 1906 respectively. Sadly, the intended third panel of the triptych, provisionally named the Final Judgement, never saw the light of day.

The Kingdom is often regarded as the finest of Elgar’s large-scale devotional works. Its palette of orchestral and vocal colours is richer than in the Dream of Gerontius. Elgar’s writing for the solo quartet attains even greater operatic heights: St Peter’s long solo narrations are of a Wagnerian intensity and the Blessed Virgin’s beautiful aria The sun goeth down, expands into a full operatic scena.

These factors, plus the scale of forces required, probably account for the work’s rare appearances in the concert hall. Leeds International Concert Season has since the 1980s hosted distinguished performances of both the Kingdom and the Apostles.

Last Saturday’s glowing performance of the Kingdom, conducted by David Hill, was given by 160 voices from the combined Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and Cambridge University Symphony Chorus with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, plus Alan Horsey at the console of the Town Hall’s great organ.

David Hill’s expansive reading revealed the reflective quality and the elusive mysticism of Elgar’s vast canvas. Hill seemed to unify the episodic structure of the Kingdom into a seamless whole, illuminated by transparent orchestral textures and a firm but supple choral line. The stunning attack of the choirs’ opening exhortation, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” filled the barrel-vaulted auditorium. An outstanding solo quartet included the exquisitely spun line of soprano Carolyn Sampson as the Blessed Virgin and the warm timbre of mezzo Jane Irwin as Mary Magdalene. The honeyed quality of tenor Ed Lyon as St John was complemented by the rich sonorities of baritone Gareth Brynmor John as St Peter. His every syllable cut across Elgar’s weightiest textures. The Kingdom drew to a serene and prayerful conclusion leaving us to ponder on the assertion of Sir Adrian Boult that it is indeed Elgar’s supreme choral masterpiece.

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette

The Dream of Gerontius, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday, June 1 2019

CARDINAL John Henry Newman’s epic poem imagines the spiritual journey of Gerontius from deathbed to after-life. The text inspired Sir Edward Elgar to some of his most descriptive orchestral and vocal writing. Said Elgar at the time of the premiere at Birmingham Town Hall, on 3rd October 1900, “Gerontius is the best of me”. In 90 minutes of music, he blends the noble English choral tradition with more than a hint of the music dramas of Richard Wagner, most notably Tristan and Parsifal.

Saturday’s luminous performance showcased three great Leeds choirs. 250 choristers from the combined Leeds Festival and Philharmonic Choruses with St Peter’s Singers and the 80-strong Halle Orchestra were conducted by Simon Wright whose acute sense of pace maintained the narrative flow. This is, after all, Elgar at his most operatic and that does not apply only to his immense vocal demands on the soloists and choristers.

Wright’s skillful layering of textures achieved impeccable balance and illuminated Elgar’s vast musical canvas. The richness of orchestral detail in his expansive account of the scene-setting Prelude, from magically hushed opening woodwind and muted strings to menacing brass and growling bassoons, conjured up a sense of mystery and wonderment. The massed choirs responded to Wright’s dynamism with blistering needle point attack, whether as Souls in Purgatory, Anglicals, or the ferocious chorus of Demons. Praise to the Holiest In the Height burst into an incandescent cry of exultation from choirs and orchestra, beefed up by the sonorities of the Town Hall’s mighty organ played by Darius Battiwalla.

A stellar line-up of international soloists was led by tenor Barry Banks as a crystal clear and eloquent Gerontius, subtle of vocal colouring and with a superbly sustained Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Deus (Holy Mighty One, Holy God). One sensed the chemistry with Dame Sarah Connolly’s consoling Guardian Angel. Connolly’s humanity shone through her every phrase: each fervently expressed “Alleluia” and with darkening of tone, her warnings of the impending judgement. Bass David Soar sonorously declaimed the Priest’s lines in Part One and had even more gravitas as the Angel of the Agony in Part Two. The great work ended sublimely with Softly and Gently, Dearly Ransomed Soul – the Angel’s tender farewell in which Connolly seemed to enfold the entire audience.

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette

Review: Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, Leeds Town Hall , Saturday, March 16, 2019

THE 13th century Latin poem Stabat Mater (Sorrowful Mother) imagines the sorrow of Mary, Mother of the dying Jesus, during her vigil at the foot of his Cross.

Of the many musical settings of the Stabat Mater, those by Rossini and Dvorak are constructed on the grandest scale. Both require large orchestral and choral forces, plus a quartet of vocal soloists. Rossini’s hour-long Stabat Mater has the exciting verve and mood changes of Italian opera. Dvorak’s was born of grief for the deaths in infancy of three of his children. This gives his setting a prevailing mood of sadness, though the style of writing (particularly for the soloists) is equally operatic. Given its ninety minutes running time, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater normally occupies an entire concert. In this respect, last Saturday’s fine performance conducted by David Hill was no exception. A pity that the audience was miniscule compared to a capacity house for the Oslo Philharmonic a week earlier. [Note the weather was atrocious though]

David Hill’s pacing and dynamic shading allowed this epic work to unfold in luminous orchestral and vocal detail. Balance was generally excellent between the seventy members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the organ, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and St Peter’s Singers – 140 voices singing with consoling warmth and supple power. A carefully blended solo quartet surmounted the vocal challenges inherent in both the ensemble singing and the solo arias. Soprano Elizabeth Atherton soared with beauty and clarity above the orchestral textures. The mellowed timbre of mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the startling tonal purity of tenor Sam Furness, and the soft-grained bass Wojtek Gierlach all contributed to a performance of powerful emotional impact.

Geoffrey Mogridge

Ilkley gazette

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette

Damnation at its most uplifting thanks to Berlioz and the Hallé

Berlioz’s standing in Britain – long greater than in his native France – can only have been further bolstered by the Hallé’s uplifting account of The Damnation of Faust on Sunday evening (Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 10 Feb 2019).

This extravagant “Dramatic Legend” – performed here as part of the 150th-anniversary commemorations of the composer’s death – certainly needs a sense of occasion if its ambitions are to be fully realised, and also if we are to be carried uncomplainingly over its more dubious aspects. Berlioz’s ever-adventurous harmonies have a habit of painting themselves into corners, then casting around anxiously for an emergency exit. Some of the text, too, can hardly help but raise an unintended smile.

Happily, this performance had almost everything going for it. Mark Elder’s judicious pacing and care for balance were a joy in themselves, and they enabled a maximum of orchestral detail to register, be it from the six harps, the four bassoons, the three piccolos, or the chords on four timpani. He and the Hallé – on top form – also reminded us that some of the finest music comes in the apparently unobtrusive transitions, as much as in familiar, sure-fire set pieces such as the Rákócky March, the Song of the Flea, and The Ballet of the Sylphs.

Having four top-flight soloists is de rigueur for this piece. Tenor David Butt Philip brought a finely sustained lyricism to the part of Faust, even when it ascends to improbably stratospheric heights; French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri relished the pantomime villainry of Mephistofeles; mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, stepping in at a very late stage, was a mellifluous Margarita (perhaps under different circumstances she would find even greater tonal variety for “The King of Thule”); and bass David Soar seized eagerly on the bit-part of the chief reveller, Brander.

The Hallé Choir was bolstered by male voices from the London Philharmonic Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus: a wise choice, because the tenors and basses have to masquerade as peasants, drinkers, soldiers, students, demons, and who know’s what else, and here they packed a walloping punch.

Rather than the Hallé Children’s Choir and the trebles of the Hallé Youth Training Choir having to twiddle their thumbs onstage for two hours, they filed in at the end through the stalls, their angelic voices helping to ensure that Margarita’s ascent into heaven was suffused with the kind of all-encompassing love that was surely at the heart of Berlioz’s vision.

David Fanning, published 11 February 2019

David Fanning The Telegraph

Review: The Damnation of Faust at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 10 Feb 2019, 5:00pm

Freely adapted from Goethe, The Damnation of Faust insinuates, idles, roars, croons, swells, bores, hectors, fascinates and dazzles. Berlioz’s 1846 “légende dramatique” is a gluttonous, garrulous, attention-seeking guest in any concert hall. Not quite an opera, it plays almost as cinema: zoom, pan, fade, jump-cut. For each sweet blade of new grass or gently scudding cloud that we hear in the score, there is the leathery skitter of a demonic wing, a splatter of blood and the rattle of dancing bones.

Mark Elder’s performance with the Hallé, an orchestra whose association with Berlioz stretches back to its founder’s friendship with the composer, comfortably embraced the most spare, delicate and bombastic aspects of this gothic work. The cool curve of unaccompanied violas, cellos or violins, and the tender cor anglais solo, were as vital as the tangy rustic drones, the tight-breeched, shoulders-back, musket-carrying swagger of the Marche hongroise and the lusty drinking songs of Hungarian peasants and German students (later will-o’-the-wisps, gnomes, sylphs, penitents, demons and angels).

With the Hallé Choir joined by men from the London Philharmonic Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and 100 local children, this was as much a choral showpiece as an orchestral one. The discipline of articulation and diction was first rate. Elder allows, rather than encourages, natural rubato, deftly picking up any slack with a beat that is as neat as his string players’ spiccato.

Amid the hypnotic strangeness of harp harmonics, the blister of tuba and ophicleide, the pitch-black roll of the bass drum and the tart mockery of the three piccolos, the solo vocal performances were compelling: Rachel Kelly’s Marguerite, driven wild with love and shame; David Soar’s easy, cynical Brander; Laurent Naouri’s charming, terrifying Méphistophélès; David Butt Philip’s gleaming, yearning Faust, whose ennui, like that of Werther and Onegin, is the engine of this tragedy.

Anna Picard

Published February 12 2019

Anna Picard The Times

Review: Black Dyke Band and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Handel’s Messiah, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday, December 8, 2018

A PERFORMANCE of Handel’s sacred oratorio with the orchestral accompaniment replaced by a brass band is probably anathema to purists. I have to say that, for me and I sensed many others, the Black Dyke Band’s lightness of touch and the golden sonorities these gifted musicians produced were revelatory.

Dr Dennis Wright’s acclaimed transcription was first performed in 1951 by the then Black Dyke Mills Band with the Halifax Choral Society. This venerable community choir, the country’s oldest, has notched up two hundred consecutive annual performance of Messiah. Last Saturday, forty members joined Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and the Dortmund Music Society Philharmonic Choir. The massed voices conducted by David Hill, “the Phil’s” music director, produced a focused tone with myriad dynamic shading, suppleness of phrasing and seemingly bottomless reserves of power.

This was a full bodied Messiah delivered with startling clarity and textural variety. Vocal and instrumental lines were consummately delineated by Dr Hill who scrupulously maintained balance between band, choirs and vocal soloists. The lightness of accompaniment to soprano Fflur Wyn’s radiant recitatives was striking. So too was bass Ben McAteer’s sonorous The Trumpet, Shall Sound. Mezzo soprano Caitlin Hulcup’s tender He was despised and rejected had both depth and poignancy, while tenor Joshua Ellicott’s Comfort ye my People soared eloquently.

Messiah’s great chorus, embellished by the glorious sounds of Leeds Town Hall’s organ played by Alan Horsey, perhaps left the most enduring images of this shining performance – or for that matter any performance of Messiah. The power and majesty of the Hallelujah Chorus with its trumpets and timpani, and Worthy is the Lamb which culminated in Dr Hill’s thrilling build-up of the stupendous Amen Chorus.

Geoffrey Mogridge

Geoffrey Mogridge Wharfedale Observor

Review: Airedale Symphony Orchestra with Leeds Philharmonic Chorus

Leeds Town Hall, Sunday, October 21, 2018 by Claire Lomax

A RICHLY varied programme marked the centenary of the 1918 Armistice and the Airedale Symphony Orchestra’s own 120th anniversary. ASO conductor John Anderson opened with Sir Edward Elgar’s swaggering Cockaigne Overture “In London Town”. Subtle orchestral colours were illuminated in the final bars by the glorious sonorities of the Town Hall organ, played by Alan Horsey.

Elgar conducted the premiere of his choral and orchestral elegy The Spirit of England in Leeds Town Hall on 3rd May 1916. Laurence Binyon’s poems had inspired the composer to some of his loveliest vocal and instrumental writing. Soprano Sarah Power and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus eloquently expressed Binyon’s immortal lines, and John Anderson’s finely balanced reading captured the work’s ebb and flow. In the final section, For the Fallen, the music built up to a great climax before gently fading into infinity – “…As the stars that are starry at the time of our darkness, to the end, to the end they remain.”

The second half opened with a centenary tribute to the RAF: Anderson and the ASO ensured that the big tunes in Sir William Walton’s stirring Spitfire Prelude and Fugue emerged in luxuriant technicolour. Next, the superbly blended voices floated the Lux aeterna around the auditorium to profoundly moving effect. This is John Cameron’s achingly beautiful transcription for unaccompanied chorus of Elgar’s Nimrod variation.

The ASO then performed John Williams’ Hymn For the Fallen from his score for Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. A disarmingly simple melody, austere trumpets, a solo drum cadence and an angelic chorus raised the music to the heights.

Joseph Judge, the new Leeds Philharmonic Chorus Master, conducted the unaccompanied voices in Eric Whitacre’s emotive choral miniature Sleep; the lyrics are by Charles Anthony Silvestri. Joseph’s expressive hands sculpted the phrasing and dynamics from a powerful climax down to a pianissimo whisper.

John Anderson returned to the podium to preside over the grand finale. The refulgent performance of Va Pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Verdi’s Nabucco was encored, this time with the audience encouraged to hum in unison. So to the “big” ending: Tchaikovsky’s monumental 1812 Overture was performed with the rarely heard choral embellishments valiantly sung in Russian. There was, of course, a battery of percussion, chiming bells, brass fanfares, the mighty Town Hall organ and thunderous volleys of cannon fire. The warm and responsive audience loved every note.

Claire Lomax Wharfedale Observer