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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Kirklees Orchestral Concerts, Elgar,Walton, Vaughan Williams: Mark Kaplan (violin), Orchestra of Opera North, Paul Watkins (conductor), Huddersfield Town Hall, 15.2. 2006 (P Se)


Elgar: Froissart,
: Violin Concerto,
Vaughan Williams
: Symphony No. 5.



I was once told that a critic is never happier than when he’s slating some hapless performance. If that’s true, it’ll explain why, the day after one of the most unexpectedly satisfying concerts I’ve attended in a long time, I’m feeling so fed up!  In his booklet introduction, Douglas Scarfe of OON said that ever since Paul Watkin won the 2002 Leeds Conductors’ Competition, they had been "trying to find a suitable opportunity for him to make his debut with us [and] we are delighted to welcome him this evening." I promptly dismissed this as nothing more than PR "hype." I shouldn’t have.


Then there was the programme, comprising three modestly-proportioned works. In the middle of winter I like a bit of something to blow out the cobwebs, but there was nothing like that here so the OON’s tuba-player had got the entire night off to watch the footy. I sniffed dismissively. I shouldn’t have.


As the concert unfolded, I became ever more impressed with Paul Watkin, who, it’s fair to mention, I last saw on TV, sobbing his way through his cello solo in the Fantasia on British Sea Songs. My eyes and ears immediately got two different but complementary messages. The former observed his workmanlike attitude – a clear, fluid beat, expressive but not showy and the latter, on hearing the results, pricked up.


From previous experience, I’d had the impression that Froissart is a fitful parade of stops and starts due (I’d presumed) to Elgar not yet having got the hang of sewing up his seams properly. Yet, here was Watkin, proving beyond any shadow of doubt that all these shifts of mood and tempo can be made without fracturing the music’s momentum. Time flies when you’re having fun, and this Froissart seemed to be over in no time. As a curtain-raiser it was an eye-opener.


I can remember attending (and not all that long ago, either) a previous Kirklees concert featuring Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony. I was then in the company of the late, lamented Adrian Smith, who commented that “frankly, I find it a rather dull work” (See Footnote. Ed.) Truth to tell, I also felt that of all the VW nine, it is somewhat the Ugly Duckling with its feathers - relatively speaking - all stubby and brown. This was clearly a dangerous night for the presumptuous to be out and about, for here again was Watkin, now quietly brushing those feathers 'til they shone!


The secret of his success lay not just in his immaculate pacing of the music, nor in his sublime graduation of dynamics, but also in his perceptive delineation of the music’s two emotional protagonists: peace - or rather the dream of peace, and conflict  - or its threatening shadow. Watkin drew the latter uncomfortably close to the horizon and the ace up his sleeve was that he went on to elucidate the distant threat’s corrosive impact, notably on the achingly beautiful main theme of the Romanza. Ultimately, all of this led up to, and consequently magnified, the hymnic resolve of the work’s visionary conclusion.


Dark forces are confined to the occasional passing cloud in Walton’s amorous and amicable concerto, which brought a welcome Mediterranean warmth to a chilly Huddersfield evening. Mark Kaplan proved a near-ideal foil to Paul Watkin, being similarly undemonstrative (I observed with some relief) and equally effective. His 1685 Strad, resonant beneath, seductively throaty in the middle, and with a top as sweet as a nut, seemed made for this music, although, of course, it’s the other way round.


Kaplan had his feet well under the table of Walton’s work, so to speak, projecting the singing lines with bags of passion, well up to the second movement’s “Paganini” trickery, and lacing its rudely folksy tune with what seemed like the best part of a bottle of Chianti. In the finale, he managed a pretty fair impression of a suitor serenading beneath a lady’s balcony. However, when the music is played so romantically, those elaborate, virtuosic “twiddly bits” -  which I suspect are what Heifetz stuck in to make it harder to play -  do become unnecessarily intrusive. Could somebody, please, make so bold as to take them out again?


A conductor can produce revelatory interpretations until he’s blue in the face, but he’ll be wasting his time if his orchestra doesn’t play ball. Thus, it goes without saying that every man-jack of the Opera North band must have been on tip-top form. In particular the strings, playing with tremendous unanimity and chamber-like clarity, were possessed of a velvet sheen that belied their numbers. I could also praise the trombones for their subtle inflection of the quotation from On Ilkla Moor Bar t’At (Elgar), the colourfully detailed harp and penetrative piccolo (Walton), some prayerfully hushed horns (VW), the darkly flashing woodwind (VW, Scherzo) and achingly wistful cor anglais (VW, Romanza). I could, but I won’t, because I would be no more than scratching the surface of a huge pile of individual credits, a happy by-product of a night when the whole orchestra, jointly and severally, earned the laurel for fulfilling its conductor’s dreams.


So when all I can find to grumble about is a minor compositional issue, you can see  why I'm feeling so fed  up, can’t you?



Paul Serotsky


Editor's Footnote: Adrian Smith (1931-2005)

Adrian Smith was the
well-loved, long serving and inspirational conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra who died on the 6th December 2005. Under his leadership, this largely amateur group developed such skills and musicianship that they regularly (and very successfully) performed works of phenomenal technical difficulty. A selection of obituaries and memories of Adrian, including contributions from Sir Malcolm Arnold, Arthur Butterworth and Paul Serotsky himself can be found here.

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