The Royal Northern College of Music is an ambitious institution. It is ambitious to further its already considerable reputation as a world-class conservatoire and it’s ambitious on behalf of its 700 students, whose predecessors can be found performing at the highest levels in music around the world. This passion leads it to set a high bar for its undergraduates and lends itself to a certain élan in its selections for performance. So perhaps the scale of this year’s Day of Song shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Nevertheless, 43 different performances spread over eight hours, all taking place outside the comfort zone of its own performance halls, was a tall order even for the RNCM.
Fin de Siècle: The Voice of Europe at the end of the 19th century was the theme for this year’s show piece event and, with the main concert hall at the RNCM undergoing extensive refurbishment, the venue was Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Over the course of this sunny Sunday the staff and students sought to transport different audiences back to the Europe of the 1890s, a decade which saw a final flowering of late Romanticism and the beginnings of the slow, relentless march of Modernism.
In St Petersburg, Chekhov was redefining theatre with The Seagull and in Vienna, Berlin and Paris the likes of Klimt, Munch and van Gogh were doing the same for the visual arts. Marx and Nietzsche departed this world and Brecht and Hitler took their first steps, while in Paris the Eiffel Tower, that arch symbol of all things modern, opened its doors to the public. The political and social context for the decade, ranging from the rise of German nationalism, the Dreyfus affair and Home Rule in Ireland were adroitly described before each of the six segments in a series of talks given by Dr Francis Toase, the former head of defence studies and international affairs at Sandhurst. But inevitably it was the music that sold the show and the performances that stole it.
In an elegant balancing act from Lynne Dawson, the RNCM’s artistic director, the audience was taken from the pastoral idyll of Victorian England through to the newly-acquired confidence of a rising and recently unified Germany via the likes of Elgar, Parry, Brahms and Strauss. Similarly, sophistication, decadence and musical foreshadowing were evoked by Debussy, Massenet and Schoenberg, as was the ambience of the great salons of Paris and Vienna.
Outside the performance spaces the atmosphere of two worlds, one waning and one waxing, was enhanced by the proliferation of copies of the decade’s great works of art, displayed alongside the elaborate costumes of its inhabitants. Inside the undergraduates repeatedly put in accomplished performances and as I listened I was once again struck by how beautiful German is when sung. When spoken in conversation it has always seemed to me a somewhat unlovely language, although it is melodic when used in the recitation of poetry and, in this era, Rilke comes to mind.
I’m also struck by the sheer commitment of the young performers. I’ve often admired the freshness and absence of cynicism that seems to characterise the college’s productions and these are valuable qualities which, if lost, are difficult to replicate in any artistic endeavour. And here also the fine operatic training the college provides was repeatedly demonstrated by the power, pathos and clarity of the singers while the piano accompaniment displayed a maturity and lightness of touch that would not have been out of place in any great concert hall.
As the evening drew to a close the audience was clearly delighted by what it had seen, as indeed was I, and thinking back now I’m also delighted that the college’s ambition has once again been vindicated by yet another successful production.
Images by Paul Cliff
Where: The Royal Exchange Theatre
When: April 27, 2014
Those of you who are interested in the theme of this year’s Day of Song might wish to read the excellent 1913 by Florian Illes.