Friday, 8 June 2018

Estival Mash-Up - The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

At the end of each school year, students at Manchester University have their own special 'summer festival' - or Estival if you prefer in which primarily music students, but also performing arts students too give a week-long selection of public concerts before they can finally enjoy their summer, and for most, celebrate the success of their graduation from the university.

This evening's concert, entitled simply 'Mash-up' was in three parts, all three as different as chalk and cheese, and all coming from different organisations / schools of study.

To start we were treated to a performance of Camille Saint-Saens' curiosity piece, The Carnival Of The Animals, scored for two pianos, wind septet and percussion. It's a rather odd piece, which along with works such as Prokofiev's 'Peter And The Wolf' and Britten's 'Young Persons' Guide To The Orchestra', are works of classical music aimed at a very young audience to primarily introduce them to classical music and to hopefully create a spark of interest and enthusiasm for the genre within them. Rarely are these pieces actually performed as concert works, and so finding this on this evening's 'menu' I was really rather pleased, as I actually love the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek cleverness Saint-Saens brought to the composition. For concert versions of this work though , I really do wish they would leave out the silly, banal, childish punning verses written long after the music had been published and performed, by Ogden Nash. They were written with one actor in mind, and indeed, he was the first to record it; and he was, of course, Noel Coward. No matter who else speaks those ridiculous verses from then on, you can only really imagine and 'hear' Coward doing them.

This evening's narrator, Moray Lennox, was unfortunately standing too close to the ensemble and much of his rendering would not have been heard past the first few rows. His poker-face demeanour correct, and taking it all completely seriously was most certainly the key to reciting these verses, but his articulation and volume sadly got in the way somewhat of our total comprehension.   

Musically however it was secure and the vast majority of the musical jokes were given their full meanings, as Saint-Saens shamelessly 'borrows' and bastardises famous themes from other composers' oeuvres  as well as his own turning them inside out and upside down to devilishly clever but hilarious effect. The animals that take this 'carnival' include pianists, who, as advised on the original score, should try to imitate beginners in their style and awkwardness, which today our two pianists did quite excellently. Normally in concert versions, the pianists will play the notes correctly, perhaps afraid of their own reputations if they appear to be playing things badly, whether it be deliberate or not.

The piece finishes with what is possibly the most famous cello piece of all time, 'The Swan', and then a bravura loud marching style cacophony with all instruments coming together for a tiny rendition of all the animals in the carnival (actually not all, but all is imagined) coming together.

The second offering in this Mash-Up was a short piece of contemporary ballet, danced it has to be said, by drama and music students, and so this was most certainly a departure from their normal public appearances.  Starting with a theme of childhood and developing and devising a piece from there, these 5 'dancers' (1 male and 4 female) sat on 5 chairs, ostensibly asleep.  One by one they start to wake up using quasi-balletic moves, and as they become more awake the movements become larger and they find themselves involuntarily involving and using each other in a dream-like way. Slowly, one by one they all fall asleep again, only this time where they are, some standing, some crouched, and the music dies.
Rather foolishly however, one of the dancers was wearing a pair of glasses which had not been securely fastened and half way through they fell to the floor. It was a small miracle that no-one stood on them and they remained unbroken to be picked up at the end.

After a short interval we all came back for the third and final instalment of the mash-up. Curiously and ironically called, '8 Guys Brings You: Harris Morton Centre: The Musical', this was obviously a lampooning of theses students' lives at this centre, sending-up everything and everyone in it. The title even satirised the genre of Musical Theatre in general, taking inspiration from '5 Guys Named Moe', with a presentation which started out very much like the Off-Broadway pastiches such as 'Avenue Q' or ' Spelling Bee', and I have to say the start of this 'musical' was indeed absolutely excellent and boded well. (taking popular songs and rearranging them to suit their purpose, and the opening song 'It's My First Day' was a joy). What happened thereafter however was that it all too soon descended into territory which, unless you were familiar with the machinations of universities in general, and MU and the music departments within MU specifically, you were completely excluded from the performance. In-jokes, caricatures, and MU specific themes made it extremely hard to follow and since this performance was attended by vast majority fellow students, the laughter, guffaws, and appreciation of this piece all around me was overpowering, and I felt even more excluded

The storyline centred around a talking vending machine which gave out free crisps, and a bizarre love-triangle concerning said vending machine and a poor student with an unpronounceable Irish name and a posh rich student called Tarquin. The singing, especially harmonies, were lovely, and the obvious talent shown by these 8 young men was obvious; just misdirected for a public presentation. Keep something like this for the common room or the after-show party, where everyone in the audience is on the same level as the performers but please leave it out of a performance intended for and available to the general public.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 5/6/18

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