Conductor: Antony Hermus
Soloist: Christian Jones
As excellent as the orchestra and soloist were, this concert was above all a triumph for conductor Antony Hermus. Finally able to fully assume his role as Principal Guest Conductor of Opera North, and due to direct Leonard Bernstein’s main production next week, he has shown unparalleled energy and passion to accompany his musicality. and its detailed balancing of sections. The litmus test of a conductor is whether he can play an orchestra for him. The Opera North Orchestra is renowned for its open-mindedness, not what you might call picky about conductors, but even so, their commitment and enjoyment in playing for Hermus was evident.
It was also clever programming. The Huddersfield audience responds well enough to the challenge of the new one, but concert audiences are inherently conservative, so how do you get away with two world premieres (one of which is only a minute long) in one gig? Opera North’s response has been to program them with two much-loved favorites, and then deliver wonderfully energetic performances from the 19e classics of the century that treated them as if they were brand new.
Bass trombone concertos are quite rare animals, but now there is one more. Gresley, a 20-minute work by Benjamin Ellin, well known in his roles as Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic, was written for Christian Jones of Opera North. There is a more or less convincing program that ties music to the life of Sir Nigel Gresley, turning his grief over the death of his wife into an ambition to build great locomotives.
Without ever using obvious train effects, Ellin manages to hint at the rhythm and soundscape of the steam railway world. As a tuba player himself he has an affinity with the low depths of the brass section and the orchestral trombones play a considerable role in the concerto, including the opening bars. Otherwise, he takes the bass trombone to places he rarely goes. Christian Jones was wonderfully assured showing the instrument’s scale, from solemn legato to playful dancing rhythms, using mutes to produce unexpected sounds.
The other first, Dawn at home, by Niall Docherty, like last week’s piece in the Minute Masterpieces series, showed self-confidence in writing for a large orchestra and, in just a minute, actually achieved some progression. The theme of an early morning train was particularly appropriate.
The concert started with Mendelssohn’s Overture The Hebrides (Fingal cave), dramatic program music filled with Mendelssohn’s infallible ear for melody. Hermus banished all allusion to the blandness of familiarity with a dynamic performance that picked up the excitement that audiences of the 1830s must have felt over vivid sea images.
The same can be said of the interpretation of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Composed one summer after Brahms’ 14 year struggle to escape Beethoven’s mighty achievements and complete his First Symphony, it is full of the spirit of Lake Worth where Brahms said the melodies were so abundant you were likely to step on it. However, the flow of melody in the symphony goes hand in hand with the intellectual rigor of the development of the material. It’s a marvelous work – all the more so in the exuberant treatment of Hermus, lyricism involving openness to a white ride through the rhythmic changes of the Finale.
Reviewed on October 7, 2021