Orchestra of Opera North: Appalachian Spring – Assembly Room, Leeds
Even in the Twilight concerts at the Howard Assembly Room, modest in length, resources, and even more pricing policy, Opera North’s season planners show their usual lineup trick. The program for November 24e featuring a much loved favorite, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, guaranteed to fill the room (and he did!) and a rather wonderful piece that neither of us knew, the Bernstein Piano Trio. For Thanksgiving, what could be more appropriate than an all-American program? The fact that Copland was one of Bernstein’s first mentors and a longtime friend of Bernstein made the program consistent – it wasn’t hard to find clues of Copland in young Bernstein’s trio. And finally, there was the connection to the Bernstein Double Bill in the recently completed Main House season – now that’s a common reflection!
Most of us know Appalachian Spring in a full orchestral version, but Copland originally wrote it for nine strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano – and it was the version played by a contingent of the Opera North Orchestra, conducted on violin by the conductor guest Kyra Humphreys. With founding chef David Greed (42 in place) slashing his workload ahead of the 2022 retirement, guest executives stepped in from time to time – and Kyra Humphreys seemed to enjoy the role, even giving a friendly and informative introduction.
Appalachian Spring tells the story of a pioneering young married couple settling in Pennsylvania – the music originally accompanied a Martha Graham ballet – and goes from good humor to contemplation in eight lively melodic movements. The disparate elements are gloriously fused together in the famous variations of the Shaker anthem, Simple gifts.
Hearing it in the 13-piece original was a revelation, the orchestral textures so clear and fresh, the woods happily individual or expressively joining the strings to color the orchestral sound, all freer and more flexible.
To start the concert, pianist Annette Saunders presented the Bernstein Piano Trio, which will be played by herself, Kyra Humphries and cellist Jessica Burroughs. The growing habit of classical musicians of speaking to audiences is something to be encouraged! The trio, she pointed out, encompasses many different elements, with her meditative openness soon to be a thing of the past. Saunders, Humphries and Burroughs navigated through fugues and hoedowns with dynamic precision and made the most of the humorous and playful elements. It was Benjamin Britten who titled a play Playful pizzicato – on proof of this, Bernstein had at least as many rights to the title. For a 19-year-old to write a serious chamber piece with such humor, it took a lot of nerve – something Leonard Bernstein never missed.
In the comfortable elegance of the Howard Assembly Room, with slowly evolving American imagery projected behind the musicians (the skyscrapers of New York for Bernstein, the wooded hills for Copland), it was a perfect way to end a day. of work.
Reviewed on November 24e 2021