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Review: Orchestra North East at Gala Theatre

Orchestra North East were in fine form in their first concert of the year, performing with clarinettist Emma Johnson

Joe Bangay Clarinettist Emma Johnson
Clarinettist Emma Johnson

Orchestra North East were in fine form in their first concert of the year, especially with guest soloist Emma Johnson on clarinet.

Having enjoyed a stellar career since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, she demonstrated that her passion for her instrument remained undimmed.

Mussorgsky’s tone poem Night on a Bare Mountain – completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov after Mussorgsky’s death, using sketches left by the late composer – opened the concert in a riot of orchestral colour.

Featuring famously in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, this celebration of the witches’ sabbath perfectly brings to mind a demonic wildness.

The entire orchestra is involved from the outset and there’s no let up until the party’s over and calm descends on the mountain.

Emma Johnson then made her first appearance to perform Mozart’s last great instrumental work, his Clarinet Concerto. The orchestra sparkled, supporting the soloist with seeming ease.

As a contrast, she then performed a concerto piece written for her by the great jazz musician and composer, John Dankworth.

It emerged during a pre-concert chat between soloist and conductor Aidan Oliver that it was so named because of a subsidy received from the building society of that name.

One of a raft of fine compositions which are part of Dankworth’s legacy, this had many different yet coordinated textures and rhythms, reflecting influences from across the globe.

It’s definitely one of those pieces that lives in the moment, with the soloist showing her innate versatility and feel for this style of music.

Aaron Copland’s life-affirming orchestral suite, Appalachian Spring, completed the concert.

Telling of a young couple taking their place in a pioneer community in the Pennsylvania hills, it’s a work that manages to be happy and serious.

Most of all, it is grounded in strength of character and sense of place. An ideal finale, it was beautifully and sensitively played.

Guest conductor Oliver was also the perfect host, informing us about each piece in what was a fine, well-balanced programme.

Orchestra North East’s next concert is a Mozart programme with Newcastle Choral Society at Newcastle Civic Centre on March 22 at 7.30pm.

Rob Barnes


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