wed 24/04/2024

Gulyak, Orchestra of Opera North, Stasevska, Leeds Town Hall – uncommonly exciting | reviews, news & interviews

Gulyak, Orchestra of Opera North, Stasevska, Leeds Town Hall – uncommonly exciting

Gulyak, Orchestra of Opera North, Stasevska, Leeds Town Hall – uncommonly exciting

Impressive UK debut from a young Finnish talent

West Yorkshire Side Story: Dalia Stasevka conducts Bernstein and RachmaninovAll images Justin Slee for Opera North

Bach’s Art of Fugue, or maybe Mahler’s Ninth? Nah - in my book, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is the greatest last work ever composed. This extraordinary piece gets everything right: a kaleidoscopic summing up of a long career which never lapses into dewy-eyed nostalgia.

There were moments during young Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska’s performance with the Orchestra of Opera North when you could have sworn she’d picked up the score of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements by mistake. Crisp rhythms, incisive brass and driving speeds made the piece sound like something by a young composer looking forward, not an elderly exiled Russian’s self-described "last spark".

Not that Stasevska fudged the introspective moments: the first dance’s tender reprise of a theme from Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 1 was incredibly affecting, as was the final dance’s haunting centre. And what a devastating, exultant close, Stasevska letting the tam-tam ring out for a full five seconds before lowering her baton. Excuse the cliché, but you really could have heard a pin drop. She’s a real find, making her UK debut with an orchestra clearly having a ball. You don’t often see players smiling this much, their job made easier by a conductor with a clear beat who makes plenty of eye contact.

Sofya GulakThe Rachmaninov was written in Long Island in 1940, so it made sense to include two more New York-centric pieces. Arrangers Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal deserve most of the credit for the Symphonic Dances extracted from Bernstein’s West Side Story: the pair came up with a list of numbers, and Bernstein proposed the running order. Ramin is still alive – wouldn’t it be marvellous if someone could persuade him to insert the raucous Dance at the Gym into the suite? We live in hope. Bernstein’s own New York Philharmonic recording remains the benchmark performance, unmatched in its ferocity and punch. But Stasevska was superb in her own way: flexible, expressive and witty. She took the “Mambo” at an alarming lick, the players following her all the way. Trumpets screamed and horns whooped: this was classy stuff, though the most ear-catching playing came at the end of the suite, the divisi strings’ rendition of “I Have a Love” sweetly done.

It was followed by the Russian pianist (and 2009 Leeds Piano Competition winner) Sofya Gulak (pictured above) gallantly blasting through Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in the bloated Grofé orchestration. She and Stasevska took around 16 minutes, which is fine by me. Gershwin’s mature output is so polished, so well-realised that the Rhapsody’s ramshackle construction can seem a little wearing (why does no-one ever perform instead the neglected Second Rhapsody?). But, er, the tunes are great, the little horn accompaniment to the big slow theme worthy of Tchaikovsky. Gulyak was on fine form, though you’d far rather hear her play something more substantial.

We also got John Adams’s infectiously entertaining The Chairman Dances. This spin-off from Nixon in China is a sonic and visual treat – who’d have guessed that Adams deploys a bowed vibraphone early on? Stasevska’s brisk speeds made for an uncommonly exciting ride, though she relaxed nicely once Madame Mao began to shimmy. Opera North’s crack team of percussionists led us through the fade-out in style. A flawless evening, and one fully worthy of five stars – shame about the wazzock whose mobile phone almost wrecked the start of the Bernstein.

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