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Conductor Ben Palmer on The Firebird

As the Orchestra of Opera North prepares to warm up a winter night with some blazing twentieth century masterpieces at Huddersfield Town Hall on 23 January, conductor Ben Palmer gives us a taste of the feast of orchestral storytelling that’s in store…

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“Planning a concert programme is, I always think, rather akin to organising a dinner party. You have to consider who the guests are, where it’s being held, how much time you have to cook, and also what the specialities of the chef are. To devise a winning menu, the courses need to be varied and yet complementary. It can be a challenge, but it’s a process I love, particularly when I already know the orchestra well.

The Firebird Suite – Igor Stravinsky 🎧 »

When Opera North invited me to put together a programme for the Kirklees Concert Season, I immediately thought of Stravinsky’s ballet score. It’s one of my favourite pieces, and its triumphant ending, with blazing brass chords and white-hot triangle roll, never fails to bring the house down. Of the four variants available, we settled on the rarely-heard 1945 version, which I’ve never conducted before – a wonderful excuse to buy a new full score and spend many hours poring over it.

Léon Bakst, costume design for The Firebird ballet, 1910

With the main course (albeit one that comes at the end of the meal!) in place, it was time to choose the rest of the menu.

Violin Concerto – Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Although Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born 15 years after Stravinsky, by chance they both ended up in Hollywood in the 1940s. Korngold had vowed only to write music for films while Hitler was still in power. And thus, after the end of the Second World War, the Violin Concerto was the first work for the concert stage that he composed. Much of it is based, however, on film themes he’d written during the 1930s, and it’s a work that’s very close to my heart – a fearsome challenge for any soloist, but almost unbearably beautiful and lush. In this respect, it’s a perfect match for The Firebird, which is really the pinnacle of Stravinsky’s early romantic style.

I’d been wanting for some time to work with an astonishing young Latvian violinist called Kristīne Balanas, who came to my attention a couple of years ago when I saw a video of her performing the Korngold concerto. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to invite her.

So, our two principal dishes were in place. What next?

Winter Bonfire – Sergei Prokofiev 🎧 »

With two twentieth century émigré composers already on the menu, my mind turned to Prokofiev. He had travelled to San Francisco in 1917, before eventually returning to Russia in 1936. I remembered a work I’ve been wanting to conduct for years, but never found the perfect programme for, the suite from his 1950 piece Winter Bonfire. What could be more fitting for a cold January evening?

Super Power Steam Engine by Arkady Rylov, 1935

Casablanca Suite – Max Steiner 🎧 »

The last piece of the puzzle to find was an opener – or, if you like, the starter for our dinner party. With Korngold, Prokofiev and Stravinsky to come, it felt as if it had to be another composer active in the first half of the twentieth century. Thinking again about the film music-inspired Violin Concerto, I wondered if there was a soundtrack that might fit the bill. (This would, for me, be particularly meaningful, as so far all my projects with the wonderful Orchestra of Opera North have been films: Brassed Off, The Snowman and Jurassic Park!)

One name jumped out at me: Max Steiner. Born in Austria in 1888 (just six years after Stravinsky, three years before Prokofiev and nine years before Korngold), he too moved to Hollywood, in 1929. He scored more than 300 films, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he invented the sound of what we now know as film music. His dramatic suite from the 1942 movie Casablanca, itself a story about people fleeing war-torn Europe to emigrate to the US, would provide a perfect curtain-raiser.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

Of course, what all dinner parties need are wonderful guests, and you’re warmly invited to join us for what promises to be a delicious feast of romantic, fiery and exciting music with the wonderful Orchestra of Opera North”.

Ben Palmer returns to the Orchestra of Opera North, joined by guest soloist Kristīne Balanas, for The Firebird at Huddersfield Town Hall on Thursday 23 January.

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Ben Palmer is Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck in Darmstadt, and Founder and Artistic Director of Covent Garden Sinfonia. Read full biography » 


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