Any fool who doubts good music is being made outside the M25 needs to hear the Leeds Philharmonic
There is a tendency among those in the Home Counties to imagine that music-making outside the London area is in some way inferior.
What rot. The BBC, notably, maintains first-class orchestras in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester. Sir Mark Elder’s tenure of the Halle, also in Manchester, has been remarkable, having ensured not just memorable performances but a legacy of highly acclaimed recordings. There is also a thriving musical life of international quality in Liverpool, at the Philharmonic Hall, and in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, where conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo have achieved a great deal in recent decades.
One thing these concert halls outside London share is a dedication to British music. Elder has led the way with his Elgar recordings, Oramo reintroduced the magnificent John Foulds to British audiences after an absence of 70 years, and Andrew Manze has embarked upon a superlative Vaughan Williams cycle in Liverpool. But one must not overlook Leeds – home of Opera North – and the achievement of David Hill there in his decade as music director of the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus. Last month, I heard the brilliance of the Chorus – teamed with the Orchestra of Opera North, and reinforced by the St Peter’s Singers and the Leeds College of Music Student Chorus – when it took part in a concert of 20th-century English music, under Hill’s baton.
The concert began with a rare performance of Malcolm Arnold’s 1968 Peterloo Overture, in a choral version first heard at the 2014 Proms. Even from this short work, the calibre of the singers and the orchestral players was obvious; so, too, was Hill’s deep understanding of the music. The conductor’s complete command of dynamics and tempi illuminated all four works in the concert, which also included a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Talli s , (1910), and a Technicolor account of Elgar’s overture In the South (Alassio), written in 1904 to celebrate the composer’s love of Italy.
The climax of the concert was Herbert Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi, which truly shone thanks to Hill’s sensitivity not just to the work itself, but to its commanding place in the corpus of English choral music. Hill was blessed with two fine soloists: Sarah Fox, the soprano, and Ben Hulett, the tenor. The work is especially demanding for the soprano, who has a challenge of almost Wagnerian proportions in terms of range, and has to compete with a considerable orchestra and chorus. Fox was more than equal to it, assisted by a conductor who brought the optimum combination of tension, profundity and light to his direction of the work.
Howells, recognising that not every hall has an organ, gave conductors permission in the score of Hymnus Paradisi to omit the use of the instrument if necessary. When this happens – and sometimes even cathedrals don’t bother, for reasons that escape me – it’s like someone smiling and revealing a missing tooth. Leeds Town Hall has a monumental organ, and the Leeds Philharmonic’s monumental organist – Simon Lindley – made the most of it, both underpinning and amplifying the piece whenever he played. As with other such choral societies, the Leeds Phil allows gifted amateurs to combine with professionals and make the finest music. They are fortunate to have a director as insightful and talented as Hill to lead them, and the North is lucky to have this exciting group of music makers at its heart.
The Daily Telegraph
Saturday 9 December 2017