Once again, the Orchestra of Opera North left the orchestra pit and presented their manifold skills on stage. Led by their music director Richard Farnes, they engaged in a demanding programme of what was to become an enjoyable evening. It was a pity though that (probably due to the heavy storm outside) Town Hall was only half full.

Richard Farnes © Opera North
Richard Farnes
© Opera North

The concert started with Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in the first half of the 1950s. Against a continuous, relentless pounding of the timpani, the opening theme was introduced by the violoncellos, before expanding throughout the whole orchestra. This first movement encompassed folk-like melodies as well as dramatic passages with prominent brass sounds, not far from the vigorous soundscape of Shostakovich’s orchestral works. With the whistling and wailing of the wind noticeable in the concert hall, the music sounded all the more threatening, while Farnes and the musicians did not allow themselves to be deterred by the exterior noises.

The second movement, Cappriccio notturno ed Arioso, is an utmost virtuosic piece, in which the orchestra produced an overall bright whirring and buzzing sound by playing fast elusive figures and scales. With all sections of the orchestra employed in a soloistic manner, the term “concerto” can be traced back to the Baroque concerto grosso, in which groups of musicians “disputed” and “competed” with each other. In light of this musical tradition, it is not surprising that Lutosławski drew on Baroque models such as the passacaglia or the toccata. Yet, not untypical of mid-20th-century music (if you think of Béla Bartók or Karl-Amadeus Hartmann), the Polish composer merged the genres of the concerto and the symphony. With the wind still raging outside, you could hardly hear the delicate beginning of the third movement, which steadily developed into an imposing finale.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major (1887/88) was at the heart of the concert, which – just as a footnote – was Richard Farnes’ last concert in the Leeds International Orchestral Season as Music Director of Opera North. The single tone A, hardly audible in the high strings, opened the first movement (not unlike the beginning of Wagner’s Rheingold which starts with a single low E flat), before the central motif of a descending fourth appeared in various instruments. Stylised bird calls, off-stage trumpet fanfares and pastoral horn melodies built up this musical idyll of nature. Finally, the light-hearted main theme emanated from the fourth-motif, giving rise to an overall lyrical, buoyant atmosphere.

The subsequent scherzo, based on a Ländler, was rendered by the orchestra with plenty of energy and vigour. Encouraged by their music director, the musicians indulged in portraying this peasant dance as well as the “sugary” melodies that followed in the trio section, highlighting Mahler’s unique musical idiom of integrating folk music into the symphonic genre.

Withdrawn and almost solitary, accompanied only by timpani, the solo bassist opened the third movement with the famous minor-version of Frère Jacques. This “alienated” melody, growing into a grotesque funeral march, had a constitutive role throughout this movement, foreshadowing the darker shades of the finale.

Dissonant, harsh chord strikes introduced the fourth movement – an aggressive and hectic music that, after a series of tensions, relaxations and new outbursts, eventually broke into a D major apotheosis, after which the peaceful sounds from the beginning returned, recalling the natural idyll. Farnes skilfully led the orchestra through the lyrical, rustic and revelling passages in turn, as well as the ironically broken, darker and exuberantly wild sections of Mahler’s grand symphony. After this musical tour de force, the Orchestra of Opera North and their conductor enjoyed their much-deserved applause.