Leeds is so lucky to have virtuoso violinist David Greed still within reach, ready and available to perform as a soloist at concerts like this with the excellent orchestra of which he was the youngest leader in the country when it was formed in 1978. It was really thrilling to experience The Lark Ascending live, and to see him standing there just a few feet in front of the audience. Much loved and voted for, possibly because in the present day it seems somehow connected with worthy green issues, it is undoubtedly imbued for most listeners with the ethereal Englishness generally considered to be required for a Jubilee Celebration, or a vice-chancellor’s end-of-year concert, which might normally be well-stocked with popular offerings. This one came with mulled wine as well.

Orchestra of Opera North
Orchestra of Opera North

The skylark’s song was especially affecting, the cadenza perhaps more rhapsodic in the gothic majesty and yet strange intimacy of the university’s Great Hall, with fine acoustics and the players very close to us. The sense of warmth, serenity and distant longing which is created in just a quarter of an hour must also relate in some way to the doomed Edwardian Britain of 1914 before the trenches were dug: I like the story of Vaughan Williams on the cliffs (I imagine in warm sunshine) jotting down notes for the piece as he watched troopships steaming towards France, being reported as a spy to the police by a zealous schoolboy, and getting arrested. The lark was an omen.

The Lark Ascending’s link with the brink of the Great War means that it will probably feature on many programmes for the centenary year of 2014. Walton and Elgar will certainly be on them. Both of the composers could be seen as the musical equivalents of superior and original illustrators of traditional school history textbooks. Walton’s Crown Imperial was taken marginally too briskly for my taste, but it was rousing in spite of the business-like approach, thanks mainly to the brass. Inserted at the last moment, someone having realised that the first half was going to be too short, was Peter Warlock’s charming Capriol Suite, a pleasant surprise. This brief collection of half a dozen dances, with a folkloric flavour, but transformed by the composer, could just as well have been a lead-in for that other Vaughan Williams favourite, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis: all the delicious Renaissance elegance and sweet melancholy of the Pavane was well brought out by this orchestra, and the allegro con brio sword-dance at the end of the series should have had at least some of us in the aisles, it was played with such panache. We danced in our heads instead.

I suppose one of the really obvious signs of a good orchestra is the ability to always sound fresh and new when dealing with the old standards which should never be taken for granted, like Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme. Yes, this performance was very good, particularly so as conducted by Justin Doyle, and it seems that very little was not given full attention. On this occasion, I thought that the theme should have had a slightly slower tempo, but it was still exhilarating, and that Variation 9 (Nimrod) was unusually bland, but Variation 1, (C.A.E, Elgar’s wife Alice) had a finely-judged climax, Variation 6 (Ysobel) was impressively sensual and romantic, and oboe and clarinet were excellent in Variation 10 (Dorabella), when Dora stammered beautifully. The finale was just as it should be – gorgeously spectacular.

The Orchestra of Opera North is the only ensemble in the country to have a year-round dual role in the concert hall and the opera house. Regularly appearing in Leeds Town Hall as part of the Leeds International Concert Season, it is as much at home in Victorian grandeur as in a hall with the children and future musicians of the 21st century: its recent contribution to the curriculum of a South Leeds primary school provided a sparkling item for a local television news programme. It collects deserved praise wherever it goes.

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