Together - RNCM, Manchester.

Together was a short concert (approx 50 minutes) of solo and duet chamber works from both under-graduates and post-graduates of the RNCM who are currently receiving bursaries or financial help for their studies from companies, organisations or individuals, all of whom were invited along this afternoon in order that the RNCM might, at the end of their school year, say a heartfelt 'thank you' to them, and indeed all of their sponsors and supporters.

The first two pieces in the afternoon concert were pieces for harp and flute; a combination I don't think I have ever heard together before. - at least not as a duet. Yanan Xu (harpist) and Phoebe Kam (flautist) performed the short 'Intermezzo' by Hendrik Andriessen.; a slow, melodic and lyrical 'song' which gave equal status to both instruments despite the harpist having majority of the melody. After this they played the more well known 'Andante Con Variatizione' by Rossini, although I think I am correct in saying that this was written for flute and piano. I have never heard it played in harp / flute combination before, and it left Xu having a lot of 'tricky stuff' to do, but she manoeuvred through the work with accomplished ease.

Next to perform was percussionist Darren Gallacher who played two bravura solo pieces by Caset Cangelosi. First was the curiously entitled 'Prelude 10.31.09' which was a showy piece for snare drum, requiring the player to do majorette style tricks with his sticks, as well as unconventional playing methods using all areas of the drum, not just the skin. Gallacher followed this with 'Character No.2' for marimba, which Cangelosi dedicated to his sister. His relationship with his sister must have been somewhat turbulent if the music was anything to go by! Both pieces required enormous skill in their execution, of which, Gallacher was in no short supply.

After this pianist Hoi Chiu accompanied soprano Caroline Taylor in seven short songs. Starting with Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenband', and following with 'L'Ame Evaporee' by Debussy and three short novelty pieces by Charles Koechlin she sang in both German and French. Perhaps because she is English, or perhaps because she was trying to make the songs understandable to us, I found that she slightly over-compensated for the foreignness of the tongue by over articulation and enunciation. This was especially obvious in the French songs. A highly proficient and enigmatic performer with a lovely soprano voice, but for me at least, the last two in her set, Britten's 'The Sally Gardens' and Bridge's 'Love Went A-Riding' were the more successful.

To finish, two pieces for two pianos. The pianists Ran Feng and Alexey Pudinov played two superb arrangements of works originally written for other combinations. First (and this should have been the finale in my opinion) came the splendid 'Danse Macabre' by Saint-Saens. A stunning arrangement which suited both the instruments and their players. Following this and finishing the concert, the less successful arrangement of Gerschwin's 'The Man I Love'. The arrangement here sadly got in the way of a great tune! However Feng and Pudinov worked superbly together, the dynamics of both pieces excellent and their playing absolutely stunning!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 4/6/18

Kerry Ellis - Waterside, Sale.

Kerry Ellis graced the Waterside in Sale on her current UK tour to celebrate 20 years since her West End debut.

Ellis is best known for her successful roles on stage as leading lady of West End and Broadway musicals such as ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Miss Saigon’, ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Wicked’ where she was the first British Elphaba.

She has also achieved chart-topping success as a recording artist signed to Universal Decca with her debut album Anthems. Ellis’s first major CD release was the amazing Wicked in Rock, a collaboration with long-time friend and Queen guitarist Brian May and has just released her latest hit album on Sony Music with Brian May titled Golden Days.

Ellis was accompanied by her incredibly talented band Andy Waterson on guitar, Stu Roberts on drums, David Storer on Base and Steve Geere on piano and keys.

The set was basic and resembled that of a pub circuit so initially I was a little concerned for what I had let myself in for however it was effective for the intimate space of The Robert Bolt Theatre at the Waterside in Sale with an audience capacity of just over 300. The fans were given an option to meet and greet her prior to the show which added a personal touch and indicated how Ellis likes to interact with her fans during her tours.

Ellis, dressed in a vibrant sequined blue catsuit and ‘killer heels’, opened the show by greeting her loyal and loving fans with a promise of a sing-a-long, songs from old and new, some personal stories and special guest appearances.

Ellis’s voice was effortless and a pleasure to listen to as she sang songs from her past, present and future such as ‘Rainbow’, ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Golden Days’ followed by a beautiful tale of how she sings an original Elvis Presley song to her two year old son each evening to ease him off to sleep ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’ and wholeheartedly sang it for the audience this evening too.

Her concert this evening coincided with a significant date for Manchester as it marked a year’s anniversary of a terrible terrorist attack that happened in the city and as a heartfelt tribute she sang ‘Amazing Grace’ angelically making it a truly touching moment for everyone present. 

The highlight of the first half for me was when she sang an original Shirley Bassey song; one that she apparently sung as a duet on a talent show ‘I Who Have Nothing’ and she hit every note pitch perfect of this 'huge' ballad. 

After a short break Kerry Ellis returned dressed in a black heavily bejewelled and studded leather dress accompanied by 11 talented young performers from the Midland Academy of Musical Theatre and sang ‘One Voice’, followed by ‘Dust in The Wind’ and various other songs from her albums, but the highlights of the second half was where Ellis and the audience had a sing-a-long to ‘For The Good’ from Wicked where you witnessed just how interactive she truly is with her fans.

Special guest was James Edgington a young and flamboyant performer whom she had met through TV, radio and Bolton ‘Pride’ who sang ‘This Is Me’ from The Greatest Showman followed by Ellis singing the infamous ‘Defying Gravity’ dressed in an elegant navy crush velvet cocktail dress bringing the evening to a perfect close.

It is clear that Kerry Ellis has a loyal fan base and that she has an endearing bond with her fans making the whole 20th Anniversary Tour a huge success. The tour ends its run on the 24th May 2018 in Milton Keynes. 

Reviewer - Katie Leicester
on - 22/5/18

Collaboration Concert - Peel Hall, University of Salford.

Peel Hall

This was a joint concert - a collaboration - between The Greater Manchester Music Hub Under 18's Jazz Orchestra and The Salford University Big Band. The performance was given in the Victorian Peel Hall in Salford University's showpiece building, The Peel Building adjacent to the Museum and Art Gallery.

The stage was set - Big Band on one side, Jazz orchestra on the other with the respective rhythm sections to the rear and the two pianos embracing each other in the centre. The only unfortunate thing about the evening was the lack of programme, and so I am now left with the inability of crediting names of players, composers, or even song titles. I shall try, but if things are incorrect then maybe someone in the know can advise and I will alter accordingly. Thanks.

The evening started with a loud and jolly 'Birdland' played by both bands together, and conducted by Salford university's Tim France. The Salford University Big Band then followed this up with the intriguingly entitled, 'Computer' with tricky non-sequential rhythm patterns and different tonalities. Strange, but excellently played.

The evening continued with the bands alternating every couple of tunes or so. some swing, some blues, a tango, and we even had a jazz waltz in there too. The Music Hub Orchestra being conducted by Richard Iles. A special guest playing keyboards was featured a few times too as he improvised chords and melodies with the bands' tunes. His name was Malcolm Edmondstone and he is the Head of Jazz at Guildhall School.

A couple of my favourite tracks this evening were 'I'm Still Here' played by GMMH Jazz Orchestra. This started with a lovely quasi-classical piano and saxophone duet, and old melody with a modern twist, with a continual 4-note bass rhythm. Alan Baylock's 'Two Seconds To Midnight' played by Salford Uni Big Band was also very interesting, you could really hear the seconds ticking away as the drummer used the stick on the metal side of the drum. 'Return Fond Dove' was also a lovely piece starting slow and lyrical before changing into a bright and bouncy quick second section. I think my favourite tune this evening though was the melodic, easy-flowing and gently flowing 'Sunflower'.

The evening ended with two pieces played by Salford Uni Big Band and a female singer - Samantha Sell (??) - who has been singing with the band for some years but this evening was her last concert with them. A wonderfully bubbly personality and superb jazz soprano voice too. For their finale both bands came together one final time to perform Richard Iles' own composition, 'Red Play'. A loud. brash and bravura finish to the evening.

A couple of things which are worth mentioning about the event. First, maybe this is jazz in general, but I don't think so; there was a distinct lack of the quieter and softer dynamic this evening. Most of the pieces this evening were anything between forte and fortissimo, and even those starting softer somehow ended up in this range. That brings me perhaps to my second comment. Microphones. The size of the Peel Hall is not large, and so I was uncertain as to why the band needed microphones at all, especially when the sound levels were not perfectly balanced.

Watching the concert this evening I was once again amazed at just exactly how much of jazz is improvised. For a classically trained musician like myself it is thrilling and awe-inspiring to watch musicians have the confidence and ability to make things up as they go along and still make it sound finished and polished. The amount of talent on stage this evening was incredible, and there were undoubtedly some of jazz's future stars amongst them.  

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/5/18

Northern Chamber Orchestra 50th Anniversary Concert - The Stoller Hall, Chetham's School, Manchester.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the Northern Chamber Orchestra performed a concert series at the Heritage Centre in Macclesfield and The Stoller Hall in Manchester on Saturday the 12th and Sunday 13th of May. The NCO indeed has a lot to celebrate – apart from its success as a professional chamber orchestra over the past 50 years, with many recordings on the Naxos label, and being the orchestra in residence at Buxton International Festival – it has now finally found a home as part of a residency at the new Stoller Hall. It has also formed a partnership with the Northern Powerhouse and will be taking part in projects related to that initiative in the future.

The first thing that strikes you when you watch the NCO perform is that it doesn’t use a conductor. This wasn’t that unusual in the Classical period but from the 1830s onwards it became customary to use a conductor. This was mostly to do with the increasing complexity in orchestral music in the Romantic period, and also due to the expansion of the orchestra with new instruments and larger groups of instruments.

The opening piece in the concert was the overture to Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. This is a delightful piece of music and was performed with due humour and fun. It became very evident that the NCO works really well without a conductor, being led in performance by the first violinist and orchestra leader, Nicholas Ward. It takes some skill to perform as a large group in this way – it is clear that these musicians know each other well and are able to communicate and listen to each other subtly. It is also clear that the music is really well prepared. 

Elgar’s Cello concerto in E minor, composed just after the First World War, is a much more difficult piece to perform without a conductor, and indeed rarely done so. Raphael Wallfisch, the soloist, sat on a platform in front of but amongst the orchestra and led, along with first violinist Nicholas Ward. Wallfisch played this piece expertly and with lyrical beauty. It was a very moving and confident performance. Watching how Wallfisch interacted with the other string players added to the depth of the music, particularly in some of the more playful moments between himself and the other cellos.

The final piece in the concert was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor. As a music teacher, I often advise students to perform lesser known pieces for concerts or auditions – the audience or examiner has less to compare you with. Beethoven’s Fifth is probably the most famous piece of music in the world but the NCO’s performance was certainly incomparable with any other I have heard. A lot of thought goes in to a programme and I always ask myself why certain pieces have been put together, or why they are in a programme. At this concert, I am certain the pieces were chosen with the musicians in mind – this was their celebration of 50 years of making music and it was only fitting that the pieces would be to their pleasure as performers. That is certainly what I thought – each musician clearly enjoyed all of the pieces, but the joy of performing Beethoven was particularly obvious in the faces of the musicians here. When you don’t have a conductor, you have to work harder and this resulted in a truly uplifting performance of a rousing classic. 

It struck me, as it does many times, that music is truly a powerful thing. I laughed and smiled and cried and wanted to stand up and cheer at different times at this concert – and not because of any story or word but because of sounds – strings, woodwind, brass and timpani… and while we can attribute that to the genius of Mozart, Elgar and Beethoven as composers, it was truly the musicians that gave life, heart and soul to the emotive journey these pieces presented. They learned their parts, marked notes in the scores in pencil, practiced and rehearsed and then some more as any professional does – but they also clearly loved and felt this music.

Many thanks, and congratulations to the Northern Chamber Orchestra for the 50 years of enrichening the lives of the many audiences who have had the pleasure to listen to them, and congratulations and thanks also for a fantastic and fitting end to their anniversary season.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 13/5/18

RNCM Jazz Collective in Concert - RNCM, Manchester

This was really a quite excellent concert. The word 'jazz' has so many sub-divisions in style and genre that unless you know the band or performer it is pretty much pot luck as to what they will play.... Duke Ellington Big Band, Latin American dance rhythms, Negro Spirituals, or some highly contemporary composer interpolating jazz into an atonal electronic-fusion symphony! Fortunately the majority of items played this evening were hitting my own personal jazz button almost completely on its head.

With a untitled title of 'Around The World In Jazz', the band - an extended rhythm section, brass and woodwind, female voice and violin - played music which either came from or was evocative of many different countries. There was no geographical order to this - as we started in Spain and ended in Ireland criss-crossing the globe in between. The music was diverse, mostly upbeat and indeed did remind one very easily of the country it represented.

After a very Castilian grand opening to the concert with a piece entitled simply, 'Spain' by Chick Corea, the second piece was Egypt, and was my favourite piece of  the whole evening. Called  'Cosmik Elimde' it was a lovely arrangement of a traditional Egyptian folk melody. It had a film score quality to it and one really could imagine the caravans across the desert, the bartering at the bazaar, and the Nile majestically passing pyramids.

We then travelled to Jamaica for a calypso 'St. Thomas', and then over to India for two shorter pieces written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and came from a suite of jazz dances called 'The East Suite'. We first heard 'The Bluebell Of Delhi' and this was followed by 'Amad'. These pieces were really much more Big Band and western, and I was unable to imagine India at all without a huge stretch to the imagination; but the music was delightful nevertheless.

The last three pieces before the interval were 'Oye Como Va' by Tito Puente, and as you can probably tell we are back in Latin America once again with a dance rhythmic which was saying ' Hey, How are you?'. After this came Canadian composer Kenny Wheeler's ode to England, 'Gentle Piece', and finally back to South America and more specifically Argentina for the first half closer. Astor Piazzollo's Nuevo Tango 'Libertango'.

Act two started in South Africa with a beautiful piece I have already heard played by The RNCM Big Band some while back. A fabulous piece written by Adam Glasser and Dudu Pukwana called 'African Marketplace' it is a style of jazz not often heard in recitals in this country, which is a shame, since it is such a lovely rhythm.

Norway was our next stop with my second favourite piece of the evening. Jan Gabarek's 'Song Tread Lightly'; an arrangement of an old Norse folk melody. Slow, evocative and simply beautiful. We then take our final stop in Latin America, this time Cuba with a style of music which has become known as 'Cubop'. Dizzy Gillespie's famous ' Manteca'. We then returned to the Ellington / Strayhorn partnership for three short pieces which come from another suite of dances they wrote together. This time arranging Tchaikovsky's music for the ballet The Nutcracker. We heard then 'Arabesque Cookie' (Arabian Dance), 'Chinoiserie' (Chinese Dance), and 'Volga Vouty' (Russian Dance).

The penultimate piece came from Lebanon. Composer Rahib Abou-Kahlil is a famous Oud player, and in his compositions he fuses the traditional Oud music of Lebanon and surrounds with contemporary jazz influences. The style is unique and creative, and the sound fascinating and enjoyable. The rhythm of the piece was impossible to keep up with. It was 'Dog River'.

The concert ended with an arrangement of the famous opening music to Riverdance show, used originally as interval music to the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Composed by Bill Whelan, this arrangement was by Bob Curnow and was an absolutely splendid way to end this whirlwind World Tour of jazz.

The whole evening was conducted by RNCM's own Mike Hall who loves to bop across the stage moving in time to the beats oftentimes stepping aside completely and leaving the musicians to it. However he is not slapdash in the slightest and makes sure the instruments enter and come off at the appropriate times and keeps a firm but relaxed grip on proceedings throughout.

There is one thing that I really don't understand about this artform in general. I find it very messy and haphazard for soloists to leave their positions and take a place at the front of the stage. If the soloist is going to be playing a large amount and is the focus of the piece [a violin concerto for example] this is absolutely the correct way to go, but when there may well be 5 or 6 different short solo riffs in the same piece and they play for only a few seconds before going back to their place it looks decidedly ragged. I would much prefer that the soloists be spotlighted for their riff whilst still in situ. It would look more professional for one thing and would also save a little time too.    

A truly enjoyable evening in the company of talented RNCM musicians, who seemingly are capable of turning their hands to any style of music from any era. Most of the students in this 'Collective' also study and indeed perform in other ensembles too of varying and diverse genres. Bravissimi tutti.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 12/5/18

Spotlight Concert: The Venus Trio - RNCM, Manchester

The Venus Trio, a group of three second year students at RNCM entertained us in the Carole Nash Concert Hall in the early evening for approximately half and hour with jazz and jazz-influenced music. The Spotlight concerts are free drop-in concerts which often take place a little before an evening concert, as this did, with a similar theme and looked upon as an optional additional extra, although you are more than welcome to see the Spotlight concert without having a ticket for the evening.

The musicians were Kristiana Smilovska on piano, Rosie Spinks on 'cello, and Cara Houghton on flute. What came across during this short concert was their obvious joy of playing, and their love of the music. They worked excellently together listening to and watching each other constantly.

The concert started with three very short novelty pieces.  'Cherry Blossoms' by The Project Trio was slow, lyrical and quite beautiful as the jazz intertwined with this almost melancholic melody. In a complete change of mood, the second piece, again by The Project Trio was much faster and up-beat, and very much in the klezmer style of music. The joyous 'Djangish'. The third piece reverted back to a slower pace but with short improvised sections in the rather bluesy 'Kind Folk' by Kenny Wheeler.

Their main piece was a classically styled concert trio in three movements by Kapustin.  Highly modern and incredibly difficult, these three young ladies played with zest and skill, and the piece was hugely entertaining. The first movement was fast and frenetic punctuated with more reflective moments. The second was slow with a quiet unassuming start which gathered in volume and intensity before returning to the plaintive and mellow melody. The third movement was a scherzo and started quickly in the classical style on solo piano before developing swiftly into a jazz allegro con brio which was performed with bravura!

A fantastic short recital, which put us all absolutely in the mood for more, and we all left with a smile on out faces.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 12/5/18

UoSMD Gala Concert - Peel Hall, University, Salford.

The University of Salford’s Music and Dance Directorate presented their end of year Gala Concert which saw four ensembles of students from all levels perform and gave a taste of the abilities of the groups.

First was the University of Salford Brass Band, conducted with precision movements by Tom Davoren. The band presented two pieces: the first, Coldplay’s “God Put a Smile on Your Face”, had been arranged for the performance by Jared McCunnie. Comparisons with the hit cover version of the song by Mark Ronson were perhaps inevitable as both arrangements rely heavily on the trumpets to cover for Chris Martin’s vocals and McCunnie’s arrangement adopted the faster tempo of Ronson’s version rather than retain the one from the original recording. Despite this, McCunnie’s arrangement was punchy and had more instruments to contend with than Ronson did with his recording. The trombones provided a fair amount of “oomph” to the music jabbing in and out. The Brass Band followed this rather ‘poptastic’ opening with a more complex, longer work: “English Heritage” by George Lloyd. The composition was one of five Lloyd wrote for Brass bands, he was mainly a composer of symphonies, and it was a very demanding piece for the players. The opening was strident with the trombones and percussion doing a lot of the work as the tubas and trumpets layered over them. It was a turbulent opening section, full of waves of sound, and was possibly a reflection of the violent beginnings of England, besieged by invaders from Rome, Germany, and Scandinavia, with wars breaking out across England until Alfred the Great unified the country. The climax of the piece similarly made use of martial percussion rhythms and blasts of tuba, trombone and trumpet, at points the final moments seemed to recall the music of World War Two. Yet, sandwiched between the crashing waves of sound of the opening and close of the piece, there was a gentle trumpet solo which recalled the pastoral sounds of Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets, recalling the “green and pleasant” land of time gone by. While all members of the Brass Band gave it their all during the piece, special credit should go to the percussionists who were switching between drum, timpani, and glockenspiel throughout the performance: multi-tasking at its finest.

Dan Price took over conducting duties for the University of Salford’s Wind Consort ensemble. Smaller than the Brass Band, the group still packed a punch with their performances of the first movement from William Boyce’s Fourth Symphony, where flutes, oboes, and clarinets featured prominently with additional melodic colours being added by the saxophones and tubas, and their arrangement of “One Jump Ahead” from the Disney film Aladdin. This performance was as full of fun as the film and featured the meeting of Arabic musical rhythms and jazz. The vocal lines from the original song were replaced by saxophone solos, and the ending of the piece featured the oboes and clarinets working their way through descending notes. For both pieces, Price conducted with small, direct movements, befitting such a tight ensemble.

Next was the Classical Choir, a group of nine singers, directed by Emily Kennedy and conducted by Dan Flynn. Beginning with the serene hymn “Peace Perfect Peace”, the ensemble sung together before their second song, “If Ye Love Me” saw them layer the different harmonies of the choir sections. Both songs were short and sweet and the group served as a delightful palate cleanser before the final group of the evening.

Concluding the Gala Concert were the University of Salford Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Brett Baker conducted their first two performances with grace and sophistication. Their opening song, “Strike Hard Strike Sure”, composed by the Brass Band’s conductor Davoren, relied heavily on the trumpet section and deployed marital drumming: you could easily imagine it underscoring one of Churchill’s famous wartime speeches. Second song, “The Sun Will Rise Again” by Phillip Sparke, was an emotional piece composed after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011. Here, the horn section and the woodwinds provided a rousing sound, full of hope that things would get better. Adam Finch took over as conductor for the dramatic performance of “Inferno” by Robert W. Smith, and was equally dramatic in his conducting, with grand sweeps of his arms as the timpani boomed and flutes, saxophones and trumpets created crashing waves of sound. At one point, the woodwind section started to stomp their feet while the French horns and flute played over them. Near the climax of the piece, there was a powerful trumpet solo which packed in note upon note upon note. It was a thrilling performance. The final performance of the night was of the theme to the 2004 film The Incredibles and was conducted with flair by Ryan Coates. This breezy, groovy performance provided a suitably upbeat conclusion to the concert.

Throughout the evening, various awards were given to students who had performed exceptionally well throughout the academic year and this, combined with the performances of the ensembles (which contained several award winners), further highlighted the amount of talent on show during this concert. 

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 9/5/18     

Mugenkyo: Taiko Drummers - Waterside, Sale.

Mugenkyo - a Japanese word meaning 'limitless reverberation' - are six talented and dedicated performers who make up this troupe and proved this evening that their name was totally justified.

The Waterside theatre in Sale isn't large and the audience are close to the stage, and so I was a little worried that the sound created by the enormous drums when being pelted with thick wooden sticks would be simply too loud for the space and our eardrums. That simply wasn't the case at all though, and even though the sound was very loud at times, it never reached a level where you wanted to cover the ears.

Various sizes and styles of drum were showcased throughout the evening - taiko being the Japanese for 'drum', but more specifically those drums belonging to the group known as 'wadaiko'. Yes it gets rather technical! Let's just say then that there were big drums and medium sized drums, most were 'double drums' - ie; can be played at both ends simultaneously. But it wasn't just drums. This was a theatrical performance which had been given a lot of thought in its presentation. We therefore started the evening with deep throat warbling, singing, tiny metallic percussive jingling and one of the members dancing with fans to start a very traditional taiko piece called Hachijo.

The evening saw this group perform 13 pieces in all, ranging from the highly traditional to more modern pieces; even one which takes a Celtic legend as it's inspiration. This was one of two pieces in the first half which saw the group use UV light to excellent effect. Double-headed blank white masks and white ribbons in other-worldly choreography made for a rather frightening but creative aspect which worked beautifully.    

As you can probably tell, it isn't just the drumming which makes a taiko experience so fulfilling and special. It is the whole theatricality of it all. Precision choreography for arm and leg movements make a very striking and indeed oriental picture. Combine this with some incredible cross-hands and cross-drumming techniques, and some interesting playing of other traditional instruments too, as the opening piece of the second half is a solo performance on the Shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute; and you have a theatrical drumming experience like no other.

The one thing that sadly let the evening down - at least for me - was half-way through the second half when they decided to descend into the realms of comedy and slapstick. This cheapened the show, and them. Their musicianship, craft and dedication to their art is complete and watching and listening to them perform their superbly crafted routines is spectacle enough. To bring in unnecessary Laurel-and-Hardty-esque miming and tomfoolery, which, incidentally wasn't actually that good anyway, seemed forced, false, and completely out of place.

Their finale, dedicated to their Japanese Sensei, was a bravura piece complete with gong, and every drum banging a ferocious and frenetic Shiburoku rhythm inviting the 'Phoenix' to rise from the ashes once again.  

Mugenkyo has been performing taiko for 24 years, and the current troupe, Neil Mackie, Miyuki Williams, Joao Madeira, Markus Guhe, Bren Neill and Stella Chan are indeed experts; and this was a bravura performance. They are based in Scotland and offer workshops and weekend schools/ More information can be found at taiko.co.uk.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 8/5/18

Eric Bibb - RNCM, Manchester.

With a music career spanning five decades, Eric Bibb has paid more than enough dues to justify his self-confessed label as a “blues troubadour.” His most recent album, 2017’s Migration Blues (songs from which formed the basis for most of his set), presented original songs and covers of songs which reflect the journey of migrants both past (specifically African-Americans from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago in the 1920s) and present. Bibb’s style is rooted deeply within the acoustic country blues tradition of the 1920s and 1930s which grew out of work-songs during the era of slavery rather than the more electrified, urban Chicago sound which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s.

His performance at the Royal Northern College of Music saw him supported by Swedish singer Felicia Neilsen, who took to the stage after Bibb introduced her to the audience. Neilsen, like Bibb, was deeply rooted within the country blues tradition and was seated stage left in a solitary spotlight, with just her acoustic guitar for company. Her opener, a 1920s blues song called “Try Me One More Time”, allowed her to demonstrate a fine singing voice and some impressive fretwork on the guitar. Neilsen then followed that song with a gutsy rendition of a gospel song by Flora Molton called “Sun’s Gonna Shine One Day” which was written about the Vietnam war. Her third song was an instrumental number called “A Rag Blues”, originally recorded by Buddy Boy Hawkins in 1929 and provided another opportunity for her to display her prowess on the guitar. Following this was a performance of one of the many blues songs written after the 1927 Mississippi Flood, “When the Levee Breaks”, although Neilsen’s performance was based on the original song by Memphis Minnie, rather than the more famous reworking by Led Zepplin in 1971. Her set closer was a Swedish folk song to which she had written her own lyrics about the area of Sweden she is from, although the lyrics were all in Swedish but the tone of the song was clear enough and provided a gentle, reflective end to an impressive set of acoustic blues songs.

Bibb commenced his set by playing the old blues standard “Goin’ Down Slow” on his own before introducing fellow guitarist Michael Jerome Brown who played guitar on the next song “Four Years No Rain” from Migration Blues. After this song, the remaining members of Bibb’s band were introduced: Neville Malcolm on electric and upright acoustic bass, and Paul Robinson on drums and percussion. Bibb took some a moment to tune one of his four guitars but did not forget that the audience were waiting; in his silky voice he declared that, “Tuning is like airplane maintenance. Always worth it.” Throughout the performance, Bibb displayed a lot of charm, humour, and humility. The assembled band launched into the spritely, upbeat “On My Way to Bamako” which brought African rhythms to the twelve-bar blues structure of the song. A strong performance of “With a Dolla’ in my Pocket” was preceded by the context of both this song and its parent album, Migration Blues. This was followed by another blues standard, “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” before the mood was lifted by the jaunty self-penned song “Panama Hat”. Bibb then performed his song “With my Maker I Am One” which featured some brilliant slide guitar work from Brown before the audience were encouraged to join in a sing-along with a rendition of “Needed Time” which Bibb said he learned from the version by Taj Mahal (itself derived from the original by Lightnin’ Hopkins).

The performance of “Needed Time” could easily have become the high point of the night but Bibb had a surprise in store: the other members of the band left the stage, Bibb put his guitar back and stood up in the spotlight to perform the opening song from Migration Blues, “Refugee Moan” acapella. A truly confident vocal performance, full of passion and soul. Brown returned on guitar while Bibb sang “Diego’s Blues” before Bibb graciously left the stage to allow Brown to perform a rendition of Tampa Red’s “You Missed a Good Man”. This performance highlighted that Brown wasn’t just a great guitarist but that he had a great vocal feel for the blues. Bibb returned to perform “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” alone, before he was re-joined by the band for the last three songs of the set. Set closer “New World Comin’ Through”, an optimistic song of change, provided another opportunity for the audience to join in the performance by singing the first two verses along with Bibb. After the song, Bibb and his fellow musicians took their bows to a standing ovation and left the stage. They soon returned, naturally, for a three-song encore, the highlight of which was “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down”; a fine song with a message of perseverance in the face of defeat. The final encore song, “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” ended the night with another audience sing along and a genuine feeling of joie de vivre.

One of Bibb’s many albums is called The Happiest Man in the World. The title seems to still hold true for Bibb as throughout his performance he looked like he was enjoying every second, and the audience responded in kind. It was a truly remarkable show and proof that blues songs needn’t all be doom and gloom.    

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 5/5/18

Our Finest Hour - The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

Manchester's Bridgewater Hall played host this evening to the BBC Big Band, as they performed a musical tribute to and celebration of our victory in the second world war with especial reference to Dunkirk and The Battle Of Britian..

Veteran actor Peter Bowles narrated the concert, giving us a little background to certain events during the war which were, in retrospect, pivotal to our ultimate victory. To add a little more realism and context to this there were three recorded speeches of Churchill played during key moments in the concert. Speeches which even for those too young to have any connection with the war like myself, are so famous that they were reassuring, rousing, and immensely patriotic in themselves... 'This was their finest hour // Fight them on the beaches // Never was so much owed by so many to so few.'

Bowles' narration gave context to 'Operation Dynamo' - The Normandy Landings; 'Operation Sealion' preparing the UK for invasion; The Battle Of Britain, and a light hearted mention of ENSA, the war-time entertainment corps that kept the spirits of the troops high no matter where they were fighting, as they were presented with 'Every Night Something Awful!' ( 'if laughter was their tonic then music was their gin!')

The most moving and memorable speech however was Bowles' reading of a letter from a 23 year old pilot to his mother, to be read only after his death in service. With the BBC Big Band playing uncharacteristically the slow movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony (the 'Going Home' theme) underneath it made for a rather heartfelt 'lump-in-the-throat' moment.

Joining the band onstage this evening was mezzo-soprano Annie Gill. Vocally strong and secure with crystal clear tones and perfect enunciation hitting every note directly on its head every time and making it look and sound so easy. A lovely mellow voice which completely suited her chosen repertoire this evening. Magical! I'll certainly be looking out for her name in the future.

The BBC Big Band were, as you might expect utterly flawless. Doing what they do best, the traditional Big Band sounds of those glory years of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and the like, they were simply magnificent, and even when their conductor Barry Forgie stepped aside to allow them to play unconducted, their skill, musicianship, and cumulative talent was awe-inspiring. Even when the band was asked to play music somewhat out of their comfort zone, such as the classical and strict 'Rule Britannia' by Thomas Arne or Elgar's Pomp And Circumstance March which finished the concert, they rose to this challenge superbly. Admittedly the music sounded rather strange being played by Big Band orchestration, but that did not diminish the technical ability at all.

Special mention needs to be given to two band members, although I do not know their names sadly. The cornet solo in 'American Patrol' was excellent, but even more remarkable was the extended and exhausting percussion riff - a whole act in itself - during 'Sing Sing Sing'. Unbelievable.

The music covered the war era completely with a well-chosen programme of both English and American 'standards' from Sherwin's 'A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square', through the music of Glenn Miller, Vera Lynn, Noel Coward, to the rousing military music of Goodwin (633 Squadron) and Coates (The Dambusters).

Both halves of the concert ended with the audience being invited to join in with the chorus of one of the songs. The finale itself felt very much like a 'Last Night Of The Proms' event and many in the audience were desperately wanting to wave Union flags at this point, but of course no-one had any.

I have heard the BBC Big Band many times but never before seen them play live - it won't be my last!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 4/5/18

Quatuor Danel in Concert - Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

Quatuor Danel, the University of Manchester’s resident string quartet since 2005, concluded their performances of the 2017/18 concert season with a night of three quartets and a piano trio, which featured guest pianist David Fanning. The concert deftly showed why the quartet are widely considered to be one of the finest chamber music performers and why the University of Manchester chose them to become their artists in residence.

The concert commenced with an astonishing performance of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8. In other instances, such a complex piece would have been placed later in the programme but Quatuor Danel have been playing Shostakovich’s quartets for many years and such was their confidence and knowledge of the piece, that they used it as an opener.

The piece opens broodingly, with Yovan Markovitch’s cello, Vlad Bogdanas’s viola and Gilles Millet’s violin providing a background drone while Marc Danel, on first violin, played a haunting solo. Danel’s passion for the piece was evident throughout the performance. Playing with his eyes closed, clearly feeling the music as his fingers worked their way up and down the strings, he made playing the violin seem easy. When the piece entered its second movement, the Allegro molto, the brooding quiet of the opening movement was replaced by frantic, dramatic, distraught themes. The playing style of all members changed to dramatic sawing of their bows, and Danel became more animated, lifting himself up of his seat and swaying around as the piece built up in intensity; he was literally throwing himself into the performance. The third movement saw another change in tempo and style, as the music became more waltz like and yet there was still a hint of darkness. The fourth movement opened with stabs of the strings, startling the audience back into the sorrowful mood of the work before the work concluded with a more reflective tone which echoed the opening movement. Nearly sixty years after its composition, the work is still full of fire and passion and the performance by Quatuor Danel vividly brought it to life.  

The second performance of the night was Sofia Gubaidulina’s Reflection on the Theme B-A-C-H, which, as its title implies, is indebted to the works of J.S. Bach. This work, while shorter than the Shostakovich quartet, was not without its technical challenges: early in the work the Quatuor Danel were required to descend from the higher register down to the earthy bass tones on their instruments and, as the work went along toward its climax, featured all four members pushing their instruments to the limit of the higher notes, building up in shrillness until it came close to the frequency which only dogs could hear! There was a knowing glance between Bogdanas and Markovitch as they went higher and higher and higher, which seemed to encompass a brief conversation: “Are we really going to go as high as this?” “Yes. We are. We can. We will!” After such intensity, the ending of the piece which was built around the notes B, A, C, and H (used in Germany in place of B, there the note B is actually B flat) came as a gentle moment of release and relief.

The third quartet work was Benjamin Britten’s final major work, Quartet No.3 in G major. Opening with a layering of harmonies from each instrument, the first movement built up and saw Danel and Markovitch flourishing their bows and drawing them across their strings as though they were engaged in a musical duel. The second movement was more dramatic, operating in defiance of the more remote feeling of the rest of the piece, except for the fourth movement which was reminiscent of the Shostakovich piece heard earlier in the evening in terms of its tempo and musical texture. The concluding movement was more reflective in its feel and featured much plucking, rather than sawing, of the strings.

After an interval, the concert resumed with its concluding performance: Piano Trio No. 2 by Shostakovich. That the concert was bookended by two Shostakovich performances was no accident, as the final movement of this piece had been quoted in the second movement of the string quartet which opened the concert. Here, David Fanning performed on the piano, joined by Danel on violin and Markovitch on cello. The work was born out of much personal sorrow for Shostakovich when he composed it and its sadness was apparent from the opening: the piano playing low notes, providing an ominous sense of gloom. The strings added a lighter tone to the piece and soon Fanning’s piano responded as the movement reached its conclusion before exploding into a more energetic feel for its second movement. This forcefulness was not to last, as a feeling of sorrow drenched the third movement: the piano sounding like a death knell and the strings wailing along. Such was the intensity of the performance, that Markvoitch’s bow lost one of its strings and he deftly pulled it away during the brief pause before the final movement which saw a build-up and explosion of Jewish influenced music.

The concert was full of strong performance work from Quatuor Danel and the group really knew how to bring out the best of the pieces they had chosen to perform. Hopefully the upcoming 2018/19 season will give them even more of a chance to impress audiences with their skill. 

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 4/5/18 

Freedom Of Speech - The Carole Nash Recital Room, RNCM, Manchester.

Organised and performed by students at the Royal Northern College of Music, this one the first of a triple bill of fascinating concerts premiering new work written especially for the Larisa Piano Trio and Auroa Vocalis Chamber Choir. Inspired by the students' desire to promote the rights of students all over the world to express themselves freely, the work performed in this concert explored the concept of freedom of speech and featured musical styles ranging from plainsong to powerful and melodic choral anthems reminiscent of both Karl Jenkins and John Rutter. Compromising of four commissions and a movement from Amy Beach’s Piano Trio, at only 45 minutes in length the enjoyment of attending this concert was greatly enhanced by having most of the composers present to introduce their work.

Socrates on Trial by Jack Redman powerfully argued through vivid and vibrant clashes of instrumental and vocal exchanges, Socrates' passionate plea to be able speak his mind at the birthplace of modern democracy. Redman’s pulsating score and dramatic, frenzied musical images brought to mind the work of Twentieth Century luminaries Michael Tippet and in particular Benjamin Britten and his War Requiem. This was a muscular piece of music performed with tremendous heart and musical strength.

Voiced by Matthew Baldwin, Four Score and Seven Years Ago was a musical setting of extracts from President Abraham Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg speech made at the end of the Civil War in 1863. This haunting piece featured ghost like choral fragments that were offset against the strident beats and pulses of the accompanying piano, violin and cello.

The most complex of the pieces and the one that I was least able to engage with was James Chan’s, Immersion: Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Chan’s introduction was almost as long as his composition, the inspiration for which he told us was a notorious photograph of a crucifix soaked in urine and the Roman Catholic Church's list of censored books which is now thankfully banned. Chan is clearly a composer of great talent but this piece was in my opinion full of too many discordant and jumbled musical ideas for it to connect and resonate in any meaningful and purposeful way. Of all the pieces this was the most flamboyant and maybe on a bigger platform with more instrumentalists and singers would make more impact.

Doug McIntosh’s, Utopia, was undoubtedly the highlight of the concert. This wonderful melodic and powerful anthem based on a well known Polish poem about an imagined peaceful, uninhabited island was a gorgeous, uplifting hymn to freedom. For this piece the Piano Trio and Chamber Choir were truly united for this jubilant celebration of self-determination and liberty. Of all the compositions premiered this was the piece that I can see enjoying a future life performed time and time again.

The concert also featured a short piece by Anna Disley-Simpson which was a plaintive, multi-layered hymn featuring an exquisite solo line sung by soprano, Emily Varney. To conclude the concert the Laris Piano Trio played the third movement of Amy Beach’s Piano Trio written in 1938. The piece reflects the political instability of the time, with violent chord clashes eventually giving way to delicate and enjoyable harmonies. 

This was a hugely enjoyable concert made more so by the genuine passion and enthusiasm of the young musicians performing in front of an audience made up of their peers and also the composers whose music they so vividly brought to life. 

The RNCM give many free converts throughout their year, and details of al their concerts can be found on their website.. www.rncm.ac.uk

Reviewer - Richard Hall
on - 4/5/18

RNCM Symphony Orchestra Concert 3rd May 2018 - RNCM

At first glance the three pieces performed as part of the opening programme of the RNCM Symphony Orchestra’s Summer season had little in common. The programme was put together by Junior Fellow in Conducting at the RNCM, Sergej Bolkhovets, as part of his final assessment. Danse Macabre by Camille Saint Saens is a playful tone poem that puts in to music a French legend in which the devil appears on Hallowe'en night calling the dead from their graves to dance with him as he plays his fiddle. This was followed by Bela Bartok’s second Piano Concerto which is dissonant, dense and difficult to play and difficult to listen to. The evening was rounded up with Brahm’s lush, grand and pastorally evocative second Symphony. While each piece has merit in its own right – I couldn’t but wonder why the three had been placed together. All three composers were known to borrow tunes from elsewhere but this was not the case for these three pieces.

In any case, the Danse Macabre was a delight. There is something about the RNCM Symphony Orchestra that really produces an exhilarating performance – perhaps the vitality of these student musicians creates an energy that is fearless and uncomplicated. Alongside this spiritedness, the orchestra is clearly made up of professionals who are truly technically adroit. The violin solo was played superbly and indeed every section of orchestra came to life making this fast paced piece.

Wyn Chan, winner of the RNCM Concerto Competition, performed Bela Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto as part of his final assessment. This is a complex and heavy piece of music which is truly virtuosic - it may well be one of the most difficult pieces in the piano concerto repertoire. This is an interesting composition from various points of view. The entire string section is unusually tacet - silent - in the first movement and indeed for much of the second. This allows the piano to engage and play with the other parts of the orchestra, particularly the percussion section. Also, the writing is intensely rhythmical, perhaps more so than lyrical as is characteristic of some 20th century music, and the piano is used percussively. In addition, the piano is firmly the centre piece of this concerto. This may seem like it should be the case, being a piano concerto, but there is barely a moment’s rest for the pianist during the 25 minutes or so it takes to perform all three movements. Chan was all of this – engaging, playful, percussive and rhythmical. He did not get lost in the virtuosity of his part but connected instantly with the musicians around him, dialoguing with them most naturally. This piece is truly music for music's sake – there is no meaning or story behind this piece of music and little for the audience to connect to melody wise but Chan really understood this piece and its value. It was emotive in that it touched on those emotions that sometimes don’t have words and he clearly recognised this. It was also clear that he thoroughly enjoyed this work. Sometimes soloists can take themselves too seriously and act the part – not Chan. From his foot tapping to his honestly emotive face we could see his intention, his connection to the music and his creative interpretation. There is need to say that he played flawlessly, and while that must be applauded it was his providing some meaning to this abstract piece that really should be recognised.

At this point, it becomes startlingly clear why Bolkhovets chose these three works – they explore every nook and cranny of the symphony orchestra, thus allowing him to shine in his conducting assessment, which he did, and of course allowing the musicians to play what must be truly enjoyable pieces from a performers point of view. 

The night ended with Brahms’ second Symphony, which is a huge piece of work that showcases the orchestra and can be considered a textbook symphony. We get all that we expect from Brahms – lyricism, form, fantastic orchestration, humour, deep emotion and grandness and the RNCM Symphony Orchestra mastered it as a true showstopper. Bolkhovets conducted with command and with trust. There was a clear connection between himself and the orchestra which created a wonderful performance. You cannot help but smile at times throughout this piece. The Scherzo movement in particular had a wonderfully playful tempo and the finale really rose the spirits finishing a most enjoyable evening.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 3/5/18

DEcontamination #14: Material Things - The RNCM, Manchester.

The fourteenth concert in the Royal Northern College of Music’s Decontamination concert series saw The House of Bedlam ensemble perform four contemporary avant-garde music compositions, with a screening of a film by the composer Joanna Baillie halfway through the evening.

The Fisrt performance was of Swedish composer HannaHartman's 'Rainbirds'. Featuring a flute and two water sprinklers for instrumentation the piece was presumably composed to reflect the sounds of a rainy day. The flute, plugged in to an amplifier was deployed in such a way as to resist in creating any melody. Instead, Kathryn Williams, blew hard into her flute to generate a rasping, bass tone repeatedly before allowing some lighter notes to flow through before the water sprinklers came on and the sound of the water dripping and collecting in the buckets they were attached to echoed through the performance space. The flute’s rasping tones sounded like a blustery wind blowing, with the gentler notes representing the dying down of the wind into a breeze, all the while being sound tracked by the noise of dripping water. Like the rest of the content over the course of the evening, Rainbirds seemed to be more of a sonic work of art rather than a conventional musical work and much emphasis was placed on the listener to interpret it how they wished.

The second piece was the rather charmingly titled The two from Rastibon could start a hailstorm and was by the Director of The House of Bedlam, Larry Goves. This work, a combination of spacey electronic backing and two alto saxophones seemed to be a very distant cousin of “Subterraneans,” the closing track off David Bowie’s influential 1977 album Low. The two saxophonists, Carl Raven and Anthony Brown, were often required, as Williams was in Rainbirds, to blow into their instruments but resist creating any discernible notes for much of the performance. When they did produce musical notes from the saxophones, they were often in a call and response duet and, as the work progressed, began to fire off sustained notes which echoed the kind of sonic composition jazz composer Sun Ra would have come up with (again, the electronic backing track reinforced the feeling of ‘cosmic’ music which Ra based his work and performance style on). As the piece headed towards its climax, Raven and Brown, who had been facing each other up to this point, turned away from one another and followed another score sheet set up behind them, before alternating between the two stands and scores. Like the music, this direction in performance was bold and intriguing.

Next up was a screening of the film The Grand Tour by Joanna Baillie. The film was a mediation on how cameras, or other recording devices, do not necessarily capture the whole story when they record an image or a sound. The film opens with a series of photographs and accompanying sounds being played quickly, before stopping on one image and sound for a few beats, and then resuming its fast forward effect. Baillie then proceeds to narrate her frustration with the lack of context provided by just a photograph, as a still image, capturing a single moment in time, and explains how her father travelled Europe by enrolling in language classes and shows a couple of instances where photographs of her father in Berlin and Vienna don’t fully capture the real experience of what he went through. Baillie’s film seemed to explore similar issues to what Susan Sontag looked at in her essay collection On Photography (1977) but nonetheless was an interesting film.

The music performances resumed with another Hartman work, Horizontal Cracking on Concrete Pavements. Like Goves’ composition, this also made use of two saxophones (again played by Raven and Brown) and again, spent much of the composition with the two saxophonists blowing into their instruments but not producing any notes, with the odd burst of short stabs of tone and harmony. The saxophones played against a backing track of breathing and squelching sounds. At times it became difficult to work out if the breath sounds were pre-recorded or were being made by the musicians blowing into their saxophones but suppressing the notes.

The final work of the night, Meeting the Universe Halfway, by Matthew Sergeant, was perhaps the most interesting one of all the ones performed. Featuring more nstruments than before(flute, soprano saxophone, cello, and electric guitar) and three “apparatuses,” this piece again took a minimalist approach to the way the instruments were deployed. The guitar featured prominently but mainly played sustained notes, the flute and saxophone provided some harmonic backing, and the cello was plucked by hand and bow but the piece stood out because the instruments were combined with unusual percussive elements, courtesy of the three contraptions on stage: nails cascaded down, then pebbles fell from a bucket, balls rolled down a frame, and slates were scratched. A mix of the sonic drone experiments of La Monte Young and the Scott Walker song “Clara” (where a slab of pork meat was punched to provide percussion), this was a fascinating work which ended the night on a high.

If the other concerts in the Decontamination series are like this then they are well worth seeking out by those who favour the more experimental and avant-garde sides of music and performance. If, however, you prefer your musical compositions to feature melodies and harmonies, then it would be fair to say this won’t be your cup of tea.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 2/5/18

The Hallé: Thrills, Chills And Spills - The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

There are few more distinctive (and distinguished) sights than that of the black, white and cream dinner jacket attire of the renowned Hallé orchestra, based in the great city of Manchester and it is always a pleasure to see them. Most, if not all, of their concerts I have attended have been from their Pops series but there are exceptions and tonight was a welcome one.

 

Conducted by Stephen Bell (whom I admire for his work in the Pops series and from his energetic way of conducting with such animation) and presented by well-spoken velvet voice of BBC Radio Breakfast’s Petroc Trelawny, we played host to witness  ‘Thrills, Chills and Spills’, part of their 160th season and sponsored by HOME-based restaurant Wood (owned by MasterChef winner Simon Wood). We commenced with the first of a few soundtracks by the great John Williams, in the form of The Witches of Eastwick. From the 1987 film, starring Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfieffer and Cher. Then on to the first of our action film themes; that of Mission Impossible (originally a series before a film franchise staring Tom Cruise) by Lalo Schifrin.

 

The Hateful Eight was third, as we celebrate the music of Ennio Morricone. His alleged disagreements with acclaimed film director Quentin Tarantino were somewhat resolved in this piece as Morricone reluctantly, after much persuasion, composed the piece and won his first Grammy award! His works have included over 400 films but this composition was written even before he had seen a single frame of the film, before it had even been shot!

 

A step to John Barry’s great music for Bond and the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, from which Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The time In The World is known. The Ski Chase is an iconic scene made more so by the music. We continue with John Barry as we hear music from The Ipcress Files, which made Michael Caine’s name. The past two have been 60s spy films and we don’t leave the era just yet, as we return to John Williams’ score for Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can which involves some members  vocally with ‘Sshh’ and finger-clicking.

 

British composer David Julyan’s piece for the 2002 Christopher Nolan psychological thriller Insomnia was next with stars such as Robin Williams and Al Pacino. The first of three stops at Bernard Herrmann meant that we heard North by Northwest, which featured Cary Grant as the star, a tribute to the relationship between him and Alfred Hitchcock (who we heard more of later). Next we were taken to the world of Pixar animation for the 2004 superhero family film The Incredibles, scored by Michael Ciacchino. The soundtrack was recorded on an old analogue tape recorder for the retro feel.

 

After the interval we were treated to Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. A stage show presented on Broadway, it was 30 years later that fan-of-the-show Tim Burton got to direct the feature film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. Then to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eyes Wide Shut, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Hollywood ‘power couple’ Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, before we were taken to James Newton Howard’s The Sixth Sense - one of six films that he scored on 1999 - directed by M Night Shymalan. The film is famous, not just for starring Bruce Willis, but the youngster’s line “I See Dead People”.

 

More thrilsl and suspense, which presenter Trelawny helped to create, as well as providing knowledge, insight and history with great enthusiasm, in the form of Jon William’s simple yet effective two-chord variations to Jaws. A return to Herrmann and Hitchcock meant that we were indeed on the edge of our seats for the chilling screeching of the string section for Psycho. Hermann’s writing for Martin Scorsese’s  Taxi Driver features Robert De Niro and includes ‘a seductive, sultry, saxophone-led musical portrait of the streets of New York’. “He just about managed to complete the scoring sessions for the movie on 23 December 1975; a little after midnight on Christmas Eve he passed away in his sleep“.

 

John Williams' genius returned, as did Harrison Ford (in his mid- 70s) in the near future, for Indiana Jones but not the theme but The Last Crusade which also featured Sean Connery. We were taken to the finale by Polish composer Worciech Kilar’s first foray into Hollywood with Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, which starred Gary Oldham, before approaching the end with Hans Zimmer’s Batman Begins and the Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan had worked with David Julyan on some of his earlier films) and John Williams’ extremely emotive and illustrative Jurassic Park (written in the same year - 1993 - as his score for Schindler’s List.)

 

As with the Hallé and indeed the great Stephen Bell, we were never left dissatisfied, and so we were astounded by a surprise in the form of the late great Michael Jackson’s Thriller (which allowed some audience members to express their inner wolf - the dance).

 

This was, without a doubt, a nod of admiration and appreciation to, not just the composers, but the directors and stars. Notable commendations from the ensemble must go to saxophone soloist Jim Muirhead who was featured at points, guitarist Alex Voysey, the brass section and the extremely under-celebrated percussion section which even featured Castanets.

 

A night out at The Hallé, and of course their home at The Bridgewater Hall is always a great one. You enjoy the unmistakable sounds, indulge in nostalgia, feel free enough to tap or sing/hum along and learn an awful lot too. Quality and education are key to their foundations, as is their value to entertain. Their work with youth is evident through their youth choir and youth orchestra.

For details of their forthcomings season and how you can get discounted tickets for under 30s and over 60s, head over to www.halle.co.uk.

 

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 28/4/18

RNCM Brand New Orchestra Concert - RNCM, Manchester.

The Royal Northern College of Music’s Brand New Orchestra assembled to present nine new compositions by students of the RNCM from fourth year undergraduates, to postgraduates, and even alumni. Prior to the performance, the orchestra had only held two rehearsals, so the pieces were brand new in more ways than one.

The opening composition was Screen Dive by Michael Brailey. It did seem to be a strange choice of an opener for the evening, given that it eschewed the conventional instrumentation of the orchestra in favour of smartphones and the spoken voice, as two soloists scrolled through their phones and described to us what they could see – the memories dredged up by the photographs they saw. A disembodied voice instructed the Ensemble to describe what was on their phones and the voices all built up with the soloists, the voices acting as the instruments for the piece. As the voices died away, the orchestra and soloists were bathed in the light from their phone screens, the faint sound of instructions over the PA system telling them to scroll to certain points on their phone (presumably they were using a specially commissioned app), with the occasional beep indicating when they were to swipe. Melvin Tay was in charge of conducting Screen Dive, although given that the piece relied so much on technology, it was difficult to ascertain quite how he could have conducted any part of the work.

Tay also conducted the following work, [(x), (y), (z)] by Edgar Divver, which was a more conventional performance, at least compared to Screen Dive. Heavily reliant on the string and brass section, this composition recalled the works of film score composer Bernard Hermann, in particular the famous score for Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The final part of [(x), (y), (z)] featured stabs of violin lines similar to the famed ‘shower scene’ from Psycho.

Zakiya Leeming’s Duel Dances came next, conducted with skill and enthusiasm by Elspeth Slorach. Whereas the previous work had recalled the creeping terror of Hitchcock’s films, Duel Dances had the dramatic swoop of a John Williams Star Wars soundtrack. This comparison was apt, as Duel Dances is a musical interpretation of a Mass Transfer sequence between binary star systems. The orchestra was split into three for this piece, each section taking on a specific role in the sequence and the sounds of each section gradually built up over the course of the work, representing how the mass of the stars merge together.

Things were brought down to Earth with Caroline Bordignon’s Iridescent Flares, a piece which was accompanied by a film depicting brush strokes on a work of art. The work (and film) took as its starting point the flaring of colours as light hits a crystal and the music was suitably crystalline, an impressive use of xylophone and piano combined to present a tonally fragile harmony recalling the fragility of crystal. Conductor Peter Woffenden brought a precise direction to the musicians throughout the work.

Woffenden remained in the conductor role for Jingyu Chen’s Sketch, which as its name implies, drew upon the art world for its inspiration. Like a Jackson Pollock work, where paint was flung at a canvas with a technique which seemed random but was carefully controlled, with colours layering upon on another, Sketch built up its music layer by layer. Of note with this composition was an effective and moving use of the trumpet and a delicate harp line at the conclusion of the piece.

Jo-Yu Li’s work L’oiseau Bleu (Blue Bird) followed from the delicacy of the previous two works with a turbulent work, which alternated between moments of musical serenity and musical madness. This work relied more heavily on percussion than the preceding pieces over the evening had done, and the musicians in the percussion section were certainly kept busy throughout the performance. Tay was back on the podium to conduct this piece and he did a fine job.

The intriguingly titled *** ********* by William K.Z. Hearne was originally orchestrated to accompany a story pre-recorded by its author. Hearne explained that the story had been “deemed inappropriate” for the evening and so the orchestra performed the music without the accompanying voice over. Despite this, the drama of the music still came through – there was an uneasy vibe as the piece neared its climax and it would have been interesting to know how the content of the story would have impacted on the music.

From the foreboding of the previous work, came FIREWORKS by Grace Mason. This piece featured a vocal performance from soloist Ann Wilkes, as she sang the poem of the same name as the piece by Amy Lowell. The presence of Wilkes certainly added a new dimension to the proceedings and the work was a delight to listen to.

Closing the night was Fenton Hutson’s Corridors of Sound. Probably the highlight of the night, this piece worked the orchestra hard – there were numerous time changes and a sense of organised chaos within the music. Thrilling stuff and energetically conducted by Sloarch.

The Brand New Orchestra played expertly throughout, tackling even the more outré compositions with ease. The music was interesting and all the composers demonstrated skill with their works. It all made for an unusual but enjoyable night of music.

It had also been my intention to cover the multi-media opera, The Growth Of The Silk which preceeded the orchestra performance, but it was essentially a 'work-in=progress' and was not fully staged, and so it felt unfair to try and review it. It was however interesting and I'll keep an eye for it if it is ever stage in full.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 26/4/18

 

Peter Hammill - The Stoller Hall, Chetham's School, Manchester.

Striding onto the Stoller Hall stage in an all-white outfit more suited to an evening in the tropics than a rainy night in Manchester, Peter Hammill wasted no time in getting down to business: he had a Steinway piano to accompany himself on his more intimate pieces with an acoustic guitar on hand to render his starker, more harrowing material.

And harrowing a lot of it is: those familiar with Hammill’s immense body of work - and the near capacity audience seemed to be largely composed of true believers - recognise in him an artist who never compromises, rarely shifting from his bleak, if not always unamused, view of the human condition. When navigating material from his prolific solo career or that of Van Der Graaf Generator - the band he founded, here in Manchester, all of fifty years ago - Hammill brings an intensity and focus you’re more likely to encounter at a Liederabend than a ‘rock’ concert. The ninety minutes’ of his performance seemed to go by in a flash: at the end of it, I felt emotionally drained. God alone knows how Hammill felt….

Opening with two songs from his current album From The Trees, Hammill proceeded to demonstrate how consistently high his standards have been over the years: I can think of a fair few people of his vintage who’d be chary of dredging up stuff they wrote in their twenties, fearful that it’s gaucheness might prove embarrassing, but no such fears from Hammill - (On Tuesdays She Used To Do) Yoga from 1977’s Over had the same spare force as this year’s Don’t Tell Me or the dramatic Van Der Graaf Generator track My Room (Waiting For The Wonderland). As a body of work, it’s remarkably of one piece. Of course, it was hard to assess some of the newer material as each new album has to be lived with for a time before it can be assimilated; but Hamill performed it all with an equal level of commitment.

Although his piano playing and guitar work are no more than competent (it’s all they need to be), Hammill’s voice is another matter. It’s his most polarising aspect as a performer - dipping between a regular baritone and a sort of eldritch shriek that brings to mind a chorister about to declare war on Poland - as well as his most identifiable. He has always pushed himself to his limits as a vocalist - sometimes beyond them - and there is an element of bareback riding to his singing which adds to the tension of the performance: will he be able to hit that note, and will he have the heft to sustain it? He does, of course; and though the passage of time has brought about a slight narrowing of his range (he is 70 this year), he has a lot less to worry about than some of his more famous contemporaries. And his articulation (the words are vitally important - they need to be heard) is still to be wondered at…

Only one encore - a new and surprisingly optimistic song that took the audience by surprise - and Hammill was gone. Barring a greeting and some very brief inter-song pleasantries, he had spent the entire hour and a half playing music. As Van Der Graaf Generator no longer seems to be a going concern and with Hammill’s concerts on these shores an increasingly rare occurrence, catching his current UK tour should be a priority for the long-term follower and the neophyte alike.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 25/4/18

A Dance With The Devil: Wind, Brass And Percussion Festival - RNCM, Manchester.

A whole day dedicated to three out of the four orchestral families ( brass, wind and percussion) today at the RNCM, and despite the sunshine and slightly premature St. George's Day revelry, there was a considerable turnout.

The day started at 10:30am - yes, I'll write that again... 10:30AM on a Sunday! But I was there and  had the pleasure of listening to the first couple of concerts, given on a specially constructed stage area in the cafe, practically alone. Only a few of the 'hard-core' joining me.

The title of the day's festival, 'A Dance With The Devil' was a good one, and one which musically, we are in no short supply. Our obsession with the macabre, especially our relationship with the Devil and Hell is age old and timeless, and there is a whole plethora of music from every era to accompany this mind-set. Most of the works showcased today fit very nicely into this umbrella title.

The format of the whole event - which continued all day until finally wrapping up about 9:30pm (yes that's 11 hours of non-stop music!) was to have larger, more substantial concerts interspersed with what were called 'pop-up' concerts of around 10 minutes' duration happening in the public spaces between the main auditoria. One simply could not watch or listen to all the events, there were around 25 concerts happening throughout the day, but I did manage to listen to as much as I possibly could.

Of the 'pop-up' concerts, I was fortunate enough to catch ten of these. My over-riding concern here being that once the cafe area was filling up at both lunch and tea times, it was almost impossible to be able to enjoy the music on offer there due to the hustle and bustle of busy-ness all around. The cafe is situated in the main thoroughfare of the building, and everyone entering or leaving the performance spaces needs to pass by here. Ideal for cafe business, but little else. Those concerts given on the so-called 'Lower Concourse' were far more successful in this regard.

Main concerts included RNCM groups, The Bassoon Ensemble, Brass Band, etc, and the day's special guests from overseas, The Boston Brass.

There truly was something for everyone throughout the course of the day; and with so many different concerts on offer at different times it was very difficult to decide what to see and when to eat! However, If you will allow me, then here are a few of the day's personal highlights.

In The Carole Nash Recital Room, the Junior RNCM - a group of talented youngsters, too young as yet to be fully-fledged students here, have weekly Saturday sessions with college tutors to supplement their studies in the hope of auditioning for and training with the RNCM once of school leaving age - played some lovely wind quintets and saxophone quartets, showcasing their abilities and proving themselves eminently worthy of the title musician.

If ultra-modern music is your thing, then you could not have been better served than watching a concert entitled, Mysteries Of The Macabre. Ligeti's piece of the same name was performed in an arrangement for piano, percussion and trumpet. David Lang's piece for narrator, electric tuba and wind band, Are You Experienced? came next. This was followed by a world premiere of a student composed piece for solo electric tuba; Tubass Badboi by William Hearne. Playing the tuba for both of these was guest musician James Gourlay. Finally the showpiece of this particular concert, Michael Dougherty's Dead Elvis. A very theatrical and hugely ironic piece in which we hear 'Love Me Tender' played as a white coffin is revealed and the musicians and conductor enter the space. The conductor starts looking for the oboist and eventually finds him, the reincarnation of Elvis Presley dressed as in his heyday, rising from the coffin! With mock irony, the oboe is played a la Elvis throughout and the music is composed with as many different styles and genres as possible. Trying to name them and keep up was almost impossible. A true visual and aural highlight!

Another absolute favourite of the event was a concert given by members of 5 different youth bands from across the region. Playing the fabulous 'Ghosts' by Stephen McNeff for pre-recorded voice and orchestra we witnessed 105 junior musicians from Derbyshire City and County Youth Wind Band, Bolton School Senior Concert Band, Oldham Council Music Service Youth Wind Band, Stockport Youth Wind Orchestra and the RNCM Wind Orchestra joining together to create an immense and wonderful sound. The music was very 'visual', inasmuch as you really could imagine the happenings described by the speaker and I loved the fact that one of the movements was dedicated to the ghost of Oldham Coliseum Theatre!   

Another highlight surely had to be the playing of Stravinsky's score to A Soldier's Tale with a showing of the original Blechman's stylish of-the-epoch cartoon film of the same name. The film lasts about 50 minutes through, but it is really only watching this animation along with the playing of the score does one truly understand the music fully. One belongs to the other like a hand to a glove.

Finally, a mention most definitely needs to be made of a a small group of extremely talented musicians from the other side of the pond. Joining this festival and playing in several of the concerts today was a small but immensely talented group called Boston Brass. That's Boston, Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire. [although only one member actually hailed from there; but all five represented the American continent, both north and south].  Playing a concert geared for young learners and playing with the RNCM Brass Band they were a sheer delight. I especially admired the stunning trombone playing of Domingo Pagliuca.

If I had to describe the whole festival in five words then I would say, vital, surprising, edgy, inclusive and expressive. After my lengthy stint of non-stop music I was totally drained but completely sated. Incredible!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 22/4/18

RNCM Session Orchestra and Choir Concert - RNCM, Manchester.

In what was a first for the Royal Northern College of Music’s Session Orchestra, the ensemble performed with the 50-piece RNCM choir (presenting the tech crew with the task of ensuring 90 performers could all be heard in the auditorium) to present an evening of new arrangements of songs by artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Leonard Cohen, U2, Marvin Gaye, and other popular music icons with a sprinkling of some musical theatre songs (including Seasons of Love from Rent). Fittingly, for such a large gathering of musicians and singers, they were performing in front of a sell-out house and the occasion provoked some visibly strong emotions from performers and audience alike.

The evening’s entertainment began with a support set from the a-cappella group Northern Voices (fourteen performers who also appeared in the RNCM Choir). Opening with a rendition of the song Smile (with music by Charlie Chaplin and most associated with Nat King Cole’s recording of the song), the energy and talent of the performers was evident but this was nothing compared to the skill demonstrated on their second song of the set. Their take on Michael Jackson’s Working Day & Night displayed some fantastic beatboxing skills from some of the choir and saw them replicating the guitar hook on the original recording by just singing. A similar skill for beatboxing was displayed on the following song, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Their rendition of Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body was effective, although the lead soloist on the song did seem to force his voice slightly trying to replicate the falsetto used by Timberlake on his original recording. Things slowed down with a dramatic rendition of the song Lost in the Waves, the soloist for this haunting performance demonstrated that he could very well have a bright future within Musical Theatre (should he choose to pursue that path). The choir returned to singing in unison for their take on I’ll Run to You before concluding their set with Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing. While being the support act, Northern Voices were slick and professional and could easily have performed a full set on their own. There is a lot of talent in that group, both in terms of performers and in the vocal arrangements.

After a slight interval, the RNCM Session Orchestra took their places onstage, as did the choir behind them. Musical director and conductor for the evening, Andy Stott, took his place at the podium and commenced the headline performance of the evening. This section featured over 30 soloists and showcased the talent of not only the solo singers, the choir as a unit, the orchestra, but the vocal arrangement skills of Grettel Killing (who was also the lead and main arranger for Northern Voices). She had put in a lot of work and it showed off. Highlights included powerful takes on the songs This is Me and Come Alive from the soundtrack of the film The Greatest Showman and a stirring and emotionally charged vocal performance of I Know Where I’ve Been from the musical Hairspray. Musically, the orchestra were tremendous on their renditions of Stevie Wonder’s As (which featured some seriously funky bass guitar), Something Inside So Strong, and Higher and Higher.

Yet, for all the strength in the performances and arrangements, there were instances where having such a vast number of performers on stage proved to be a slight hindrance: there were few songs where it felt like the choir and the orchestra were blending together as a single unit (in some instances, the choir fell by the wayside to the soloists and orchestra) and some of the song choices may have been perhaps too well-known to be given the treatment to make them sound new and fresh from what listeners have become familiar with. The arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah owed much to the version Alexandra Burke released following her winning of The X Factor, which in turn missed the thrust of the song: it is emotionally fragile, looking back on failed love and stirring strings and key changes do not represent the intention of the song (the one version which does remains John Cale’s intimate recording of just him and a piano). There was an interesting choice made to make Simon and Garfunkel’s stirring Bridge Over Troubled Water more akin to a Gospel song and this proved to be one of the more successful reimaginings of the night. Sometimes a familiar and well-loved song can be made to sound like new when the arrangements are prepared to take a risk.

This is nit-picking, however. Both choir and orchestra put in solid work and their dedication and professionalism was repaid with a standing ovation at the end of the night. If you enjoy the style of live shows of The X Factor then future performances of the RNCM Session Orchestra and Choir will be just the ticket.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 21/4/18

Easter Evening Concert: The Cosmo Singers and Ad Solem - The Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

The Manchester University Music Society’s chamber choir, Ad Solem, and sister group The Cosmo Singers presented an evening of six choral pieces as part of their Easter Evening. All pieces, barring one, were performed acapella and gave both groups and their conductors for the evening (Alastasir McNamara, Anna Beresford, Matthew Quinn, and Robin Wallington, all of whom are also members of both choirs) the chance to show off their considerable talents.

The first half of the evening featured the full ensemble of The Cosmo Singers. Opening work, Stabat Mater by Palestrina is a 16th century composition and was conducted by McNamara with a dramatic flair; his hands were in constant motion throughout, with grand, sweeping movements. The piece is scored for Double Chorus and this was replicated throughout the performance by small groups within the choir singing one section and the rest joining in at the appropriate time. The instances where all the differing vocal tones within the choir came together throughout the work was hauntingly beautiful and was capable of producing goose-pimples on the skin, such was the effect of the harmonious resonance.

After a brief pause and change of conductor to Anna Beresford, The Cosmo Singers presented their performance of Ubi Caritas by Ola Gjeilo. A shorter and less complex work than Stabat Mater, it nevertheless allowed the choir to stretch out their vocals, beginning in unison before opening out into different harmonies as the work progresses. Beresford’s conducting wasn’t as dramatic or sweeping as McNamara’s in the previous performance, but was more controlled precise with her hand directions and gestures throughout. A decent enough work which provided the group with some respite after the opening and before the following piece which was arguably the highlight of the evening.

Stars by Eriks Esenvalds is a more contemporary work and is built around the choir’s voices with the addition of glasses filled with varying levels of water to provide different tonal instrumentation beneath the vocals. The combination of the vocal tones and harmonies from the choir blending with the tones made by the glasses was staggering: it certainly produced the feeling of being transported into the very heavenly bodies the piece is named after. Some members of the choir were focussed just on providing the tones from the glasses throughout the piece, others were tasked with singing and producing the harmonies on the glasses at the same time in what was quite a feat to witness. The role of conductor for this piece was given to Quinn who was as delicate with his movements as the glasses being played by the choir. It was a great performance of a truly fascinating work.

After an interval, the final three pieces of the evening were presented by the smaller chamber choir of Ad Solem. Quinn was on conductor duty again for the first performance of this half: Nunc Dimittis by Arvo Part. This work, written in 2001, began with the build-up of lower vocal tones before the higher registers came in. The piece certainly featured some challenging high notes for the sopranos to hit and allowed a couple of soprano singers the chance to solo and show off their vocal dexterity.

Next up was Four American Choruses by Julian Anderson, with Beresford returning to conduct. Fortunately, the small works which made up the overall piece gave her more of a chance to show her conducting range than Ubi Caritas did.  The first of the songs, I’m a Pilgrim, set the tone (literally and figuratively) for how complex these mini-songs would be: harmonically, this relied on a highly complex interweaving of the different choral sections. The second song, Beautiful Valley of Eden, even featured one performer in each choir section conducting their fellow singers (but still looking to Beresford for the timing), such was the complexity of the patterns and harmonies. Third song, Bright Morning Star!, pushed the soprano section even further than Nunc Dimittis had, with some technically difficult notes being sung, although the singers made it seem effortless. The final song of this work, At the Fountain, presented a more simpler sound (especially after the soprano pyrotechnics) and drew the work to a satisfying end. 

The final presentation of the night was Herbert Howells’ Requiem. Robin Wallington was the conductor for this piece and brought a dramatic intensity with his style, each movement he made was sharp. The Requiem itself was moving and hauntingly performed by Ad Solem. It starts mired in sorrow but ends with lighter tones and a feeling of hope springing eternal, even in the face of grief. An expressive work, it provided a suitable climax to the night. 

Both choirs, as well as the conductors, acquitted themselves tremendously with their performances, which covered traditional works and more contemporary pieces. Their Easter Evening was touching and adventurous in equal measure and all involved should be proud of their work.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 20/4/18

House Of Light - The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

Helen Chadwick Song Theatre

A free afternoon concert in Manchester University's Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, by singing trio, The Helen Chadwick Song Theatre.

Comprising of Helen Chadwick herself, Barbara Gellhorn and Victoria Couper, they gave a 50 minute concert of some of their favourite songs. The company's usual work is to produce 'Song Theatre' - a costumed, semi-directed concert; however, this afternoon they simply dressed smartly in black with a touch of blue, and sang some 15 original compositions a-cappella.

All the music is composed by Chadwick, sometimes with original lyrics, and the music has a folk-like quality, although I wouldn't necessarily describe the sound produced as generic folk music. The melodies are capacious and lyrical, and the harmonies close and beautiful, and the sound they produce together is delightful. What comes  across perhaps more than the songs themselves though is their obvious joy in performing them. The pace is unrushed, their style relaxed, and their manner open and pleasing. One simply cannot fail to be put under their spell.

Many of the texts used by Chadwick are political or religious-political and it did feel somehow that all that was missing from this concert were flowers in their hair and a CND banner behind them. The whole concept of the concert and the lyrics of most of the songs, including the stories behind the lyrics and their writers, seemed a huge throwback to a time when such songs sung by hippies were commonplace.

My two favourite pieces from today's selection were 'Keeping Watch' sung polyphonically; and a short but interesting piece entitled 'Spring Rain'. This piece was a translation of a Japanese poet, and the music was very Japanese in style. It reminded me very much of the European / Asian music fusion created by Stephen Sondheim for Pacific Overtures.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 19/4/18

A Total Embrace - The Stoller Hall, Chetham's School Of Music, Manchester.

Leonard Bernstein at the piano

The title of this evening's show is taken from a quote from the great man himself; the man in whom this concert is in honour, and the man whom we are celebrating (along with almost every other nation worldwide), the centenary of; Leonard Bernstein.

"Life without music is unthinkable.
Life without music is academic.
That is why my contact with music is a total embrace."

Leonard Bernstein was not only a great conductor and composer, but he was also a huge advocate of music education and trying to broaden people's horizons through music.

To start this evening's concert, Nina Bernstein Simmons, Bernstein's youngest daughter, introduced a documentary film that she had made about her father 15 years after his death in 2005. It was her way of trying to keep his spirit and his music alive; and a way of trying to continue perhaps where he himself had left off, in bringing music to young people to inspire and educate them.

"Music is fun.
Music matters.
Music is beyond language"  (again Leonard Bernstein).

After a short interval, we came back to listen to all 29 of Bernstein's 'Anniversaries'. Late at night, almost every evening, Bernstein would sit at the piano and improvise, extemporise and compose. These piano compositions were tiny 'sketches' and over the years Bernstein dedicated several of them to those closest to him; his wife, daughter, friends, fellow composers etc These miniatures capture not only the essence of the people to whom they are dedicated, but they also show a different side to Bernstein's character too; that of a loving, caring compassionate husband, father, friend.

The pieces are somewhat experimental in nature, being sometimes dissonant, contrapuntal, enharmonic, but always lyrical, and extremely clever and perfectly constructed despite their brevity.

With a little history and background to the pieces and the people they represent given by Nina Bernstein Simmons, it gave the pieces more weight and meaning, and it was interesting to learn a little about them and the 'private' Bernstein. As Simmons herself remarked, these pieces are, "an exploration of the deep recesses of Leonard Bernstein's creative mind". 

The pieces this evening were performed by 29 of Chetham's young piano students. All dressed smartly in black and seated on the stage, they took turns at playing one each of the Anniversaries. The students were all aged between 11 and 14, and their playing was incredible. Technique and skill beyond their years! Bravissimi tutti!

The whole concert however was too long. Starting at 7:00pm the event did not finish until almost 10:00pm and by that time I was restless in my seat and needing a change. I think perhaps the two sections of this evening's concert should have been reversed for one thing. Let us listen to the Chetham's students play the pieces first, and then after the interval play the film for those who wished to stay and watch. In my opinion the film would actually have been better served it had been played at the end of Saturday's Bernstein Beat concert, leaving this one for live music from these amazingly talented young musicians.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 16/4/18

Verdi's Requiem Mass - Salford Choral Society and The Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra at The RNCM, Manchester.

As part of their 70th anniversary season of performances, the Salford Choral Society took to the Royal Northern College of Music to collaborate with the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra to present a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. The conductor of the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra, Tom Newall, also acts as the orchestra’s Artistic Director and is the Music Director for the Salford Choral Society, so it was a smart move on his part to bring the two together to perform Verdi’s famous work.

The evening’s performance began with Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The Overture did not feature the Choral Society, although they were present onstage, but served as a suitable piece for the Orchestra to warm up with ahead of the main performance of the night. Rossini’s work still retains its ability to thrill and stir the emotions. The opening of the piece painted the feeling of ‘the calm before the storm’ and throughout the performance of the Overture, Newall used very precise, slow, arm movements and gestures to bring in more string and woodwind instruments as the piece built up to its turbulent second section in which the full orchestra came into force. The timpani thundered and echoed through the auditorium as the strings and woodwind section of the orchestra created a feeling of chaos and unease in the music. During the work’s calmer, pastoral third movement, the violas and violins were plucked by the fingers of the players, rather than sawed at with the bows, creating a sound akin to birdsong, while the woodwind and horn section gently played and provided an air of serenity. But the horn section really came into its own during the famous final section, familiar to many as the theme tune to the US radio and TV series The Lone Ranger, blasting away while the rest of the orchestra provided solid support.

After the conclusion of the William Tell Overture, there was a brief speech by Newall explaining the rationale for performing that work ahead of the Requiem and then the choir stood up and the soloists entered the stage. Newall wisely took a moment before commencing the performance of the Requiem. Like Rossini’s work, the Requiem opened with cellos and violas but the tone was more mournful and the choir began to sing the Introduction and Kyrie Elesion. The choir’s voices crept in slowly and then both they and the orchestra suddenly stopped and after a split second of silence, the choir burst into an unaccompanied section. This part highlighted how the society may be amateur but their performance acapella was equal to that of a professional company. The soloists began to make their mark here, although at this stage, the tenor voice of Lawrence Thackery stood out and gave the piece some real oomph!

As the piece moved onto the second movement, the Dies Irae, the orchestra (particularly the thundering drum), choir and soloists gave it their all – and rightly so, as this section of the work is the most famous, having been used in numerous film and television programmes. It provided a jolt from the mournful opening movement and was full of drama and the feeling that you are falling into Hell itself. This sensation was bolstered by the trumpet section, which featured four extra trumpets performing in the top tier of the theatre and giving this section of the work an aural depth for the audience. As the movement went through each smaller section, each soloist was given a moment to display their talents and while Fionn O hAlmhain appeared to be straining to unleash his bass voice against the orchestra behind him, mezzo-soprano Emily Cobley displayed a relaxed performance style, obviously feeling the music and responding to it and moving her head from one section of the audience to another as she sang, as though she were telling us a secret.

After an interval, the performance was resumed with the choir and orchestra in full flow, with Newall conducting frantically away with a glorious smile on his face; a stark contrast to the more deliberate pace he used for the Rossini piece. The Sanctus section saw the most explicit call-back to the William Tell Overture in its use of brass and string sections. Soprano Alinka Kozari astonished with an unusual vocal technique which sounded like it was a recording being played through the speakers but was being generated onstage by her! 

The orchestra, choir, soloists, and conductor, did themselves proud with this solid performance of what is quite a complex and technically challenging piece. Newall, especially, was interesting to watch as a conductor: he clearly loved every moment of conducting the Requiem and the orchestra and choir responded to his enthusiasm. Musically, the evening was full of drama and emotion and everyone involved has the right to be proud of their part in the performance.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 14 /4/18

The Bernstein Beat - The Stoller Hall, Chetham's School Of Music, Manchester.

Leonard Bernstein

This was my first visit to the newly built 4th professional classical music concert hall in Manchester, the Stoller Hall, in the new building of internationally renowned Chetham's Music School. It is a lot smaller and more compact than I had imagined, but is a highly practical and perfectly designed space.

Today's concert was a one hour introduction to the music of Leonard Bernstein geared for children and young people or for those with no musical pre-knowledge. Narrated by Leonard Bernstein's youngest daughter, Nina Bernstein Simmons, who has created and promoted this concert  touring it worldwide since 2005. However she is now is now turning her attention to other charitable and worthy causes by being a food educator serving the poorer communities.

The orchestra this afternoon was also something of a unique beast. In only 2 and a half days of togetherness and rehearsal time, this was the specially formed Greater Manchester Music Hub Junior Orchestra. It took 47 young people from 9 Greater Manchester boroughs alongside 15 Chetham's students and 14 instrumental tutors from the school. The orchestra was conducted by the Chetham's Deirctor Of Music, Stephen Threlfall.

It is however, very fitting that this should be a young persons' orchestra. Bernstein himself was a great advocate in promoting music and enthusing young with the joys and delights of music making. A great innovator too, as he was the first to have a live TV Music show doing just that, way back in 1957. His daughter therefore is carrying on the tradition and bringing not just Bernstein's music but the love of music in general to a wider audience and the movers and shakers of our tomorrows.

Musically we heard excerpts from 'On The Town', 'Mass', 'Symphony no:1' 'Fancy Free' and of course, 'West Side Story'. these excerpts were punctuated by Simmons' narrative, and despite the audience this afternoon being majority adults, we still went ahead pretending we were youngsters! It was actually very well put together and really quite informative. We learned about breaking down the rhythm patterns to two or three 'bar' beats which she called 'hamburgers' and 'hotdogs' (due to the number of syllables in each word). We also learned about Bernstein's Jewish origins and how he heard an instrument called a shofar when he was a child in the synagogue and would replicate that sound later on in his score for West Side Story. We learnt of his love for Latin American music and the magic of the rhythms there - especially Cuba - and how most of his works, including his classical pieces owe something to this love.

But it is the musicians this afternoon one must congratulate. coming together in such a short space of time and creating such a wonderful and accomplished sound was no mean feat at all, and the music was not at all easy! Bernstein's music isn't!

A lovely way to introduce youngsters and novices to music, and superbly played.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/3/18  

Bryan Ferry - 02 Apollo Theatre, Manchester.

Roxy Music famously disbanded after the release of their biggest selling album Avalon and since then it has taken this reviewer the best part of 35 years to finally see Bryan Ferry live in concert. Ferry at the unbelievable, swaggering old age of 72, captivated and mesmerised for a hugely enjoyable hour and a half with his laidback and seductive elegance. 

There is enough great material from Ferry’s own solo career and that of Roxy Music’s to keep audiences entertained for not just one but a whole series of concerts.  With bags of effortless charm and sophistication he effortlessly dips in and out of his extensive back catalogue delighting with well chosen hits including Avalon, Love Is The Drug, Slave To Love and Virginia Plain and interpretations of lesser well-known torch songs. Throughout, Ferry’s luxurious, rasping  and velvety vocals wrap themselves perfectly around each song, making them sound as if he has only just discovered them in the moment and is singing them for the very first time. 

As good as Ferry is and having waited 35 years to see him live he certainly did not disappoint, the real highlight of the gig was his exceptional backing band. It is no surprise that Ferry seemed to be at ease and his most relaxed when playing keyboards with them, orchestrating their every change in mood and tempo. Led by the veteran lead guitarist, Chris Spalding this is a band that I would gladly play good money to see with or without Ferry on board. From full on Glam Rock mode to the haunting playing of subtle and exquisite melodies, the on-stage musicality of this insanely talented group of musicians is truly awesome and mind blowing. John Lennon’s, Jealous Guy, Ferry’s most popular solo hit is rendered sublime and transcendent by the beautifully nuanced playing of star saxophonist Jorya Chambers and violist Marina Moore.  

A special mention for Ferry’s support act, Juanita Stein. Lead singer with Australian indie band, Howling Bells, her unique blend of Country and Western inspired indie rock was a great scene setter for Ferry as well as showcasing an exciting and interesting new musical talent. Definitely worth checking out.

In conclusion, now is as good a time as any whist Ferry is still agile and at the top of his game to celebrate and luxuriate in both his and Roxy Music’s unique and epoch defining sound. Earlier this year a remastered version of the band’s acclaimed and much loved debut album was released. Conveniently, copies of this and details of all of the remaining tour dates are available from Ferry’s own website www.bryan.ferry.com  If you can’t see Ferry live then listening to Roxy Music’s superb remastered classic debut album is arguably the next best thing.

Bryan Ferry’s UK and international tour continues until September

Reviewer - Richard Hall
on - 13/4/18

Rush Hour Social: Tiki Black in Concert - The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

Another Rush Hour Social Concert - a series of short (approx one hour) free concerts given in the Hall's foyer area starting at 5:30pm - sees folk singer / songwriter Tiki Black in the spotlight.

I say 'folk' in the broadest and most generic sense of the word. Black's music is based on classical piano technique with distinct hints of both the German Lieder and French Chanson styles hidden away in there too. The music is blues-infused, lilting, often melancholic or reflective, but always sung with passion and from the heart. There is something quite infectious about her voice too. It is a unique voice which cascades freely between earthy, gutsy and mellow low tones and a seemingly classically trained soprano voice, sonorous and clear hitting surprisingly high notes with ease. 

Born in Paris to Cameroonian parents, but now making Manchester her home, she is now in the throes of producing her second album. Her debut album dealt with a 'Coming Out' or a way of 'expressing yourself' (her words); whilst her second album is now the next part in Black's 'circle of life'; 'Cutting the umbilical cord and standing on your own two feet' (again Black's own words).

In today's concert she sang music from both albums and so we listened to 9 pieces of totally new-to-me music which washed over us and touched our soles. We may not have had the same experiences or the same feelings as her, but her emotional input into the songs was igniting emotions deep within us all.

This series of Rush Hour Concerts are to help promote and encourage emerging Manchester based musicians, and in this way the hall provides a platform for the m to widen their audience base and reach out further. Those in the audience today were not, I suspect, her usual crowd, but instead patrons of the Hall coming a little earlier than usual before the evening's concert. However, the Rush Hour concerts are totally free for all, and you can feel free to leave at the end just as I did.

I wish Tiki Black well with her second album, and more information about her and her music can be found here.. www.tikiblack.com 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 13/4/18

Interferences - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Interferences. photo credit: Nicolas Bernier

Alexis Langevin-Tétrault’s electronic music performance piece Interferences is an intriguing audio-visual work. On stage in the Lowry's Aldridge Studio, as the audience took their seats, there was a table with a laptop, sound console, and a large metallic frame with tangled cables all around it and small LED lights attached to it. As the house lights went down, there was the sound of footsteps on the stage, followed by an intense crackling sound and the flickering of a strobe light, revealing Langevin-Tétrault stood in the centre of the table, framed by the metal support. The following 25 minutes which made up Interferences run-time was an astonishing physical and aural experience.

As the crackling sound in the air intensified and the strobe lighting on the metal frame flickered, like in an ominous scene from a David Lynch film, Langevin-Tétrault proceeded to grab one of the cables on the bottom side of the frame and pull it up, clipping it to the top of the frame. As he did, the sound changed and the flickering strobe light temporarily ceased. Then it went dark, and Langevin-Tétrault could be seen lifting another cable upwards, as he did the sound altered again and the lights began to flicker away. With each manipulation of the cables, the crackling sound gave way to other sounds as each cable was strung up, across, and strummed like a guitar. With each movement, each touch, each binding together of the cables, the sounds over the theatre’s amplifiers changed: distortion gave way to faint traces of melody, the effects pedal altered the pitch and tone of the sounds being generated by the cables.

As Langevin-Tétrault built his elaborate cat’s cradle of intertwining cables around the metallic frame, the LED lights flickered and steadied and the electronic sounds altered. He strummed the cables like a guitarist strums the guitar strings, at other times he bunched them together and drove them down with a determined force before releasing them and the cables sprang back into the position they had been clipped in. At times, it was obvious from the look on Langevin-Tétrault’s face that he was working out some aggression through his performance. As he played with the cables, the effect on the sounds being generated through this elaborate network of strings was reminiscent of the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (on Doctor Who, especially during the 1960s and 1970s) meeting Lou Reed’s infamous double album of guitar feedback Metal Machine Music. Like Reed’s album, Langevin-Tétrault’s electronic composition veered between an intense wall of distortion with traces of melody bleeding through the cacophony.

Interferences built up towards its climax and Langevin-Tétrault’s physical interaction with the cables became more and more intense, up to the point where the lights and sounds reached a crescendo and he began to detach each cable. The removal of each cable reduced the intensity of the electronic sounds and dimmed the lights until, finally, Langevin-Tétrault was stood behind the frame in darkness and silence, exactly as he began.

It would be easy to assume that Interferences is a random performance, wherein Langevin-Tétrault attaches the cables during the show however he sees fit. However, Interferences has been choregraphed and each movement he makes, each interaction he makes with the cables, is done with purpose and meaning. The look of intensity on Langevin-Tétrault’s face throughout the performance was enough to indicate that contrary to its appearance, the piece has had a lot of thought put into it. The cables do more than affect the sounds being produced through the electronic devices Langevin-Tétrault has, they give him something tangible to interact with, something physical with which to alter the fabric of the sounds and lights. At the apex of the performance when the cables were extended horizontally and vertically across the frame, even around its edges, the appearance of the cables recalled the tangled mass of cables found in a computer network server: a visual reminder of the technological origins of electronic music.

Interferences was undoubtedly a truly fascinating spectacle. Electronic music performances often feature the performer statically stood behind their laptop, sampler, or keyboard, as anyone who has been to a Kraftwerk gig will attest. Langevin-Tétrault’s work, however, brings a very physical dimension to the presentation of electronic music. His manipulation of the sound altering cables often looks like he is physically fighting the technology he is using to play his composition. Interferences may be a relatively brief performance but in its 25 minutes it packs in plenty to stimulate the visual and auditory senses. A truly astonishing piece of performance art and electronic music.  

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden 
on - 31/3/18

Rush Hour Social: Caoilfhionn Rose in Concert - The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

The Bridgewater Hall, perhaps Manchester's premier classical music venue, also hosts a variety of other music styles and genres in its busy calendar. They have also started to do short (approx 1 hour) pre-concert foyer events under the banner 'Rush Hour Socials'. The concerts start at 5:30pm and are completely free; and you don't even have to have a ticket for the evening either; just turn up, listen and go!

The current Rush Hour Socials are promoting home-grown up-and-coming talent, with varying types of music from within Greater Manchester. This evening it was the turn of Caoilfhionn Rose (pronounced Keelin) and her guitarist Rich Williams.

They played 12 songs within the space of an hour; most of which were original compositions. Her style is classically-derived modern folk, slightly bluesy, slightly melancholic.

Her wistful style is quite appealing, and she has a breathy but sonorous and easy-to-listen-to voice. She comes across as quite shy and timid though; which, although could be said to be an admirable quality in a profession full of egos, certainly a little more lively and confident approach would have been more welcome.

She has just finished recording her first album, and this evening she played us the title track, Awaken. Much of the music I heard this evening was slow, sad, reflective and very personal, which made them seem quite similar to each other. I therefore enjoyed the last song of the set the most, 'Wild Anemones' since it was the only one to break the mould and raise the tempo.

Other songs which attracted me more were 'Beauty Of You' (an original composition), a fusion of her original song 'Follow' with Joy Division's 'Atmosphere', and a traditional folk song 'Black Is The Colour'.

What a lovely idea to promote music in this way, and to make it available to all. For more information on Rush Hour Socials and indeed all concerts at the Hall, then please look here... www.bridgewater-hall.co.uk

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 29/3/18

RNCM Sinfonietta and Symphony Orchestra play Debussy - RNCM, Manchester.

Debussy once said that music, of all the arts, was the most susceptible to magic and this indeed was true of the RNCM’s evening of works by Debussy commemorating the centenary of his death. 

From the start, the beautifully delicate and lyrical performance of Danses Sacree et Profane by harpist Shimeng Sun led us into the shimmering world of Debussy’s musical vision. This piece was originally commissioned by Pleyel to showcase their newly designed harp and Sun was at ease with showing off her virtuosity while adding warmth and emotion throughout. 

It was only fitting that the music of Erik Satie, Debussy’s contemporary, would also be performed at this event marking the centenary of Debussy’s death – both composers surely influenced each other and Dominic Muldowney’s arrangement of Sports et Divertissement translated Satie’s humour to the orchestra with ease, adding more than a touch of Debussy to the orchestration. The RNCM Sinfionetta performed beautifully and expertly, adding a wonderfully individual colour to Satie’s otherwise black and white suite – written originally for piano solo.

When he was commissioned to write for Saxophone and Orchestra in 1903, Debussy was so unconvinced of the merits of the saxophone he delayed completing the commission until 1919. In part, he worried if such an ungainly instrument would have the romantic tenderness of the clarinet, but he obviously overcame his concerns as demonstrated by Hannah Corcoran with her subtle and melodious performance. David Horne’s arrangement for ensemble, premiered at this concert, allowed for a more intimate connection with the work. I wondered at times if Corcoran could have been a bit braver and projected more - it may have been hard to make sense of the saxophone in its pre-jazz years but we have no excuse for that today. Maybe Debussy’s reticence was hard to shrug off after all.

The gushing, romantic texts of Baudelaire are well suited to the heightened expression of Wagner and Debussy certainly captured his style in his setting of Le Livre de Baudelaire. Soprano Monica Toll excelled in her vocal interpretation which blended the power of Wagner with French sophistication but again at times, as with Corcoran, Toll’s vocal was lost partly due to an imbalance with the accompaniment, particularly in her lower register and partly due to unclear diction. There are many reasons why this might have been – acoustics, fatigue… whatever the case she was simply difficult to understand. This did not detract too much from her performance – the timbral nuances, the power, the soar and energy were definitely there.

The final selection of preludes, arranged by Colin Matthews, were played by the full Symphony Orchestra and was quite the expressive journey showcasing Debussy’s creative genius. It was comical, pompous, sensuous and grand in all the right places. The musicians thoroughly enjoyed performing this and it was a delight to witness. When we use a variety of instruments and vary combinations of instruments, musicians often describe this as adding colour to the music – an oboe playing a melody will sound different to a trumpet. We hear the melody in different colours. In that sense, the RNCM Symphony Orchestra really used every colour imaginable bringing to life the characters evoked in the titles – Dicken’s Pickwick, the eccentric General Lavine and the Girl with the Golden Hair. 

The RNCM Symphony Orchestra was full of young, hopeful faces but there was maturity, control and daring expression in their playing which was truly fitting for this anniversary celebration – Debussy’s music last night sounded as new, exciting, fresh and as relevant as I am sure it did one hundred years ago.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 21/3/18

Manchester University Wind Orchestra and Manchester University String Orchestra Joint Concert - The Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, Manchester University.

As the revelries of St. Patrick's Day continued all around us, and the temperatures fell below freezing with snow and ice aplenty, the smaller than usual audience sat back to listen to two of Manchester University Music Society's ensembles.

The first half of this evening's concert was quite short, lasting only 30 minutes; but in that time we were treated to the Wind Orchestra playing three contemporary pieces by female composers.

The first was Emily Howard's 'Prayer' which used long sustained notes overlapping with each other in a p-f-p dynamic. It did feel somewhat prayer-like, also quite aetherial and pompous at one at the same time, if indeed that is actually possible.

This was followed by a much more substantial piece and much more enjoyable and interesting musically. Eseld Pierce's 'A Name Perpetual' was written to commemorate the Cornish Rebellion of 1497. The work is in 4 distinct sections, which, as Pierce explains show the anguish of the Cornish people, their march to London, The Blackheath Skirmish, and a lament for the lost Cornishmen.  Without having read the programme note then I listened and heard an almost cinematic and slightly military first movement, followed by a lively Celtic gig. The third section was a loud and angry orgy of sound before the final movement which sounded like an arrangement of 'The Last Post'. It was a highly emotive and evocative work and so it was such a shame that the solo trumpeter was struggling with his instrument in the first movement.

The final piece was by American composer Libby Larsen, and her 'Grand Rondo'. A rondo is a musical form meaning 'a recurring theme' and is usually found at the end of classical sonatas. However, Larsen's Rondo depicts Napoleon dancing with personified versions of Italy, Hungary and Poland. It is hugely percussion heavy, and the work is fast and furious; there is a lot going on in this short piece and the noise climaxes with a final blast of the gong.

After the interval and we are back on terra firma with well known composers and works. This time it is the turn of The String Orchestra, and they showcased three works.

First we heard Mendelssohn's concert overture, 'The Hebrides', followed by Gabriel Faure's 4 movement suite from 'Pelleas And Melisande'. The flute solo in the third movement was lovely. And they finished with a trip back in time to play the ballet music from Mozart's opera 'Idomeneo'. All three pieces were very good and well played. There was however, one most unfortunate thing which was marring my enjoyment and the overall sound quality, and this was most definitely coming from the violin section. An out of tune or scratching violin was evident and audible throughout the three pieces. What a shame.

MUMS concerts also feature conductors-in-training too, and so each piece, or at least almost every piece, had a different student conductor too this evening. It is a joy to watch their differing approaches and conducting styles, and also to see how the musicians react and respond to these styles too. This evening the featured conductors were Anna Beresford, Hugh Morris, Matthew Quinn, and Jasmin Allpress.

The university is blessed with such a large and active music society and such a wonderful hall in which to present their many concerts. These musicians are still young and in-training, working their way up the rocky and difficult road to becoming a fully-fledged professional musician. Giving public concerts like this is absolutely the best way to perfect and hone their craft and it is fabulous to see so many young musicians enthusiastic about and committed to classical music. Long may this trend continue.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 17/3/18

MUMS Symphony Orchestra Concert - The Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, Manchester University.

The vast Symphony Orchestra of the Manchester University Music Society assembled to present three pieces of music which, be it by deliberate design or not, seemed to reflect three elements from nature in their composition styles: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s 2011 work Aeriality, Jean Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D-minor, and Arnold Bax’s Tintagel.

Aeriality, as its name implies, sounded as though it was composed to reflect the turbulent nature of stormy winds. The orchestra took the audience on a musical journey which was analogous to being blown about in the sky by a stormy wind: from the sudden crashing thud of timpani and piano (played without its lid for added effect), through to the sounds of the string section coming together to produce a feeling of the piece ‘rising’ up as though in the air and climaxing with the orchestra fading to silence. Aeriality made use of tonal dissonance, sections of the orchestra blending their sound together and then working in opposition to one another, all to produce the effect of falling through the air, carried by the sound through highs and lows. Conductor Holly Redshaw certainly had much to control throughout the piece and did an admirable job of taming this wild wind of a score. The harp was deployed sparingly to provide a lift to the music, while the percussion, timpani, and piano combined to create the musical effect of a wind blowing. The string and woodwind sections worked alongside one another to produce a droning sound: at one point the effect generated by the violin drones was akin to the ‘THX Sound’ films used to play in the cinema back in the mid to late 1990s before the films began!

The orchestra was somewhat reduced ahead of the evening’s second performance, which was the centrepiece of the night both in terms of programming and overall quality: Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D-minor. This performance of what is often referred to as an ‘icy’ work because of its difficulty, featured an appearance from the evening’s featured soloist: violinist Libby Sherwood. She emerged onto the stage alongside conductor Robin Wallington to applause from the audience. Soon her playing demonstrated not only why she was greeted with applause but earned a standing ovation at the piece’s climax. Throughout the frantic opening movement of Sibelius’ chilly, challenging composition, Sherwood was given the room needed to push her playing technique to the maximum: alternating between high and low tones, gentle bow work alternating with frantic sawing on the strings, pausing when required to allow the orchestra behind her to play on but clearing remaining focused on her next solo. As conductor of the orchestra, Wallington provided an interesting contrast to Redshaw: whereas she was subtle and controlled, Wallington clearly got into the music and was a more physical presence: his body sprang up and his arms flailed from side to side as he conducted and the orchestra responded with an immense energy. For the concerto’s second movement, a quieter edge descended over the music but this did not mean that the orchestra, and especially Sherwood’s, playing wasn’t as strong as in the opening movement; instead it offered some respite before the third and final movement. This section featured what has often been compared to a dance between orchestra and violin solo, and one of the oboe players clearly agreed with this comparison as his head was nodding away in time to the music when he wasn’t playing his instrument. Following rapturous applause at the end of the piece, there was an encore from Sherwood, accompanied by a couple of players in the orchestra, of a brief piece by Elgar which not only served to further demonstrate Sherwood’s considerable skill on the violin, but provide a ‘palate cleanser’ for the audience following the rather dense, complex pieces which had been performed to that point.

The final performance of the evening was Bax’s ‘tone poem’ Tintagel. Here, the orchestra was expanded to nearly full strength and, in contrast to Aeriality, relied on the different sounds of the orchestra sections blending together and providing the ebb and flow of the music, deliberately echoing the feeling of being by the sea, listening to the tide. Conductor Mark Heron, while not quite as physical in his movements as Wallington had been, was nonetheless visibly transfixed by the piece he was conducting and seemed to be drinking the sounds in as he conducted. This relatively brief piece provided a fitting end to a splendid evening of music.

This concert demonstrated the skilful playing of the members of the Manchester University Music Society, although, as featured soloist, this was Sherwood’s night – and rightly so!    

Reviewer - Andrew marsden
on - 10/3/18

Leonard Bernstein at 100: The Manchester Chamber Choir at Manchester Cathedral.

This was a special concert presented by the Manchester Chamber Choir to dually celebrate both the installation of the cathedral's Stoller organ, and the centenary of the birth of composer. musician, conductor extraordinaire, Leonard Bernstein.

The Manchester Chamber Choir was formed in 2002 and since then has forged a deserved reputation for themselves as one of the leading chamber choirs in the north of England working and collaborating with some very famous international names across the whole Music spectrum. And to help them celebrate this evening was Christopher Stokes, the cathedral's organist and choir master on the organ, with Trevor Bartlett and Elinor Nicholson augmenting this sound on percussion and harp respectively.

Despite a very ragged entry onto the stage, the choir looked very smart all in black with a touch of emerald green on the ladies' necklaces, and the sound they produced was absolutely beautiful. Of course, the acoustic of the cathedral helped enormously in the amplification making it sound more like stereo than mono, but that notwithstanding, the core sound was pure with the voices blending wonderfully.

In order for this dual celebration to have any significance then obviously both works from Bernstein and solo organ pieces needed to be showcased; and indeed they were.  But the choir also sang the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis from William Walton's Chichester Service, which, although I had never heard this music before [in fact I was listening to most of tonight's musical selections for the first time] it has Walton's signature all over it and was at the same time dramatic and reverend; pompous and sanctified, theatrical and humble.

The choir then followed this with a lengthy and substantial work by English composer Gerald Finzi, called 'Lo, The Full Final Sacrifice'. With a long and quiet organ introduction to the music, it was soft and reflective, with a beautiful harmony entry from the choir. A rise to forte in a ablaze of colour with various tiny solos and interesting f/p/f/p dynamics brought the piece to a conclusion.

The other piece by a different composer this evening was a set of Four Motets by American, Aaron Copland. I have heard quite a lot of Copland's vocal music over the years and still his unusual harmonic structures, pitted against difficult time signatures sound so sublime and simple. And thereby lies the beauty and the genius of this composer's oeuvre. Superbly crafted and melodic.

And now to the Bernstein. Three of his choral works were performed this evening, and indeed the concert started with the Three French Choruses from 'The Lark'. Bernstein wrote some incidental music for a production of Jean Anouilh's play about Joan Of Arc, The Lark.  Sung only with side drum accompaniment, these three songs have a rather rustic medieval flavour, but are nevertheless undeniably Bernstein. The first half of the concert finished with a lovely tie-in to these pieces, as the choir sang his Missa Brevis. Using material from his Lark music, as well as some other original ideas, he created a rather theatrical short mass. The central contralto solo was given a very plaintive and sincere rendition by choir member Eleanor Hobbs.

To finish the concert, the choir's showpiece; and bringing together harp, percussion, organ and choir they performed Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Bernstein threw everything he could at this work to show his versatility and eclectic nature. His Jewish heritage shining through by setting the Psalms in Hebrew and using a very Hebraic melody in the second movement, whilst he ever so cleverly combined his classical style with music that he had discarded from the scores of two of his Musicals, The Skin Of Our Teeth and West Side Story.

Originally scored for full orchestra - including two harps - and for male voices only; he did eventually concede that female voices could be used instead of the counter-tenors he had envisaged; he did not, however, ever wish a female voice to sing the beautiful and plaintive solo of the second movement. Therefore, this evening, counter-tenor Ben Gittins took hold of the gauntlet and sang this passage utterly spellbindingly.

The work ends in a protracted and soft 'amen', and at this point, despite it being the end of the concert and the audience eager to applaud, you could still hear a pin drop until conductor Jonathan Lo brought his hands to his sides. Magical.

There were also two solo organ pieces played by Christopher Stokes, played mid-way through each of the two halves of this concert. In the first half, Stokes chose two short Voluntaries by Renaissance composer Thomas Weekes, and in a complete change of mood and style, in the second half, a contemporary of Bernstein, the French modernist, Olivier Messaien's Joie Et Clarté from Les Corps Glorieux. If Weekes' music can be described as strict, ordered, measured and simple, then the absolute opposite applies to Messiaen. I once heard his music described as 'a series of intellectual noises'. It might seem a little harsh, but it is also somewhat accurate.

A wonderful concert of mostly twentieth century music, some of which are seldom heard, and all of which were beautifully performed. The magnificent setting of Manchester Cathedral adding greatly to the atmosphere.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 10/3/18 

Fauré's Requiem: A Concert by UoMChorus Ad Solem and The Cosmo Singers - St. Ann's Church, Manchester

The University of Manchester Chorus Society’s two leading chamber choirs, the Ad Solem group and The Cosmo Singers congregated in St. Ann’s Church in Manchester on a chilly night (coming off the back of one of the coldest weeks for some time) to present three choral works. The decision to perform the works in a church was a superb one, as the interior of the church offered an impressive setting for the hour and a half’s worth of music which was to come. 

The Ad Solem group took up their positions in the church’s nave, before the altar, ready to begin the first performance of the evening, Claudio Montiverdi’s Ave Maria Stella. Conductor Robin Wallington raised his hands and the Ad Solem singers began to sing, accompanied by an organ and two trumpets. The trumpets were positioned on either side of the top floor of the church. Their positioning provided a genuine sense of surround sound and some of the audience may have been wondering where the players were, if they were unable to see up to the top floor of the church. The piece, while relatively brief, acted as a warm-up piece for the singers, and several members were given the chance to perform solos – although one lady singing soprano did seem to struggle slightly to project her voice sufficiently. This did not detract from the overall loveliness of the performance, including a wonderful moment at the climax of the piece where the singers’ voices, organ, and the two trumpets came together to harmonise on the final notes.

A change of conductor to Alastair McNamara, and a brief introduction led the Ad Solem group into a more contemporary piece – James MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories (composed in 2006). This longer piece was a significant step-up from the Ave Maria Stella: the singers were unaccompanied and the work was more technically demanding. McNamara did an admirable job of conducting and wisely waited for a few coughs from audience members to die down before commencing the third movement. The Ad Solem singers were clearly putting in a great deal of effort to meet the challenges of the Responsories: there were some audible sharp intakes of breath from some singers before they tackled some of the more sustained notes and the use of whispered singing and humming added a haunting quality to the work. The most astonishing moment of the performance came at the end: a female soloist (Freya Parry) sang the final section and walked away from the rest of the group, past the conductor, and carried on down the aisle and out into the church vestibule while singing and humming. It was a well-received performance from Parry and a bold ending to what was a very complex, layered work.

After a brief interval, the Ad Solem singers were replaced by The Cosmo Singers (many of whom were also in Ad Solem) and the assembled ensemble was augmented by a harp, violins, violas, cellos, organ, and a French horn, ready to perform the main piece of the evening: Faure’s Requiem. Matthew Quinn took on the role of conducting the vast ensemble and did a sterling job of guiding them through the seven sections of Faure’s famed work. The Requiem begins, as you would expect, solemnly but over the course of each section, the piece builds up to a joyous, beautiful ending. There was impressive solo singing work from a baritone singer throughout the performance, as well as delightful harmonising from the group. The third section was notably lifted by the presence of the harp, before the French horn blasted away, like a battle cry against death, and the Cosmo Singers valiantly sang over the powerful horn. The string section and organ also added much to the performance and the interplay between the vocals and the instruments built up magnificently to the harmonious end of the final section of the work.

The Manchester University Music Society should be proud of the talent which was on display at this wonderful event, made even more enjoyable by taking place in a church – it really did bring a special atmosphere to the performances and was a fitting place to perform these haunting works. 

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 3/3/18  

Wolf Alice @ Gorilla, Manchester.

Wolf Alice

part of War Child BRITS Week Together with O2 

Wolf Alice, for those who may not have heard of them, are a four-piece rock band from London. They comprise of Ellie Rowsell on guitar and vocals, Theo Ellis on bass, Joff Oddie on guitar, and Joel Amey on drums. Their 2015 debut album, My Love is Cool, walked a tightrope between their folky, acoustic beginnings in 2010 (as heard on album opener “Turn to Dust”) and harder, electric guitar stompers (the single “You’re a Germ”, for example). Last year’s follow-up, Visions of a Life added some electro and ambient elements to their folk-grunge hybrid music style. Now, while still touring their current release, the band have decided to support War Child, by playing a gig at Manchester’s Gorilla bar as part of ‘War Child’s BRITS Week together with O2’ where bands perform in more intimate venues and audience members donate money to the charity. It has probably been a good few years since Wolf Alice played a venue as small as Gorilla, as their last Manchester gig was at the O2 Apollo, but the evening was all for a good cause.

 

Support act The Rhythm Method kicked the show off. A duo who seemed to recall Chas and Dave crossed with the Happy Mondays/Black Grape bands of Shaun Ryder: sung-spoken lyrics, baggy beats, keyboards, and a bit of rapping. There was also a very wry sense of humour in their songs and between song banter. They admitted they were “one of them politics bands” before launching into a song called “Party Politics” which their singer explained was about “shit parties and shit politics.” There was then a switch to a guitar and some very Nile Rodgers/Chic guitar lines. They sometimes veered a bit close to the music style from Chris Morris & Charlie Brooker’s 2005 satirical comedy show Nathan Barley’s eponymous character but were still very entertaining! They even had their keyboard resting on an ironing board, which summed them up perfectly: kooky but engaging. 

 

After a brief intermission for the roadies to set up for Wolf Alice, there was a brief speech by War Child’s executive Rob Willis who explained what work War Child did and introduced Lejla Damon who is a campaigner for War Child and spoke about her personal story of her youth in Bosnia in 1992 and how War Child’s Youth Engagement Panel worked to make child refugees lives better. It was a sobering moment which reminded the audiences of the importance of charity work, especially when the sector is under strain. 

 

Wolf Alice took to the stage and they were LOUD! They kicked off with “Heavenward”, the opening track from their current album, and then headed straight into the angry, driving “Yuk Foo” which prompted the audience to start moshing away. There was no respite as they launched into “You’re a Germ” and unleashed some guitar feedback. Ellie’s vocals fought against the loudness of the instruments but it didn’t matter – the audience sung along. Near the end of the song there was a technical hitch and a guitar went bust. Theo decided to engage in some audience discussion before leaving the stage while the hitch was resolved.  

 

The band emerged after ten minutes and it was as though they’d never been off stage, diving headlong into the bruising “Your Loves Whore”. Before “Planet Hunter”, from their latest album, Ellie received a boquet of flowers from a fan. There was a dedication to support act The Rhythm Method before the band played fan favourite “Bros” from their debut album. 

 

Set closer “Fluffy” was anything but – pure guitar thrashing! The band returned for an encore, of course. The encore fully revealed the two sides to Wolf Alice: the sombre, mournful tone of “Blush” contrasting with the all-out wall of noise that was “Giant Peach”. Ellie removed her guitar before the final chorus for a triumphant stage dive into the audience, where she finished the song, held aloft by adoring fans.

 

Wolf Alice’s show was the only one of the ‘War Child’s BRITS Week together with O2’ gigs to take place outside of London this year, and there is clearly a big appetite for more shows of this nature to come to Manchester especially to help support an important charity, judging from the buzz of the audience at the end of the gig. 

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden

on - 20/2/18

War Child is a non-governmental organisation founded in the UK in 1993 which provides assistance to children in areas experiencing conflict and the aftermath of conflict. www.warchild.org.uk

Lucida Saxophone Quartet - RNCM. Manchester.

The RNCM [or Royal Northern College Of Music if you prefer] is the sister school to London's Royal College Of Music and is one of the world's top music conservatoires, nurturing the next generation of household music names.

 

When you hear them play it is all too easy to forget that they are still studying, such is their remarkable talent and musicianship.

 

The RNCM hosts a packed and varied programme of concerts throughout the year, all featuring their students making sure they get the exposure and practice necessary before flying solo. Some of these concerts, particularly those in the afternoons are free, and so for those living close enough, there should be no excuse for not visiting and being wowed!

 

This concert, a 25 minute recital by 4 students calling themselves The Lucida Saxophone Quartet, was held in the intimate but perfect surrounds of The Carole Nash Recital Room.

 

The quartet, ( Kezia Lovick-Jones on soprano sax, Rebecca Corbert on alto sax, Hanake Peace on tenor sax and Taruku Neguchi on baritone sax ) entertained us with their talent and passion with three pieces as different as chalk is to cheese, but all three wonderfully played and a delight to listen to.

 

First came French composer Robert Clerisse and his Introduction And Scherzo composed in 1957. This was followed by the longest of the three pieces, Jean Baptiste Singelee's Quartet Number 1 in 5 movements, and the work written in the first half of the 19th century is undeniably Classical in style. Finally, we come back into the modern era with a jazz-infused piece by Guy Barker, entitled simply, Scherzo. (a joke).

 

I would imagine that the dynamics of forte and piano would be very difficult to manage in such a configuration and setting, and unfortunately all three pieces were all played at a similar volume. However, their musicianship was undeniable and as the followed and listened to each other superbly, the short pauses and musical breaks were stunningly observed.

 

For more information about all the concerts this wonderful institution has to offer, please visit www.rncm.ac.uk

 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

 

on - 3/2/18

LA NATIVITÉ DU SEIGNEUR - Manchester Cathedral

A substantial solo organ work, about one hour in length and hardly ever performed, was given a beautiful rendition this evening at Manchester Cathedral by Organist and Choir Master, Christopher Stokes.

 

The piece, La Nativité Du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen is a series of 'Meditations' (not movements) concerning the birth of Jesus.

 

The beauty of this though was not just to listen to this eclectic and fantastic piece of music, but also to hear it played on the recently installed Stoller Organ proudly sitting atop the Medieval Screen in the centre of Manchester Cathedral, and is their showpiece. Love it or hate it, it is impressive, and the sound and capability of this instrument amazing.

 

Messiaen died in 1992, and was haled by many as the father of 20th century music. However this music may not be to everyone's taste. It is oftentimes atonal, polyphonic, minimalist, and a whole host of other 'isms' and 'forms' all rolled in to one. It is this juxtaposition of styles, his continual re-inventing and his refusal to be pigeon-holed that has given Messiaen this deserved epithet and garnered for him such world acclamation for his music. It is impossible to deny the cleverness and assuredness of his composing, and in this piece, La  Nativité,  the dynamics and rhythms play a hugely important part, as it is these which drive the narrative and bind the whole.

 

One thing I found totally irrelevant, incongruous and sadly laughable was the idea to introduce the organist at the beginning by one of the clergy, and to have two men introduce each of the nine movements with the composer's title and subtitle, the first in poor schoolboy French and the second in English. Not only did all of this lengthen the evening and slow the concert down considerably, but it was all completely unnecessary since all the information was given to us in a programme in any case.

 

Putting that aside though, Stokes played this piece with skill and intelligence, and allowed us to be swept up in the mystery and magic of this composer's imagination. the piece starts quietly and slowly with an unassuming beat, and it is only when we get to the fourth 'Meditation' do we really feel a change of pace and urgency, these urges appear over the next few movements but always too soon die down and revert back to simplicity and quietness. The Seventh ends in a long blaze of glory, but Eight brings it right back to where we started echoing the rhythm and mood of the first few bars of the piece. But in the finale, a loud and jubilant fortissimo of chord structures finally leads us to the dominant E major finish.

 

This rarely heard modern organ masterpiece was a delight to hear in the acoustic surrounds of the cathedral and to hear it played so masterfully and passionately by Stokes was a real joy.

 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

 

on - 2/2/18

Mass For Five Voices [ William Byrd ] - part of the celebration of Eucharist at Manchester Cathedral.

Despite my not being a Christian, I do enjoy the music that Christianity has inspired over the centuries, and so upon learning that Manchester Cathedral Choir were going to sing William Byrd's Mass For Five Voices this evening, I went along to listen to the music, but somehow also got swept up in the service as a whole.

 

There is something to be said about the pomp, pageantry, ceremony and ritual of a church, especially High Church, which this cathedral is. The costumes, the props, the dialogue, the singing, the audience participation...... what a minute... this is theatre! And from my observers perspective, it did seem very theatrical and yet also quite robotic too.

 

The Eucharist is a service which is special to Christians, and for this celebration candles were lit in the chandeliers and around the modern 'pieta' statue in the nave., but the majority of the service today was held in the choir, a dark area in the centre of the church segregated from the rest of the building around it by a medieval screen, dark wooden panelling and ornate railings. It is small, intimate and select. The 'Inner Sanctum'. The 'Holy Of Holies'.

 

But it is not the service I was there for, but to listen to some excellently crafted music written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, sung by the choristers of this cathedral.

 

Numbering only 20, the choristers varied greatly in age, from preteen to adult, and were of both genders, which surprised me. I expected only to see boys. But the blending of their voices was superb and they brought this sacred music to life beautifully. The acoustic of the building helped of course, amplifying and resonating, but the pureness and clarity of tone was astounding.

 

Works such as this, a Christian Mass, seldom if ever get aired in concert form and so the only way one can hear these gems is to attend a service where they form the basis of the sacrament.  And to be honest, it is really only in these settings does the music actually sound and feel completely right.

 

Byrd's musical output was great, and he wrote in many different styles - unusual for the time - and he himself wrote both Anglican and Roman Catholic music as he converted to Catholicism later in life.  Listening to these short pieces now ( Introit, Gloria, Agnus Dei etc) it is difficult not to reflect on the impact and importance the Church has had over the centuries and how Christianity has shaped the way Britain is today.

 

The Gloria is typical of Byrd's plainchant style.  Starting with a single male solo and adding voices in canon with the melody wrapping itself up into a maelstrom of polyphony only to find a simple and plaintive resolution.

 

During the communion the choir also sung a German anthem 'Maria Waehllt Zum Heiligen' and although beautifully sung, the harsh German words seemed somehow wrong when pitched against the softness and very Englishness of the rest of the service.

 

The 'play-out' music was a wonderful and fantastic piece of organ music totally new to me called Fiat Lux by Dubois, and was played by Deputy Organist Geoffrey Wooliatt.

 

My conclusion then is simple; whether religious or not, the sacred music composers past and present composed resonates in and through all faiths and all cultures, and sometimes if you wish to hear that music in the setting it was written for, there is nothing better than to immerse yourself there too and experience a little time-travel magic.

 

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall

 

on - 2/2/18