Saturday, 15 December 2018

REVIEW: MUMS Festive Concert - The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester

For their final concert of 2018, The Manchester University Music Society (MUMS), gave a festive concert in the university's Martin Harris Centre this evening.

The concert started with a new work by Manchester University's own Kevin Malone called 'Postcards From St. Nick'. The work called for chamber choir, child speaker and piano. The chamber choir in question this evening were Ad Solem and the young speaker Phoebe Moore. It's a rather convoluted piece and somewhat disjointed and I found it difficult to follow and relate to. The speaker is reading postcards sent to her from the 3rd Century bishop, St. Nicholas. Moore (who was probably 10 or 11 years old) had a lovely clear and articulate delivery and I am sure this will have been a wonderful opportunity and learning curve for her.

The second piece again called for Chamber choir (again Ad Solem) with piano accompaniment, and again, composed by someone connected to the university, this time as a composition student, David Onac. The piece was called simply 'Noel' and the choir's lush harmonies and pitch perfect rendition made it an interesting if instantly forgettable listen.

Both the above pieces were interesting curiosity pieces but would perhaps have worked better in a different context; a concert of Christmastime modern / experimental music. They did seem somewhat out of place in a family oriented end-of-season festive 'do'!

The first half ended with something much more familiar and much more Christmassy. The orchestra - in reduced form - came on, the choir stayed put, and we listened to a election of choruses and arias from J S Bach's Christmas Oratorio. For the arias, four soloists from the main body of Ad Solem came forward; Alex Bloomfield (soprano), Tabitha Smart (alto), Harry Dichmont (tenor) and Alex Hopkins (bass). I didn't understand why three of these simply stood a little to the side of the choir but Bloomfield walked all the way to the front of the stage by the conductor. This looked distinctly odd. All four had lovely voices, that much was clear, but sadly Hopkins' diction / enunciation let him down. I speak German fluently and I had difficulty understanding what he was singing. Shame.

With a rousing a brass / drum heavy opening and finale this was a lovely finish to the first half and put us all in the mood to hear the full orchestra when coming back after the break.

The second half started with a little known (I knew nothing of it, despite knowing the composer and other works by him) oratorio for male voice and string orchestra. The work was Gerald Finzi's 'Dies Natalis'.  The strings have long melodic passages with sweeping legatos whilst the tenor soloist is put through his paces with difficult passages, recitative, and soaring notes higher than a normal tenor register. The best person for the job was undoubtedly found;  Zahid Siddiqui. I have had the privilege and pleasure of listening to Siddiqui several times over the course of the last couple of years, and he just gets better and better. Such a beautiful, rich, light and yet mellow voice with stunning articulatory prowess and expressiveness. He will certainly go far!

His deserved encore was 'Down By The Sally Gardens', and left the stage to rapturous applause.

Finally the audience were energised. Finally it was time for some recognisable festive music! Two movements from Tchaikovsky's orchestral suite from the ballet 'The Nutcracker' followed. The well known and loved Marche and Danse Russe (Trepak). For these of course the entire symphony orchestra was required and, after hearing only chamber works or reduced orchestras so far, the noise took me a little by surprise, but it was a good surprise, as the 'noise' was actually highly tuneful and lyrical, and I soon had my toes tapping!

The concert ended with two seasonal pieces by American composer Leroy Anderson.  First his 'Christmas Festival Overture' which fuses just about every carol imaginable into a medley of jollity, and finally, his 'Sleigh Ride' which I think has now become de rigeur, the must-play piece of music for any Christmastide concert or gathering. With the famous whip-cracking and horse neighing, this piece finished with a flourish and was a hugely fitting way to end not just the concert but the MUMS season. It has been a very ambitious season, and I have been fortunate enough to have been able to witness much of it. Congratulations all, and I look forward to coming back in 2019 to see what you have in store then.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 13/12/18

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