Thursday, 10 October 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: Mozart Gran Partita - The Cathedral, Manchester.



Manchester Camerata is an orchestra like no other. Musically speaking it has a strong ethos of “redefining what an orchestra can do”. Apart from exciting performance ideas, it also explores bringing music to new audiences, actively seeking to have an impact on the world around us. Making the centuries' old classical orchestra accessible and relevant to the world today is a difficult task, but it is a challenge that Manchester Camerata rises to with apparent ease.

Tonight’s concert was set in the beautiful Manchester Cathedral and there was an air of anticipation before a musician was even spotted – a circular stage with music stands in the round was dramatically lit with a hint of atmospheric smoke lingering in the cathedral air. Staff checking tickets gave a warm welcome explaining the seating arrangements. We were told that it was a standing event but some seats were in place for those that needed it. In reality there were plenty of seats and really standing or sitting was an easy choice to suit how you wanted to experience the music. A pop up bar by local brewery Cloudwater Brew was also a friendly stall selling ales, wines and spirits.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this evening in that it was billed as Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 - Gran Partita, a woodwind ensemble composed in 1781. Alongside this, digital artist Sven Helbig was to “interrogate the ghosts of history with his electronic improvisations inspired by Mozart”. How these two works would work together was a bit of a mystery, but perhaps mystery is not a bad thing. I often wonder how the first audiences of the great masters of classical music would have felt having heard these fantastic pieces for the first time. I felt a bit of that tonight – I knew what I would hear but also had no idea!

Helbig began playing some atmospheric sweeps that placed an ambience and mood in the cathedral that was slightly ghostly – slight winds and echoey sounds. Eventually a French horn played a fragment of a melody which was also echoed around the Cathedral. One by one, a group of musicians from the Camerata started playing similar, improvisatory fragments as they gradually and slowly meandered through the crowd, reaching their places on the stage. This section of music contained live performance that was caught on microphone by Helbig who then applied various techniques to the freshly recorded fragments and added them again and again to the ambient sounds creating a build up until all musicians were on stage.

This was an initially exciting opening section of the main piece – the Gran Partita – which worked pleasantly well when that striking, distinctively Mozartian opening chord was struck in the small silence between the 18th and 21st century styles. The Cathedral really became part of this performance as the power and warmth of the woodwind ensemble really resonated around us. Looking up, I saw for the first time the wooden angels at the top of each column. Each had a gold-plated musical instrument from baroque times– woodwind and brass on one side, string instruments such as lyres and harps on the other. There was even a hurdy-gurdy and some Norfolk Bagpipes. The setting really added to the delightful and sumptuous music that was played by the Camerata. While the Camerata did not use period instruments, the style was wholly appropriate and considered for Mozart’s music. The famous Adagio spilled out beautifully with the suspensions lingering emotively in the Cathedral air.

I have never attended a Manchester Camerata performance before, and indeed it was both familiar and new territory to me. A few people walked around between movements, hearing the performance in the round from different perspectives. I am not sure why, but I had an expectation that Helbig would continue to add electronics to the performance, but this did not happen and Mozart’s composition was unaltered. As the piece finished, another final atmospheric sweep was added as a conclusion to the event. I felt this last section was unsymmetrical and finished so suddenly it almost felt like an after-thought. I even wondered if there was a malfunction – I suppose I expected the musicians to walk off the stage slowly and retreat, melting in to the atmosphere of the subtle electronic manipulations that were used at the start.

Nevertheless this was an exciting evening and a really neat way of making a typical classical performance be experienced in a very different way without detracting from, or re-writing Mozart’s genius.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 9/10/19

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