Friday, 9 June 2017

Review of Manchester Camerata at Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Camerata finished its season with a world premiere – a concerto for two cellos and orchestra by Colin Riley, titled Warp and Weft. Gábor Takács-Nagy conducted in this and a symphony each by Haydn and Mozart, and Adi Brett led the orchestra and was also soloist with Caroline Pether in Philip Glass’s Echorus, just after the interval.

The new work was described as the world’s first double cello concerto, and in Guy Johnstone and Gabriella Swallow it had top-class soloists to bring it to birth (and, incidentally, make up an all-Chet’s line-up in its creation, as they and Riley are all alumni of the music school).

It’s certainly unlike a standard solo concerto in make-up and impact, despite its apparent three-movement content. Beginning very softly with a single, long-held note for one of the cellos, at first it builds an ever-denser chordal texture and introduces long and languid solo lines for the soloists while a virtuoso percussion role brings most rhythmic and indeed colouristic activity to the sound. The soloists eventually take their cue from the energetic kitchen noises, while the latter eventually seem to collapse from sheer overload, while soloists and strings sustain high, multi-part chords.

The centre movement is marked by stillness throughout, with slow glissandi chords almost reminiscent of the magical similar effects in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tension quickly grows to a passionate climax, with help from the ever-active percussion, and equally rapidly subsides into reverie and multi-layered chords once more. In the third movement the cellos sing a mournful song together, while the percussion provide both rhythmic drive and timbral interest, and tremolando strings form a halo of sound. The tempo quickens, then staggers to a halt, before an acceleration, a pause and then frantic flurries and guttural percussion leading to the finish.

So there is little opportunity for showmanship for the named soloists – indeed, they share their role at times with the orchestral cellos, making for a more concertante-style contrast than a soloistic one. The structure is episodic in effect, and though Riley has created several notable ideas it’s difficult to see how they interconnect or hold together. Maybe he was trying to achieve too many different things at one go. Significantly, the biggest cheer from the audience was for percussionist Janet Fulton at the end.

The short work by Philip Glass, played without conductor, made an interesting contrast. Its regular, repetitive unfolding of string textures over a simple chordal sequence (and figurations not unlike Bach’s opening prelude of the ‘48’) were full of atmosphere and thoughtfulness.

The two symphonies received the imaginative and neatly pointed treatment, from the full orchestra, typical of Takács-Nagy’s interpretations. Haydn’s no. 38 (the ‘Echo’) began with charmingly emphatic phrasing and awareness of the many respects in which echo effects permeate its construction (in the first movement as well as the more obvious examples in the second). Its third and fourth movements have marvellously brilliant writing for solo oboe, a challenge to which Rachael Clegg rose like a star.

Mozart’s ‘Linz’ (no. 36, K425) has almost equally prominent roles for both oboe and bassoon in its Minuet and finale, which was an appropriate piece on which to bow out for the Camerata’s long-serving principal bassoon, Laurence Perkins, making his final appearance as a member of the orchestra. Needless to say, it was impeccably played and modestly contributed – from a player who is both expert and self-effacing and will be much missed.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Chamber orchestras' major end-of-season events

The tempo of music in Manchester now relaxes for a while – in many ways the climax of the whole 2016-17 season was Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, conducted by Sir Mark Elder with combined forces of the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic and three choirs on 4th June – you’ll find my review on

But we still have some excitement to come. Thursday sees the world premiere of Colin Riley’s Double Cello Concerto, at Manchester Cathedral, with Manchester Camerata and soloists Guy Johnstone and Gabriella Swallow. It’s billed as the world’s first double cello concerto, and Riley has taken melodic patterns, harmonic progressions and dance form structures from Bach’s unaccompanied solo cello suites to make a concerto with ‘counterpoint high on the agenda’.

It’s in traditional three-movement form, however, Riley says, with ‘a sensuous double aria’ in the middle one. So perhaps a touch of the Bach two-violin concerto, also?

Haydn’s Symphony no. 38, Philip Glass’s Echorus for Two Violins and Strings, and Mozart’s Symphony no. 36 (the ‘Linz’) are also on the agenda, and Gábor Takács-Nagy conducts.

On Saturday the Northern Chamber Orchestra makes its long-awaited debut at The Stoller Hall in Chetham’s School of Music. This is a concert in aid of dementia charities, part of a new departure for the NCO under its manager Tom Elliott. But there’s a lot going for it in musical interest, too, putting as it does Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ concertos against Philip Glass’s second violin concerto, aka ‘The American Four Seasons’, with Chloë Hanslip as soloist. And poet Mike Garry is providing new verses to link the music to its context.

Tom Elliott says: ‘Mind Music is the name of NCO’s awareness and fund raising campaign for dementia charities. Throughout the coming seasons, the orchestra will be

giving several high-profile concerts, which will raise vital funds for charities including Parkinson’s UK, the Alzheimer’s Society and the PSP Association.

‘NCO will also be embarking on a programme of small concerts and workshops in care homes aimed at taking the power of live classical music to people not always able to get into concert halls and investing in the general cause that aims to help people live well with dementia.

‘As well as offering obvious therapeutic benefits, these workshops will also provide crucial data that it is hoped will form the basis of new research into the ability of live music to actually improve and repair dementia sufferers’ cognitive function. Eighty per cent of the proceeds from ticket sales of this concert will be going to the three charities named above.

‘Everyone at the Northern Chamber Orchestra is thrilled to have such a wonderful new hall so close to their Manchester base, and they are very excited about making this one of their regular concert venues.’

He adds: ‘‘The PSP Association is particularly close to my heart, as I lost my father to this relatively rare form of dementia a few weeks ago. It was the dementia that the great Dudley Moore died of, also.’

The Stoller Hall’s opening in April was a major event in Manchester music, and if I’m not mistaken its razor-sharp acoustic is going to be ideal for expert small forces such as the NCO’s. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a continued NCO presence in Manchester – why should Macclesfield have all the fun?