Orchestra that strikes a chord for the rest of country

The Orchestra of Opera North
The Orchestra of Opera North
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Leeds may not have a symphony orchestra, but as Classic FM’s Mark Forrest returns to his home city, it has, he says, so much else besides.

There’s always a chance that when a new acquaintance who knows anything about classical music discovers I’m from Leeds and that I present the Breakfast Show on the UK’s biggest classical radio station that they’ll ask the question.

“Leeds, ah yes. You don’t have your own symphony orchestra do you. Why is that?” The subject came up recently over dinner. I’d been seated next to Alan Bennett, a huge classical music fan who started by telling me about the concerts given by the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra he went to as a child and ended up berating the local authorities who let the YSO go under.

When I arrived eight years ago as Classic FM’s newest recruit, I was soon despatched around the country presenting concerts with our partner orchestras. One in London, one in Liverpool, one in Glasgow and a touring orchestra, mainly touring in the South. There was an obvious glaring omission. Where was Yorkshire’s orchestra?

Thankfully that’s now changed. A little over a year ago I moved to the Breakfast Show. A month later we were able to announce a new relationship, a partnership, and what I hope will be a long-term future of undying love and unbridled affection between Classic FM and the Orchestra of Opera North.

What does that mean? It means I now play the orchestra’s recordings to a national weekly audience of 5.5 million. It means I get to come home to Leeds to introduce concerts given by the orchestra in the Town Hall. And, most importantly, it’s meant that over the last year I’ve learnt what a unique orchestra it is and how in reality it ought to be the blueprint for orchestras all over the country.

When people say “where’s your symphony orchestra?” they’re usually looking across the Pennines at Manchester’s two residential orchestras plus the Royal Liverpool, thirty miles further west. What they forget is that in Leeds thanks to vision, dedication (and a lot of serious competition from Manchester) in the late 1970s an opera company was set up to serve the whole of the north of England.

The only opera company in England outside London and a company whose orchestra, right from the very start, would have a dual role in the orchestra pit and on the concert stage.

I suspect it wasn’t broadcast that loudly at the time, and probably wouldn’t be if the company was setting up now, but this is a very continental European way of doing things. The Germans who, it must be said, know a thing or two about classical music, have long presumed that their opera houses (of which there are many) would boast orchestras that would double as proud symphony orchestras for the cities they called home.

Leeds’ twin city of Dortmund has always operated this way. And that means that as well as 100 opera performances, the Orchestra of Opera North will do thirty symphony performances in an average season. Which, by any standards, is quite a lot – and enough to satisfy the most die-hard classical fan.

Of course, not all of these concerts are in Leeds, or in Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Hull or Bradford. Any orchestra that wants a national and international reputation and, let’s face it, most of them do, has to tour. Constantly. But then I’m proud that my home orchestra is in demand in Newcastle, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Belfast and the Lowry. Yes, they may have two orchestras of their own but Salford still wants to hear our lot.

It’s worth pointing out that Opera North is the largest performing music organisation outside London and because of its unique set-up the musicians in the orchestra play a much more varied repertoire than any other orchestra in the country. And that’s really important.

When Simon Rattle first left Birmingham to take over the Berlin Philharmonic a decade ago, he inherited an orchestra who played beautifully. As well they might when their repertoire had shrunk to about thirty works. They played an awful lot of Brahms and Beethoven and not a lot else. That’s not an accusation that could ever be levelled at Opera North. OK, the detractor says, but they don’t play eighty orchestral concerts a year do they? Luckily for Yorkshire classical music, lovers they don’t need to. The Leeds International Concert series has been around almost as long as Opera North and in those three decades provides the most diverse series of concerts, many of which are packed out. There’s more classical music performed in West Yorkshire than there ever was even when the Yorkshire Symphony was in its heyday.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t like them to do even more. Let’s see the Orchestra of Opera North as the house band for the Leeds International Piano Competition, more concerts in Kirklees and a higher profile in London.

We invited the orchestra to play at Classic FM Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Ecstatic audience members demanded we get them back and so they’ll be there in west London in April.

They’d love it if you were in the audience but if London’s too far away, then how about a Sunday afternoon at Huddersfield Town Hall instead?