Only a few minutes away from their home base, Leeds Grand Theatre, the Orchestra of Opera North led by Kees Bakels gave an intriguing performance at Leeds Town Hall, which was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3. The programme of the evening enclosed four pieces all composed in the first third of the 20th century. These works, differing from each other and yet strangely linked, provided a rich image of the music of that colourful time.

The first half of the concert opened with George Gershwin's An American in Paris, in which the composer painted a sound picture of the lively Paris of the 1920s from the perspective of an American, thereby reflecting the impressions of his own formative visits to the city. During the “Roaring Twenties” Paris was indeed the cultural stronghold of the time – as Vienna had been before – and a magnet for artists. Listening to Gershwin's symphonic poem, you could vividly imagine how he walked through the thriving city full of people and traffic and actually hear the taxi horns which are composed into the music. The orchestra savoured these comical moments, while Dutch conductor Kees Bakels pranced casually on his podium and occasionally swung his hip to the buoyant rhythms.

Although Gershwin conceived his tone poem in a free, rhapsodic way, a three-part form is still recognizable. After the first diatonic section representing Paris and its musical cosmos, we dived into an American sound world where blues and jazz elements are shaped into a symphonic framework. The musicians of the orchestra excellently rendered this change of style whilst cheerfully sliding single notes and playing with much rubato. Finally, the first part with its popular melodies returned, still reminiscing about the excursion to the blues. The two musical idioms contrasted here bear witness to Gershwin engaging with European musical culture in order to define his own musical language.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor, composed in the summer of 1933, embodies a confrontation with traditional European music in an entirely different manner, i.e. in the way of parody. Soon after the beginning we could hear a quotation of the distinctive opening motif of Beethoven's Appassionata – one of the many allusions to come. In this piece, generally written in a neoclassical tone, the 26-year-young Shostakovich experimented with forms and instrumentation and challenged the hitherto respectable genre of the piano concerto. The solo part was played by the Italian pianist Federico Colli who, being the 2012 winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition, was already familiar to most of the listeners. His mature musicianship became most apparent in the expressive and meditative moments of the second movement. After the cadenza, in which Colli drew a surprisingly deep and full sound out of the instrument, the orchestra joined in with a hair-raising piano that made the audience hold their breath.

The transitory third movement was immediately followed by a light and droll finale, in which the echo of Beethoven's Rage Over a Lost Penny suggested an image of a humorous Shostakovich – far away from the gloomy symphonies of a composer suffering from the oppressive Soviet cultural doctrine. Although the last movement was played almost insanely fast, Colli still maintained a naturally clear, crisp and well-articulated sound. After an ironically exaggerated C major ending, the encore of the young pianist, a transcription of Bach's chorale Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, seemed somewhat alien to the overall dramaturgy of the evening.

In the second half of the concert we entered the world of magic and fairy tales. Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite from 1910 is the orchestral version of a cycle of piano duets originally composed for the children of one of the composer's friends. The five pieces are based on Charles Perrault's famous collection Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye written in 1697 and on tales by other French writers. In this magical journey we came across Sleeping Beauty, little Tom Thumb, the Empress of the Pagodas, and Beauty and the Beast before finally dwelling in a Fairy Garden. The instrumentation and harmony in these pieces anticipated the sound world of the musical highlight of the concert's second half: Stravinsky's Firebird Suite in the orchestral version of 1919.

With a hardly audible dark figure, turning into itself, the double basses and cellos opened the Firebird Suite, foreshadowing but yet not fully aware of the outbursts that were about to shape the music. With shimmering and flickering sounds, Stravinsky wonderfully portrays the magical firebird flying around the tree in the evil sorcerer's garden. Did the bird's chattering somehow evoke the taxi horns of Gershwin's tone poem? This was only one of many moments when the listeners could become aware of a well thought-out dramaturgy. Bakels, as it became obvious at the end of this evening, is a master of intense piano moments as well as of highlighting musical details you may not have noticed before. The tempi and rubati were well balanced throughout the concert, and only rarely did the brass section lack exact articulation. In the Paris of 1910, the première of the Firebird, about to pioneer modern ballet, was an immense success for the 27-year-old composer and the Ballets Russes, and – a hundred years later – the music continues to amaze the audience.

***11