Sunday, 24 November 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: Manchester University Wind Orchestra Concert - Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

The MUWO (Manchester University Wind Orchestra) [don't you just love acronyms?!] gave a truly interesting concert this evening. Out of the 7 pieces performed I had knowledge of only two of the composers and knew only one of the pieces! It was going to be an evening of new discoveries for me!

Despite the lack of strings, this evening's wind orchestra was the size of a standard concert orchestra with ameliorated percussion, a harp, 2 guitars and piano, and so there was little room left on the stage area of the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall. Without any stringed instruments (overlooking the piano, harp and guitars just for a moment), a wind orchestra loses one very large timbre of sound that one normally associates with orchestral works. Wind instruments and brass instruments although are different, are much more similar in their timbral reception. My overall concern from the concert as a whole, was that the sound produced throughout lacked a dynamicism, a certain clarity, a point at which the melody was clearly recognisable above the harmony and filler. What was even more interesting to note was that this was more prevalent in the first half. Admittedly, the first piece of music played, Vaughan-Williams' English Folk Song Suite, was the only one I knew, and I know it quite well, and so in my notes which I jotted down whilst listening I wrote that here the tunes / melody was not distinct enough, with an overall lack of volume dynamic. Perhpas that had tainted my judgement for the rest of the concert, I don't know. That is not to say that the piece wasn't played well, it was, and the young 19 year old conductor Zoe Kundu, who lead the orchestra through the first half of the concert had interpretted the piece excellently, and the orchestra responded well to her baton. I just felt that the melody of each section, in this piece and others could have been signposted a little more.

The remaining six pieces which followed were all new to me. One, 'Awayday' was written by a composer with whom I was familiar, Adam Gorb, and it didn't disappoint; a true jazz-infused contemporaray Big Band piece full of American bravura! Interestingly, Gorb is as English as roast beef, and is the Head of the School of Composition at the RNCM next door to this building.

Another contemporary piece preceded this, 'Floating Bell' by current composition student Reuben Rowlands, and this was his largest scale work to date. Sadly it didn't resonate with me, very few ultra-modern classical pieces do; but it was a lot more melodic and harmonic in nature than I had expected and the orchestra, perhaps because they had Rowlands in attendance this evening, played it especially punctiliously. The title of the piece refers to a particular species of jellyfish, which was the inspiration for the piece's composition. For this piece the auditorium lights were dimmed and a blue hue washed over the orchestra; I imagine to depict the ocean. Dimming the auditorium lights was very effective, although it would, in my opinion, have been preferable for them to have been dimmed for the entire concert.

We also heard a clarinet concerto  by Martin Ellerby. The solo clarinet played most ably and intelligently by student George Blakesley. Again a very modern and jazz-fuelled piece, which despite being written in the classical three movement form, made the clarinet solo much more an integral part of the overall sound rather than a true solo instrument.  Interesting use of percussion throughout and each of the three movements was given a rather surprising ending.

'Three Mexican Pictures' by another contemporary composer Gareth Wood was the final piece of the first half. We had to wait until half way through the third piece before anything like a Mexican rhythm (or at least what those unfamiliar with Mexico would class as 'Mexican') was heard. Before this the pieces were 'soundscapes', and atmospheric, almost frighteningly so at times.

A 'Last Post'-esque military feel greeted us on returning after the interval. A piece of music that really couldn't make its mind up what style it wanted to be. Starting out in very serene and lamentatious vein, before going into pomp and military marching, then through jazz and lively dance music, perhaps a jig, before returning to the solitary mournful 'Last Post' style fanfare. This was 'A Name Perpetual' by Eseld Pirece, and the volume dynamic was handled very nicely here from conductor Mattias Borchardt-Hume.

The final piece of the evening, again conducted by student Mattias Borchardt-Hume (as indeed all the second half was), was Edward Gregson's Festivo. A lively, bouncy and loud fanfare of a piece, almost a concert overture, but a lovely piece to end the concert on. Melodic, harmonic, and joyous.

An evening of new discoveries it most certainly was, and I have found new composers to look out for in the future!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 23/11/19

Addendum.  I have no idea the name of the female percussionist with the short black hair, but I should just like to say that once I had spotted her it was very difficult for me to look elsewhere. The reason for this was that she was giving her all to this concert this evening. She wasn't just simply 'playing' the percussion, but she was 'feeling' the percussion as her whole body was part of the playing / rhythm. Her concentration and her obvious enjoyment at what she was doing was omnipresent. Needless to say really but she truly impressed.

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