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6:00 PM 8th January 2020

Conductor Ben Brings New Year Winter Warmer To Huddersfield

As the Orchestra of Opera North prepares to warm up a winter night with blazing masterpieces by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and more at Huddersfield Town Hall on Thursday 23 January, conductor Ben Palmer talked us through the feast of orchestral storytelling that’s in store…

Kristine Balanas
Kristine Balanas
“When Opera North invited me to put together a programme for the Kirklees Concert Season, I immediately thought of Stravinsky’s ballet score, The Firebird” says Ben, who is Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck in Darmstadt, and Founder and Artistic Director of Covent Garden Sinfonia, as well as one of the world’s leading conductors of live film soundtracks.

“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 to choose from, we settled on the rarely-heard 1945 version, which I’ve never conducted before – a wonderful excuse to buy a new score and spend many hours poring over it.

“Although Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born 15 years after Stravinsky, by chance they both ended up in Hollywood in the 1940s, in exile. Korngold had vowed only to write music for films while Hitler was still in power. And so, after the end of the Second World War, his Violin Concerto was the first work for the concert stage that he composed. Much of it is based 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 the pinnacle of Stravinsky’s early romantic style.

Ben Palmer conducting. Photo by Jochen Kratschmer
Ben Palmer conducting. Photo by Jochen Kratschmer
“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, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

“What next? 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?

“The last piece of the puzzle to find was an opener. 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. I wondered if there was a soundtrack that might fit the bill. (This would be particularly meaningful for me, 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: 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, will be the perfect curtain-raiser for a feast of romantic, fiery and exciting music with the wonderful Orchestra of Opera North.”

Ben Palmer and the Orchestra of Opera North are joined by guest soloist Kristīne Balanas for The Firebird at Huddersfield Town Hall on Thursday 23 January. A free talk with Ben and Kristīne at 6.40pm is followed by the performance at 7.30pm.

Tickets for the concert start at £13.00, but anyone aged 16 and under can see the concert for just £1.00, and tickets for 17 to 29 year-olds are priced at £4.00. To book, visit tickets.kirklees.gov.uk or call Box Office on 01484 225 755.